The Mennonite Rapes: In Bolivia, a Trial Tears Apart a Religious Community

Santa Cruz, Bolivia - Katarina Wall remembers little about the worst night of her life. She recalls waking up in her bed, seeing a man on top of her and feeling her arms too heavy to lift in resistance. The next thing she knew, it was morning — but her pajamas were torn, and the sheets beneath her and her sleeping husband were stained with blood from her vagina. "It was like a terrible dream," Wall, 36, tells TIME in her native Low German, weeping as she stands outside a courthouse in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

But the nightmare appears to be all too real. Wall is among 130 women and girls of the Mennonite colony in Manitoba Colony, who claim that from 2005 to '09, the same cloudy horror visited them. They're the victims of what is allegedly one of the ugliest sex scandals in the history of the Mennonites, a pacifist Christian Anabaptist denomination founded in Europe in the 1500s, if not Bolivia and South America. In a criminal trial now under way in nearby Santa Cruz, Peter Weiber, 48, a Mennonite veterinarian, is accused of transforming a chemical meant to anesthetize cows into a spray to be used on humans. For four years, Weiber and eight other Mennonite men allegedly sprayed the chemical through bedroom windows in Manitoba at night, sedating entire families and raping the females. One of the men is a fugitive, the others have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, each faces a maximum 30-year prison sentence.

The criminal charges detail depraved acts few would expect inside a supposedly upright sect like the Mennonites. "When there were no grown women" in the houses that the men allegedly targeted, says Wilfredo Mariscal, an attorney for the victims, "they did what they wanted with the kids." Court-ordered medical exams reveal a 3-year-old girl with a broken hymen (most likely, doctors note, from finger and not penis penetration). The formal indictments list victims ages 8 to 60 years old, including one who is mentally retarded and another who was pregnant and sent into premature labor after allegedly being raped by one of the men — her brother.

More than 50,000 Mennonites with roots in Canada and Germany populate the Bolivian lowlands, and they are notoriously reclusive, especially in ultraconservative "old colonies" like Manitoba Colony. Their world of horse-drawn buggies and sorghum fields is segregated from the surrounding indigenous country; cars and electricity are prohibited, as are music, sports and television. Women's lives are even more circumscribed. They don't attend school after the age of 12 and, unlike many Mennonite men, rarely learn Spanish. They wear uniform, hand-sewn dresses, raise large families and seldom venture to (and almost never beyond) bustling Santa Cruz, three hours by car and cultural light-years away from Manitoba.

That entrenched, patriarchal seclusion, say those familiar with such communities, can breed behavioral rot and a culture of cover-up. "The denial of major problems in these colonies for decades has significantly compounded the problem," says Abe Warkentin, founding editor of the German-language Die Mennonitische Post, a newspaper published in Canada that circulates widely among the hundreds of thousands of Mennonites who live throughout Latin America. In the 1990s, for example, Mexico's Mennonite community was rocked by a wave of marijuana trafficking that featured pot being smuggled into the U.S. in large cheese wheels.

Indeed, Mennonites in less conservative Bolivian colonies say that when news of the alleged rapes reached them, there was grief — but not shock. Many Manitoba Colony members themselves now acknowledge the trouble. Abram Peters — whose son, defendant Abram Peters Dick, is accused of buying his first drugging spray from Weiber at age 14 — says the men are scapegoats for Manitoba's broader sins. "Rapes happen [in Manitoba] all the time," he claims, "within families too."

(See TIME's video "Rape in Haiti's Tent Cities.")

Manitoba's leaders deny anything inherent in the colony led to the spray-and-rape crimes. "It's something we just don't understand," says Bishop Johan Neudorf, the colony's religious leader. "There are good people in this world and bad." Nor can he explain how the community failed for so long to investigate rumors of the crimes — although many of the victims have no recollection of being raped, the spray drug couldn't hide the pain and ripped clothing discovered the mornings after. In the beginning, some of the women say they told their husbands or fathers — who usually dismissed the confidences as wild female imagination — but didn't speak to one another.

Slowly the stories spread. Abram Wall Enns, Manitoba's chief civic official from 2003 to '09, says leaders knew of the rumors but concedes they didn't take any action. "But we didn't know who was doing it," he says in tears, "so what could we do?" Then, in June 2009, one local woman caught two of the defendants entering her house — and as each man began ratting out the others, enraged husbands, fathers and brothers began locking up the nine accused in sheds and basements. Overwhelmed by the scandal, Manitoba's leadership handed the men over to Bolivian police. The defendants, who are being tried as a group (they either all go to prison or all go free), pleaded not guilty because they say their confessions to Manitoba leaders were given "only under threat of lynching," says defense attorney Luis Loza.

The men range in ages from 20 to 48. Four of them, including Weiber, are married. But they don't seem to take the case too seriously: they often joke with guards or fall asleep during trial proceedings, and during one victim's testimony the judge had to reprimand them for laughing and making faces. That may be one reason victims rarely go to the courthouse. "My heart was racing and my head hurt," Susana Banman, 55, told TIME about her one day at the trial.

If the men are acquitted, it's hard to imagine they could return to the colony — and, in fact, Katarina Wall's husband Jacobo Friesen warns that "they will be lynched" if they do. But even if they're convicted, closure will be difficult for the victims, especially since many feel they can no longer trust their insular community to help them deal with the trauma. It's hard to blame them: shockingly, some of Manitoba Colony's male leaders have suggested that because the women were usually sedated during the rapes, they have no psychological wounds. None have yet received counseling. "I'd like to be able to talk to someone, but it will have to be when I learn Spanish," says Banman. "I rarely sleep through the night anymore."

Then there's the stigma. Out of shame, many of the women no longer attend church, the colony's only real social space; the younger among them say they fear they are "stained" and will never be able to marry. The day Katarina Wall went to the Santa Cruz courthouse to testify, she did not tell her 13-year-old daughter where she was headed. The teenager was raped the same night as her mother — but she has no idea her mom was a victim too.