A Bolivian court on Aug. 25 convicted eight Mennonite men of aggravated rape after a two-month trial that brought to light shocking reports of the systematic rape of more than 100 women and girls over five years in a reclusive Mennonite colony.
Seven of the men, from the 2,000-member Manitoba Colony, received 25-year sentences on charges of aggravated rape. Peter Wiebe Wall, an accomplice found to have supplied materials for sedating victims, was sentenced to 12 and a half years.
The maximum sentence in Bolivia for the charges is 30 years. According to the German-language Kurze Nachrichten aus Mexiko, a ninth suspect, Jacob Neudorf Enns, is a fugitive who remains at large and was not included in the verdict or sentencing.
The end of the trial in Santa Cruz brings a degree of closure to a scandal that by 2009 had grown too big for colony leaders to cover up, observers said.
Though reported numbers vary, about 130 women and girls claim colony men raped them between 2005 and 2009.
Before the trial ended, some outsiders who have interacted with colony members said they thought a verdict would not fully resolve the question of whether justice was done.
“I do know that some of these men have done things deserving of punishment from the law,” said David Janzen, a staff member of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference who serves in Bolivia. “Some have admitted to many things they have done in their past but insist to this day they have not done the things they are charged with today.”
Carl Zacharias, a Canadian radio speaker whose program colony members listen to, believes some defendants are innocent, and some guilty individuals remain at large.
Zacharias recently met in Canada with two men from Manitoba Colony who said rapes are continuing.
Several defendants have spoken from the detention facility by phone with Zacharias, who produces the weekly Zacharias Fetalt (Zacharias Speaks) Low German radio program in Canada that reaches about 100,000 listeners across North, Central and South America.
“[One defendant] has told me several times that he is simply not guilty of the crime and that some day when we will be standing on the throne of judgment everyone will see that he was innocent,” Zacharias said.
Zacharias and Janzen agree a lack of concrete evidence was a significant issue for the trial.
Janzen knows of no eyewitness tying the accused to the specific crimes they were charged with, and no hard evidence to substantiate the accusations.
Events came to a head in 2009 when one of the nine was caught inside a property at night and could not give explanation, but he was not caught in the act. There was also some question about whether confessions acquired under threat from colony leaders should have been admissible.
Threat of lynching
The accused all pleaded not guilty. They were tried as a group, meaning the same verdict, but not sentence, applied to each.
An Aug. 17 Time magazine online article reported the formal indictment indicated one victim is mentally handicapped and another was pregnant before going into premature labor after being raped by her brother. Court-ordered medical exams revealed a 3-year-old girl with physical evidence of sexual assault.
Defense attorney Luis Loza said the group had confessed to colony leaders “only under threat of lynching.” Some of the accused suggested from prison that falsified evidence was planted after colony residents captured suspected perpetrators on June 20, 2009.
That same year, Franz Klassen of the nearby Tres Cruces Colony was suspected of rape and was tied to a tree by his arms with his feet dangling for nine hours. Klassen, who had a history of alcohol and spousal abuse and had been punished before, could not move his arms after being released, and died a few days later.
Jacobo Friesen, husband of a 36-year-old victim and father of a 13-year-old victim, was quoted by Time as saying that if the group was acquitted and returned to the colony, “they will be lynched.”
The defendants range in age from 20 to 48, and four are married. Time reported that the group often joked with courtroom guards or fell asleep during proceedings, and had to be reprimanded by the judge for laughing and making faces during one victim’s testimony.
Doubts about justice
Jack Heppner of Steinbach, Man., who spent eight weeks investigating colony life in Bolivia from late 2009 to early 2010, said in a February 2010 report that many believed bribes had kept the accused men in jail far longer than the law allowed and that a fair trial was out of the question.
“Everyone is aware the Bolivian court system is plagued by endemic corruption that is fueled by bribe money,” wrote Heppner, who served in Bolivia for three years in the 1970s with the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference. “Since the colony has much more economic clout than those accused, the chances of an unfair conviction, if one happens at all, is quite possible.
“I have heard second-hand reports that the Manitoba Colony has already spent well over $100,000 (U.S.) in order to keep these men in prison without trial. According to the law, prisoners are not to remain in custody longer than six months without a trial. Many believe that money is what is keeping them in jail. I tend to agree.”
Janzen, the EMMC staff member in Bolivia, agrees. He and his wife, Lisa, work in Villa Nueva, a community of families seeking to leave Old Colony life.
“In this country, ‘justice’ is sold to the highest bidder, and even if these men are found guilty, it only proves they had less money than the men in the colony pushing this case and paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said a couple of days before the verdict. “You can ask anyone who has had any dealings with the law in this country.”
Heppner’s report outlined a conversation in which Bishop Neudorf, one of the colony’s leaders, said that if victims had been violated sexually while unconscious they would not require help because they would not remember the events.
“I asked the bishop where such gross sexual misconduct had come from,” Heppner wrote. “He implied that this was a special case involving outside influences and an alignment with evil spirits in order to carry out these evil deeds.”
Mennonite Central Committee Bolivia is seeking to help colonists improve their lives, but colony leaders have declined some forms of assistance.
MCC offers farming, health and education training and support to the colonies, and is supporting development of Guia de Paz, a rehabilitation center for men seeking freedom from addictions.
“MCC has longstanding experience in supporting both victims and perpetrators of crime,” said John Janzen, MCC Canada Low German coordinator. “MCC has offered to develop these programs in Low German communities in Bolivia, but until now the Mennonite churches and communities in Bolivia have declined to accept this type of assistance.”
Willmar Harder, Bolivia-based Low German Mennonite program coordinator, said three MCC staff from Bolivia visited Manitoba Colony leaders June 27, 2009, shortly after arrests were made.
“MCC Bolivia did provide trauma workshops for all their partners, but only two Mennonite leaders attended,” Harder said. “Some of the women from the colonies have visited with the women workers of MCC about their experience.”
Leaving colony life
Not far from Manitoba Colony, two projects sponsored by Canadian denominations seek to assist those who leave Old Colony life.
The Evangelical Free Church of Canada has been operating La Casa Mariposa (Butterfly House) for a year, providing counseling for Mennonite women and children who have been abused sexually or in other ways.
The center features several apartments, a resource library, equipment for training in variety of fields including office and computer skills, and a small-scale agriculture operation.
About 20 minutes away, the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference and Evangelical Bergthaler Mennonite Conference, also of Canada, jointly sponsor Villa Nueva, a community composed of families seeking assistance to bridge Old Colony and Bolivian societies.
“We do not refer to it as a colony because of the bad connotation it carries here among the Mennonite people, especially those who have been rejected by the ‘system,’ ” Janzen said.
EMMC executive director Jacob Friesen said Villa Nueva began serving families excommunicated from Old Colony groups for a variety of reasons.
“Things had fallen apart for many of the families,” he said. “A small group came together to form a church, and then came a school of about 30 children.”
These days, 150 children attend school, learning High German, Spanish and English.
“It’s much more than a school,” Friesen said. “It’s where kids can experience a sense of love and a sense of identity.”
Disconnected from a colony, families had no income, prompting development projects.
Today several dozen families live in Villa Nueva and build prefabricated wood houses and worship in church using electricity.