Erick Zott Chuecas lived through the ordeal in the aftermath of Chile’s 1973 military coup as featured in Emma Watson’s new film The Colony
Blindfolded and strapped to a bed in an underground tunnel, the prisoner braces himself, knowing there will be no escape from the agonising electric shocks about to be inflicted.
This harrowing torture scene features in Emma Watson’s new film The Colony. But what makes it even more disturbing is that it is no work of Hollywood fiction.
Erick Zott Chuecas lived through the ordeal when he was kidnapped in the aftermath of Chile’s 1973 military coup.
The 67-year-old says: “It’s a horror story, that in reality lasted more than four decades, summed up in just under two hours.
“I’ve already seen the film four times and each time it made me cry. I felt I was taken back in time. The reaction of the public made it even more emotional.
“People are shocked and ask, ‘How was it possible that this thing happened in Chile?’.”
The thriller tells the story of a couple caught up in the coup as Emma’s character Lena infiltrates a secretive German immigrant commune, called Colonia Dignidad – Dignity Colony – in an attempt to rescue boyfriend Daniel, played by Daniel Bruhl.
Like Daniel, Erick was tortured at the enclave – founded in 1961 by Nazi paedophile Paul Schafer – for daring to oppose Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship of Chile.
While Erick suffered many different types of torture , electricity was used most often.
He says: “They put it all over my body, in my head, in my mouth. I’m not able to say how many times they did it exactly, but they did it a lot of the time – it was the way it was.
“Whatever opportunity they had, they would use this form of torture.
“It was terrible. As a human being we have natural defences, but each time it happened my body would completely break down, it would go into shock. But in these moments the biggest motivation was to keep on living.”
An estimated 45,000 people were rounded up, interrogated and tortured in Chile.
About 2,200 were executed and 1,200 disappeared across the country. And the colony became one of the most notorious places dissenters found themselves.
Its founder Schafer, a baptist preacher, had fled West Germany in 1958 with his followers after being charged with child abuse.
He was revered as god-like by the members of the colony, built at the foot of the Andes in southern Chile, and oversaw the abuse of children and torture of prisoners sent by Pinochet.
In 1975, Erick became one of them. The student activist, born in the city of Concepcion, was forced underground when President Salvador Allende was overthrown by armed forces led by Pinochet.
Allende was the first democratically elected Marxist head of state in Latin America but his attempts to restructure the economy led to rising inflation and food shortages. It caused intense unrest and, then, in September 1973, led to the US-backed revolt and Allende’s suicide.
Erick recalls: “During the coup, I was required by the military and decided to go underground and enlist in the resistance against the military dictatorship.
“When I was living underground, every day I was thinking: ‘Is it going to happen? Will I be caught?’.”
That day finally came, in January 1975, when Erick was found in the city of Valparaiso and was arrested. He was questioned and beaten by Pinochet’s DINA secret police, before being taken to Villa Grimaldi – a notorious interrogation and torture centre on the outskirts of the capital Santiago.
A month after his arrest, he ended up at Colonia Dignidad. But the DINA agents were keen to keep the enclave’s activities a secret.
Erick says: “They applied special bandages, putting wet cotton balls in my ears, putting a leather helmet over my head that covered my ears and tied my hands and feet. They didn’t want me to know where I was being taken. When we entered the grounds of Colonia Dignidad, I had a feeling that this moment would be my last.”
He says 95% of his time there was spent horizontally. “I was attached to a military camp bed – my feet, legs, back and hands were tied,” Erick recalls. “I was virtually immobilised. I was forbidden to speak and had no sense of time.
“They only took me out to interrogate and torture me, in a room similar to that of the film, then they tied me to a bed again.”
Erick was given high doses of tranquillisers. “I would sleep from time to time and when I woke up I didn’t know if I’d been asleep for 10 minutes or two hours,” he says. There seemed to be no escape from his nightmare.
“Colonia Dignidad was a state within the Chilean state,” he says. “It was hermetically sealed off from the outside world.”
Along with torture and child abuse , the colony’s main activity was agriculture.
Like Emma Watson’s character, its residents were kept as virtual slaves and forced to work in the fields.
Under Schafer’s rules, men and women were forced to live separately and parents were split up from their children.
He provided refuge for Nazi fugitives like Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death” Dr Josef Mengele , as well producing weapons and poison gas for Pinochet’s regime.
Erick was tortured at Colonia Dignidad for just over a week but he knows he was one of the lucky ones, adding: “It was a relief to leave and that I was still alive.”
But his nightmare was far from over as he was taken back to Villa Grimaldi and then the Tres Alamos concentration camp.
Erick says: “My family were desperately trying to find out where I was but no one – the police or the army – would say I had been detained. They told my mum I was free, living abroad. I was relocated many times.”
Erick’s mother had clung on to the hope her son was alive after his image was broadcast on television soon after his arrest.
She contacted the UN, Amnesty International, various embassies and the Church, begging them to help.
Erick was finally tracked down to Tres Alamos and Erick was flown out of Chile in November 1976 on a plane to Austria, after being granted a temporary visa. He settled in Vienna, where he has lived ever since.
n 1997, Schafer was charged with child sex abuse by the Chilean authorities following complaints from 26 children.
He went into hiding and was convicted in his absence in 2004. The following year he was found in Argentina and in 2006 he was jailed for 20 years. Schafer died in 2010.
Erick, who worked for the UN in human rights until he retired seven years ago, admits his experiences, however traumatic, have given him a valuable lesson in life.
He says: “I’ve learnt about the enormous qualities and survival abilities we have.
“We are all a Pandora’s box, and in extreme situations, we have unknown and surprising resources to protect ourselves.”