“A Sinister Sect: Colonia Dignidad” Is a Hard But Necessary Watch

Colonia Dignidad_Sect leader Paul SchaÌ_fer with a group of children in Heide, Germany, approx. 1960 © LOOKSfilm

Netflix’s A Sinister Sect: Colonia Dignidad is a Chilean and German documentary series with much to teach us. But warning, it includes details of sexual abuse of minors, coercion of women, domestic violence, and torture that are deeply disturbing.

The Influence of Ex-Nazis in Latin America

Colonia Dignidad_German settlers on trucks in Chile © LOOKSfilm
German settlers on trucks in Chile

Colonization, genocide, and slavery/human trafficking left dark marks on Latin America, and unsavory characters continued to find respite in the region well past the Spanish conquest. Up to 9,000 former Nazis moved to Latin America after World War II. This docuseries follows Colonia Dignidad sect leader Paul Schäfer, a former Hitler Youth who successfully infiltrated his new home and used his knowledge to commit crimes in Chile.

A Sinister Sect starts by explaining Schäfer’s failed attempts to become a minister in Germany. He had been a youth group leader but was fired in 1945 due to allegations of child molestation. Known for his charisma, he used his charm to successfully convince roughly 300 people to leave Germany and move to Chile. 

Schäfer then founded his sect in the Maule region of Chile, one of the poorest in the country. The documentary features Chileans who talk about their experiences with Colonia Dignidad – they discuss watching as Schäfer chose the site of the sect’s living quarters, rumors of strange activities, and the distance Schäfer himself encouraged between his group and the locals. In later years, Schäfer began allowing Chileans into Colonia Dignidad under the guise of youth summer camps. There, he met young men such as Salo Luna, a victim of Schäfer’s who courageously spoke out about his experiences and was key to bringing the criminal down.

Colonia Dignidad Was An Accomplice to Pinochet’s Attrocities 

Colonia Dignidad_Sect leader Paul SchaÌ_fer with two German shepherds, approx. 1970 © LOOKSfilm
Sect leader Paul Schäfer

Schäfer eventually formed a relationship with Augusto Pinochet, you know, Chile’s infamously cruet dictator who took power after the murder of democratically elected President Salvador Allende. The documentary draws parallels between both men and their lust for power at any cost.

For example, Pinochet used the sect’s compounds as torture sites – they disappeared or killed alleged dissidents there. Meanwhile, Schäfer continued his heinous activities in Chile, as a known child rapist.

The victims of Colonia Dignidad eventually got a modicum of justice. After years of filing reports with local authorities, the German Embassy, and alerting their communities, authorities began poking around.

Tipped off, Schäfer fled to Argentina, where Chilean authorities eventually made a case for his extradition. It’s clear that the people who spoke up were brave and have lived through trauma, and some interviewees give us a view of the cultish methods used to keep residents of Colonia Dignidad in line, as well as the effective methods used to gain the support of some Chilean people. 

Through the stories by survivors, authorities, and even ex-supporters of Pinochet, we get a clear picture of the horrors of Colonia Dignidad, as well as Chile at the time. We also see how Chileans fought back against Schäfer after gathering evidence that their loved ones may have been disappeared there. 

Justice and Continued Controversy

Colonia Dignidad_German settlers in Chile © LOOKSfilm.jpg
Colonia Dignidad’s German settlers in Chile

It won’t be easy to listen to testimonies of abuse, exploitation, and even Naziism featured in this documentary. Nowadays, Chile is a thriving democracy in the midst of great political change, a top choice for immigrants from other parts of Latin America and the world, including Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Colombia—to name a few.  But the country is still grappling with the aftermath of Pinochet’s legacy and this documentary is part of that.

Schäfer was arrested outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2005. He received a 20-year sentence for his crimes and died in 2010. Colonia Dignidad now goes by the name Villa Baviera, operating. as a tourist resort. Many of the sect’s former residents still live there, though they’re now free to come and go as they please. 

For many of us, being Latinx community involves being proud of our cultures. But that pride must also coexist with the ugly truths lurking beneath. A gripping watch, A Sinister Sect can help us understand that independence from former colonizers doesn’t make our countries and cultures immune from atrocious events. We can and must find ways to bring healing so we can become strong against the influence of harmful ideologies such as fascism. A good place to start is documentaries like A Sinister Sect: Colonia Dignidad.

What We're Watching

Stay Connected & Sign Up for Our Newsletter!