Published on Sunday, May 19, 2002 in the New York Times
Chilean Mystery: Clues to Vanished American
by Larry Rohter
SAN FABIÁN DE ALICO, Chile —The vacationing hiker spent the night under the summer stars, his only companion a local herdsman. The next morning, the traveler, an American mathematics professor named Boris Weisfeiler, made his way toward a spot where two rivers converged, hoping to wade across.
It was Jan. 4, 1985, and the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet was at its peak. After the herder's brother told the police there was a "foreign extremist" in the area, they sent a patrol.
Within hours a second patrol, this one from army intelligence, joined the hunt for the foreigner in the Andean foothills east of here.
Mr. Weisfeiler, who taught at Pennsylvania State University, was never seen again and to this day his fate remains a mystery. Of more than 1,000 people cataloged by human rights groups as having "disappeared" during the 17 years General Pinochet was in power, the only American citizen is Boris Weisfeiler. He was 43 when he vanished.
The Chilean government's explanation, offered two months later, was that Mr. Weisfeiler — an experienced trekker who had traveled through Alaska, Siberia, China and Peru — drowned while trying to ford a river barely four feet deep. The United States has never challenged that conclusion publicly.
But State Department and C.I.A. reports that have recently been declassified and made public as a result of efforts by a nonprofit group tell a complicated story that is vastly different.
Those documents indicate that Mr. Weisfeiler was probably kidnapped by Chilean state security forces, who reportedly handed him over to a secretive and heavily armed pro-Nazi religious sect based nearby.
One military informant said Mr. Weisfeiler, a Russian-born Jew, was held captive there, interrogated, tortured and finally executed.
The American records, which have prompted a reopening of the case, also show that diplomats at the United States Embassy in Santiago were always skeptical of the Chilean government's version of events, and pushed to have the case investigated aggressively. But their efforts were blocked by State Department officials in Washington, who were unwilling to provide the money needed for the investigation.
"How is it that the State Department knew all this information and never told me about it?" asked Mr. Weisfeiler's sister Olga, who immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union three years after his disappearance and now lives in a Boston suburb.
"Anytime I called, it was always the same response: `The embassy is doing everything possible, we don't have anything new,' " she said. "And this after all that information had already come to the embassy."
The death of Charles Horman, an American who disappeared during the bloody 1973 military coup that brought General Pinochet to power, was portrayed in the film "Missing." But Mr. Weisfeiler's case had been largely forgotten.
Ms. Weisfeiler said in a telephone interview that resolving her brother's case had "become my life," even though her efforts have thus far brought her nothing but frustration and emotional pain.
"Our father was a Jewish scientist who escaped from Nazism," she said, "so to think that these old Nazis did this to Boris is beyond imagination."
Remembering her brother, Ms. Weisfeiler said he, too, had been the victim of official anti-Semitism, when he was growing up in the Soviet Union. Because he was slight in build — 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds — and had an obviously Jewish surname, he was sometimes beaten up by thugs, his sister said.
From the time he was a teenager, Ms. Weisfeiler recalled, her brother found solace in "hiking alone," preferably in remote regions like Siberia.
He had few other sources of satisfaction. His career stalled after he refused to sign a petition condemning a colleague for "anti-Soviet activities," and he was branded anti-Soviet himself.
In 1975, however, Mr. Weisfeiler was allowed to immigrate to the United States, carrying his few belongings in the same backpack that would be with him when he disappeared. Because of his brilliance as a mathematician he was soon offered university posts, first at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and then at Penn State. In 1981 he became an American citizen.
As a first-time visitor to Chile, Mr. Weisfeiler did not know that his route through verdant country hills had brought him close to Colonia Dignidad, the home of an anti-Semitic apocalyptic religious sect. Founded in 1961, the settlement today has about 300 inhabitants who follow the teachings of Paul Schaefer, a former nurse from the Nazi air force who was forced to leave Germany after he was charged with sexually abusing young boys in an orphanage he ran.
During the Pinochet dictatorship, military and intelligence officials often visited Colonia Dignidad, which occupies a 37,000-acre site about 225 miles south of Santiago. Both the military and the police took political prisoners there. According to reports compiled after democracy was restored in 1990, some of those captives were tortured and others were killed.
Colonia Dignidad changed its name to Villa Baviera a decade ago. But the sect continues to operate and still has powerful friends within the state security apparatus. Mr. Schaefer, now 80, is currently wanted on charges of sexually abusing 28 young boys from the colony. But early this month a judge shelved the case on the grounds that it had been impossible to locate him.
"Colonia Dignidad continues to be impenetrable and the armed forces continue to be loyal to Colonia Dignidad," said Hernán Fernández Rojas, a Chilean lawyer who is an expert on the cult and represents Ms. Weisfeiler in her legal efforts to determine her brother's fate. "In any other country, Colonia Dignidad would already have been dismantled. But here no serious investigation has ever been done, and so we have no way to tell what happened to Boris."
To Colonia Dignidad's allies within the Chilean state security apparatus, much about Mr. Weisfeiler would have seemed suspicious. His American passport listed his place of birth as Moscow, and his battered old backpack had Cyrillic lettering on it. According to court records, he wore khaki pants that could have been easily confused with military dress.
According to declassified documents and sworn statements in Chilean court records, local residents and members of the police and army patrols were told at various times, presumably by their superiors, that Mr. Weisfeiler was either a "Soviet spy" or a "Jewish spy." In addition, Colonia Dignidad was itself in a state of turmoil at the time Mr. Weisfeiler appeared in the area.
Around Christmas Eve of 1984, the Russian-born co-founder of the sect, Hugo Baar, had tired of Mr. Schaefer's abusive methods and fled the colony. With guards scouring the area for Mr. Baar and anyone who might be helping him, he made his way to the home of Heinz Kühn, a former member of the sect who now lives in southern Chile and helps people who escape from the settlement.
Mr. Kühn also monitored radio transmissions from Colonia Dignidad, and early in 1985, as he recalled in an interview this month, he taped a conversation between Mr. Schaefer and two subordinates apparently discussing what to do about an unnamed intruder. "Don't worry, the problem has been solved," Mr. Kühn recalls Mr. Schaefer being told. "He is already eating potatoes underground."
When Mr. Weisfeiler's disappearance was made public later that month, Mr. Kühn went to the United States Embassy in Santiago with the tape, which he said was duplicated and enhanced there. According to declassified documents, the embassy was contacted around the same time by another source who provided what was described as a "hint that W. was alive."
Two years later, the embassy in Santiago was again approached about the case, this time by an informant who claimed to be a member of a military patrol that had captured Mr. Weisfeiler and handed him over to Colonia Dignidad. Given the code name "Daniel," he said he was talking because he had a guilty conscience about what had happened to Mr. Weisfeiler.
"Later on, we found that this person, after being savagely interrogated, was made to kneel on the ground and was murdered with a shot in the nape of his neck," the informant said, according to declassified records. "This execution was carried out solely by the Germans, who took advantage of the absence of Chilean authorities."
An embassy document dated November 1987 concluded that Daniel's story "contains enough truths and plausibilities to make it believable, especially given Colonia Dignidad's reputation." But the assessment also warned that the informer's account would be "difficult to confirm without unrestricted access to other eyewitnesses or the Colonia Dignidad premises," which would be virtually impossible to obtain so long as Gen. Pinochet was in power.
Nevertheless, embassy officials decided to plunge ahead, and requested permission from the State Department to do so. Two years later they received a cable from the State Department authorizing an investigation, "provided the cost of the legal services will be paid for with post's funds" and Washington would not have to contribute the $3,000 or so needed to begin the effort.
Washington officials imposed this requirement in the midst of a cost-cutting campaign, making it very difficult for the embassy to carry out the investigation. The State Department also appears to have ignored offers from the American Mathematical Society and other scientific groups to pay for an investigation. Early in 1990, embassy officials concluded there were "no funds available" for such an effort, and the investigation was shelved.
In 1997, the informant named Daniel surfaced again, contacting the host of a radio talk show in Santiago to tell essentially the same story.
More years went by. In June 2000, more than 250 documents pertaining to American policy in Chile were declassified after a campaign by the National Security Archive, which uses the Freedom of Information Act to declassify government documents. The details of Mr. Weisfeiler's disappearance and the State Department's ambivalent handling of his case started to become clear.
"There does not seem to be any U.S. government commitment to doing anything in this case beyond monitoring the Chileans and sending diplomatic notes that don't get answered," said Peter Kornbluh, director of Chile research at the National Security Archive. "It's not clear to me why that should be: this is clearly a case of state-sponsored terrorism directed against an American citizen."
Colonia Dignidad avoids contact with the press, sometimes employing violence to drive away reporters. Messages left with a doctor and lawyer who occasionally act as intermediaries for the group were not returned. But in statements in recent years, leaders have portrayed themselves as victims of "a war campaign" led by Communists and Zionists. They denied that prisoners have been held, tortured or killed there.
Because of that new evidence, the Weisfeiler case has now been reopened here and turned over to Juan Guzmán Tapia, the same investigating judge who is handling charges of human rights violations against General Pinochet and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and other American officials. Judge Guzmán has begun taking depositions from people involved in the case, and in March he visited the site where Mr. Weisfeiler disappeared.
In an interview in Santiago, Judge Guzmán said he did not yet have enough evidence to rule out any hypothesis, like the possibility that Mr. Weisfeiler was killed by the police, the army or even by local peasants. His investigation continues to confront obstacles even beyond the protected status of Colonia Dignidad.
For instance, Judge Guzmán cannot question Luis López Benavides, the peasant who camped out with Mr. Weisfeiler. He died little more than a year after Mr. Weisfeiler disappeared, in what embassy documents describe as "mysterious circumstances." He was said to have hanged himself because he had been rejected by a potential girlfriend. In addition, some records requested from the military police have disappeared or have been reported burned and military officials have refused to supply others.
"I am trying to trust Judge Guzmán, but it is so slow down there," Ms. Weisfeiler said. "I understand that he is very decent and that he has a lot of cases, but sometimes I get very upset, because I have this feeling inside that my brother may still be alive."
Washington also appears to be changing its approach. In an interview in Santiago, the new American ambassador, William R. Brownfield, said he had raised the Weisfeiler case in his first round of meetings with Chilean officials. The United States has also expressed its willingness to lend F.B.I. assistance to Judge Guzmán, an offer the judge said he would welcome. But the Chilean government must formally request that help, and it has not done so.
"Anything that helps justice, the government is prepared to do," Chile's president, Ricardo Lagos, said when asked about the case during an interview in Santiago this month. "It is in our interest that Judge Guzmán have all the tools so that he can carry out his duty, and if he wants the F.B.I. or some other entity to help him so that justice can be done, then there should be no doubt that what he requests will be granted."
After so many disappointments, however, Ms. Weisfeiler still has her doubts. Both governments, she said, have let her down every time she turned to them with "my cry for help," and she fears this time will be no different.
"I am a new American, and I always believed that if something happened to you, the American government will help you and find you," she said. "My brother believed that too. He thought that an American passport would protect him. But we have found that it is a completely different story. It's very very sad."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company