Programs: Science and Policy
AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program
Report on Science and Human Rights
Spring 2004 Vol XXIV, No. 1
Search for Information about Missing Math Professor Continues: New Development in the case of Boris Weisfeiler
It is almost 20 years since Olga Weisfeiler last saw her brother Boris. Boris, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Russia, traveled to Chile in January 1985 during his winter break from teaching math at Pennsylvania State University. An avid hiker, he set out for a solitary backpacking vacation along the Andes Mountains. He never returned.
On the 14th or 15th of January, Chilean officials reported finding his backpack near the Nuble River. It was missing his American passport and return ticket to the US. Chilean officials searched the area, conducting helicopter searches and a search of the river by Navy frogmen, and informed the Weisfeiler family that no body or further traces of Boris had been recovered. The Chilean courts concluded that there had been a "probable death by [accidental] drowning" and despite not finding a body, declared Boris Weisfeiler dead and closed the case.
But the case was definitely not closed for Olga. Something about the facts did not ring true for her and she began to contact U.S. government officials and human rights organizations to find additional information about what had happened to her brother. Her research uncovered a terrifying story. Olga learned that the area where her brother's backpack was found is close to a German enclave called Colonia Dignidad. Colonia Dignidad (now known as Villa Bevaria) is a secretive settlement of German immigrants. Its founder and longtime leader, Paul Schaefer, is a former Nazi and Baptist Preacher who fled Germany in 1961 amidst charges of sexually abusing young boys. The colony has been linked to human rights abuses and reportedly served as a detention and torture center during the Pinochet regime. The Chilean judicial system began an investigation into the claims and heard testimonies from surviving political prisoners about the torture practices at the site. The investigation is on-going.
In 1991, the Chilean Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, a body charged with documenting human rights violations that occurred during the Pinochet regime, issued its final report. In it, Boris Weisfeiler is listed as one of the unresolved cases of possible human rights violations. There is reason to believe that there was more information about the specifics of the case that the Commission never received from the U.S. Embassy and the Chilean military and therefore was unable to make a definitive determination about the case. In fact, in June 2000, the U.S. State Department declassified over 250 documents concerning the case of Boris Weisfeiler. The documents, which include eyewitness accounts and CIA documents and communiqués, indicate that Weisfeiler was not involved in a hiking accidental, but it is believed that Chilean soldiers detained him as a presumed spy from Russia and may have taken him to Colonia Dignidad. Why was Boris, an American citizen, taken to a Latin American torture center? Was he subjected to torture? Is he still alive and being held at Colonia Dignidad?
According to the documents, an army patrol member testified at the U.S. Embassy that the army did arrest Boris and that he was brought to Colonia Dignidad. He also reported that Boris was brutally interrogated at the colony. The individual also testified that he saw Boris alive inside Colonia Dignidad over two years later, in July 1987. According to reports, he was being kept in "animal-like conditions."
The declassified documents also contain evidence that points to a possible cover up. The members of the army patrol, who reported arrested Boris as well as the Carabineros (Chilean civilian police) who participated in the original search party were all transferred to other posts soon after Boris' disappearance. The local man, who originally informed the Carabineros about a stranger hiking in the area, committed suicide shortly after making his testimony. The U.S. Embassy reports his death as occurring under "mysterious circumstances"; he was found hanging on one of the posts of a cable bridge, almost in the exact location where Carabineros speculated that Boris had drowned. A declassified 1987 CIA document claimed "but could not conclusively prove" that Chilean officials misidentified Boris as a subversive and he was most likely murdered by these officials. The CIA document also states that a Chilean source told the CIA that among the officials who conducted the original search for Boris was a Chilean secret police unit responsible for "clean(ing) the area of any evidence that would indicate that Weisfeiler had been murdered."
The declassified documents also revealed that the State Department refused to give the U.S. Embassy in Chile sufficient funds to continue an investigation into Weisfeiler's disappearance. In 1986, the American Mathematical Society offered to raise money to assist the investigation, but the State Department never took the society up on its offer.
Since that time, Olga Weisfeiler has continued to investigate her brother's disappearance. In 1997, a Chilean journalist told her that the U.S. Embassy received an anonymous letter stating that her brother had been tortured and killed "by the Germans" at Colonia Dignidad. This letter has not been declassified. She hired a lawyer in Chile to petition the courts to open a formal investigation. In January 2000, a Chilean judge ruled that an investigation was warranted. The case is in the Santiago Supreme Court with charges charged against General Augusto Pinochet, Paul Schaefer, the leader of Colonia Dignidad, and all others responsible for the disappearance of Boris Weisfeiler. The case is under investigation by the Court. There remains concern that the Chilean military has not provided the courts with all of the relevant information they may possess on either the disappearance of Boris Weisfeiler or their activities and involvement in Colonia Dignidad.
In March 2004, with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Chile, Olga began a public campaign for any information about her brother's disappearance. Olga stated, "I'm looking for information that may lead to my brother. I still believe he may be alive." She believes that the military has information that they are not releasing.
Olga is not alone in her struggles to make sense of disappearance of a loved one. According to Amnesty International, over a thousand men, women, and children were "disappeared" during the 17-year military dictatorship. Repressive regimes have often resorted to disappearing individuals because of the "deniability" and lack of accountability of the abuse. When an individual is disappeared, they are simply taken with no official notice, no arrest warrant, and no accountability. This official denial of the fate of detainees inflicts a particularly cruel form of uncertainty on surviving families who cannot properly grieve for their relatives.
Olga Weisfeiler recently stated, "I get chills thinking about my brother Boris being brutally tortured, being enslaved like an animal, all the while trying to stay alive and hoping to be found and freed, all the while believing in American influence and justice." She recognizes that Boris may have died since his disappearance almost 20 years ago, but without any evidence of what has happened to him, she keeps some hope that her brother may still be alive. She is determined to continue to press both U.S. and Chilean authorities until the full story of her brother's fate is uncovered.
Olga Weisfeiler maintains a website on her brother's case http://www.weisfeiler.com/boris/ The site contains all the relevant documents and offers ways for you assist in the case, including making donations to the legal fees.[an error occurred while processing this directive]