In Bolivia, rape trial pries open closed society of Mennonite 'Old Colonies'

Manitoba Colony, Bolivia - Susana Banman dreads the dark. Since one terrible night in early 2009, she and her husband check the closets and lock newly installed window latches each night before going to sleep in their picturesque Mennonite community of Manitoba Colony, in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia.

"Even still, I can't sleep through the night," says the mother of eight, who has come forward as a victim in a rape trial that has become the most horrifying scandal in Mennonite history.

In an ongoing case soon to be decided by Bolivian courts, it's alleged that in 2005, a veterinarian in the isolated community altered a substance that sedates cows for use on humans. He and a gang of eight, the suit claims, spent the next four years terrorizing the community by spraying the concoction through bedroom windows at night, drugging entire families and raping any females inside.

It would be a shocking accusation for any community to handle, but it has threatened to divide one of the world's few remaining Mennonite "Old Colonies": 130 women and girls from ages 8 to 60 have come forward as victims, affecting about one third of the community's families. And the crime, the way the community has responded to it, and the trial itself point to much deeper troubles for women in such reclusive sects.

"Women are not seen as equal to men in these colonies, and this will continue to lead to ever more social problems," says Canadian Mennonite Abe Warkentin, founding editor of Die Mennonitische Post, a German-language newspaper that circulates widely among the hundreds of thousands of Mennonites whose ancestors migrated to Latin America.

'Old Colony' life

About 85 percent of Bolivia's 50,000 Mennonites with roots in Germany and Canada belong to the ultraconservative sect that populates Manitoba Colony. Many Mennonites, especially in North America, are indistinguishable from their neighbors and have beliefs very similar to those of mainline Protestants and Evangelicals, but Mennonite Old Colonies prohibit electricity, motorized vehicles with rubber wheels, dance, sport, and entertainment of any kind. Their communities are full of horse-drawn buggies filled with light-skinned, blue-eyed families rolling through immaculate fields and manicured tree-lined driveways that seem like island nations within this majority-indigenous country.

Mennonites – who follow the teach­ings of radical 16th-century Dutch Protestant reformist Menno Simons – fled persecution in Europe to create isolated communities in the US and Canada. As North America modernized, some of the most traditional Low German-speaking Mennonites fled to Central and South America, forming isolated, secretive Old Colonies.

An Old Colony woman's place is in the home. Her schooling ends at age 12, and while many Mennonite men in Bolivia eventually learn Spanish through their inevitable contact with the outside world, few women learn to speak anything but Low German, still spoken in the Old Colonies.

Patriarchal values

Indeed, deeply entrenched patriarchy pervades this scandal. The Manitoba victims told their husbands or fathers of foggy memories and pains, but the men didn't believe them and no investigations were ordered, allowing crimes to flourish for years. The scandal did not finally blow open until June 2009, when one woman caught two of the defendants entering her house.

"It wasn't until some of the defendants started drawing exact diagrams of the bedrooms where they raped that the fathers of the victimized households believed their wives and daughters," says plaintiffs' attorney Wilfredo Mariscal.

The fact that there is a trial, though, is considered a positive step forward for the Old Colonies, which tend to deal their own swift justice when faced with conflict or crime. "We knew that if [the defendants] stayed here, there would be trouble," says Abraham Wall Enns, Manitoba's head civic leader in 2009, explaining the community's decision to hand the men over to the police. A nearby colony had already lynched one man thought to be involved in the scandal.

The accused have been held in prison since their arrest and have waived their right to testify. The men, who pleaded not guilty, face Bolivia's maximum penalty of 30 years.

For now, it is hard to say if lessons have been learned. Being thrust into the public spotlight could prevent other abuses that run rampant when such communities are shrouded in secrecy. And certainly in some households of Manitoba Colony, women have been given a new voice. "We will listen to what our wives tell us now," says plaintiff Abraham Martens Froese, whose wife was sent into premature labor after being raped, according to the indictment.

But there's one pending request from Manitoba victims that still falls on deaf ears. "I'd like to speak to someone [about the experience]," Ms. Banman says quietly, eyes on the floor of her immaculate bedroom, almost embarrassed to have her husband translate the statement. None of the Manitoba Colony victims have had the opportunity to speak to a psychologist.

The Colony's all-male leadership says it's not necessary, that closure will come when the trial ends. Says Mr. Wall Enns: "We will be at peace when there is a guilty verdict."