Some called it “wild female imagination.” Others somehow saw it as an act of God. But for the residents of Manitoba Colony, an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia, it was something else entirely. For a long time, they were convinced that demons were raping the town’s women and young girls.
How else could a woman wake up with blood and semen stains on her skin and sheets and no memory of the previous night?
One victim swore under oath that she had dreamt of a man forcing himself on her in a field during the night. When she woke the next morning, she had grass in her hair and a sinister pain between her legs.
Ripped clothes, blood and semen but no memories…
Throughout the community, women were waking to find themselves in the same horrific situation. They complained of ripped clothes, blood and semen on the bed, and a dreadful certainty that something evil had befallen them during the night.
Yet no one saw or said anything. No screams had roused people from their beds during the night. No sounds of fleeing footsteps ever interrupted the high-pitched chirping of crickets in the darkened fields.
“In the night we heard the dogs bark, but when I went out, I couldn’t see anything,” says one resident, a father to teenaged daughters at the time of the attacks.
A Rural Idyll’s Tranquility is Shattered
To any outsider passing through in the daytime, Manitoba Colony looked like a peaceful – if secretive – haven from the modern world.
Dirt roads divide the fields of soya and sunflowers, connecting the far-flung houses which are home to some 1,800 people.
The surrounding hills are a distant blue-grey and the iron wheels of tractors sink deep into the mud trails for most of the year. Community leaders – bishops and ministers to the rest of the flock – had long ago banned rubber tires, cars, and motorcycles here.
Instead, the thick, stifling hot air is occasionally stirred by the passing of a horse-drawn buggy carrying men in dark dungarees and women in wide straw hats. This is the only mode of mass transportation allowed within the colony.
Mennonites reject modernity and technology. Manitoba Colony, like all extremely conservative Mennonite communities, is a collective attempt to withdraw from the non-believing modern world.
The result is a community that could – in many ways – seem almost idyllic.
But many of the town’s residents had for months – years, even – quietly lived with the fear that something malevolent was stalking them at night.
Then in June 2009, the prosecutor for the district of Santa Cruz received a telephone call from a police officer in the eastern Bolivian town of Cotoca.
“Doctor, some Mennonites have brought men here who they’re saying are rapists,” the officer told Fredy Perez, the prosecutor who investigated the case.
Medieval Demons and Crushing Headaches
Mennonites have their roots in 16th-Century Germany and Holland. They are pacifists who practice adult baptism. They are profoundly committed to living simple lives.
Most of the people of the Manitoba Colony arrived in Bolivia from Canada and Mexico. Others came from as far away as Russia. They came to the small community seeking religious freedom, land to farm, and –above all – isolation.
But authorities could no longer ignore the numerous reports of sexual assault coming from such a tiny population.
In the end, events overwhelmed the colony…
One June night a little over a decade ago, a young man was caught inside someone’s home. Some of the local men managed to wrangle and seize the intruder, and he soon implicated eight others. They were all Mennonite – and all from Manitoba, except one.
One by one, the locals sought out the gang members, knocking on doors and dragging them from their beds and out into the pink and grey light of dawn. Once rounded up, the gang easily confessed to the rapes, according to police.
But the foremost mystery was how the men had managed to perpetrate the crime in the first place. How had the gang so easily fooled an entire town into believing that demons were behind the attacks?
Prosecutors identified a substance derived from tropical plants as a key element in their case.
The home-made concoction is well-known in South America. Some Mennonite farmers on the continent apparently use it to anaesthetize bulls before castration.
In Manitoba, the men sprayed the substance through windows before they broke into the houses of their victims, the prosecution argued.
The effect of the drug is wide-ranging and profound, especially on the memory. The women might have sensed something horrific had happened to them but be unable to remember what it was precisely.
“In the morning they had headaches,” says Perez of the victims. “Women woke with semen on them, and wondered why they were without underwear.”
But, clearly, something else was lurking behind the factual details of the court filings. How is it that no one in the town seems to have even suspected that men – mortal, cruel, and fallible – may have been behind the attacks?
Not everyone in the community was sprayed with the substance. Why had none of the residents reported the attacks to the police earlier?
The answer, says Perez, could be in the beliefs of the town’s residents themselves. Demons pervade biblical apocrypha – stories about biblical subjects that are not included in the canonical Bible.
Surviving texts of early versions of the Christian gospel brim with stories that associate sex and health issues with demonic forces. These narratives were very popular in the medieval period.
Back then, even peasants who couldn’t read or write knew the demon stories by heart.
They helped fuel the “witch craze” of the 16th and 17th centuries, in which fervent religious leaders persecuted and killed thousands of people – mainly women.
Many in the Manitoba Colony still hold to these stories as a matter of faith.
Baffled by the rising number of phantom rape cases throughout the community, they could fathom no other explanation.
A Shameful Case of Rape and Gaslighting
Perez says it wasn’t easy to get the victims to testify – but they eventually did. The full extent and horror of the crime came to light during the trial that began in 2011.
In court documents, some 151 women and girls came forward and spoke of being raped by different men, one after the other. The ages of the victims ranged from three to 65 years old.
They were wives, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and daughters. They cooked the food, made the clothes, and taught the children of the town how to read and write.
Perez says there may have been many more victims. Some of the younger women had refused to undergo forensic examinations.
In August 2011, seven men were sentenced to 25 years each in the Palmasola maximum security prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, for rape.
One other accused – who has since been conditionally released – got 12 years for supplying the drug the rapists used to paralyze the victims.
The courts tried and convicted two other men in connection with the attacks. One of the men later died. In all, eight remain and are now incarcerated on the outskirts of Santa Cruz.
For a while, the women of the colony could breathe a sigh of relief. The nightmare was over. With their tormentors behind bars, many had started on the long, difficult road toward rebuilding their lives.
But now, 11 years later, things have taken an astonishing turn within the Mennonite communities in Bolivia and in North America.
Many different sections of the community – from the most liberal to the extremely conservative – have increasingly voiced doubts about the case.
Some say the accused men were unpopular in Manitoba – and that a few influential families had paid off the Bolivian judiciary to keep them in prison.
Many doubt the use of the powerful narcotic spray, suggesting some of the victims’ testimonies were the product of sinful imaginings. Johann Fehr, one of Manitoba’s ministers, for one, believes some of the women had outright lied.
Others simply say that even the worst of sins can be forgiven after a decade of hard work. This is why Manitobans like Bernard Dyck, a farmer in his 50s, would like to see the men released from prison.
“We would welcome them back with great pleasure,” Dyck told the BBC last year. “And if they need anything, we’d like to help them.”
In fact, the leaders of the Mennonite community – who are all men – are quietly lobbying politicians for the release of the incarcerated rapists.
Perez waves off the sudden turn-around of the community’s menfolk. He also dismisses rumors that the convicted men had confessed under the threat of torture. “That was their version,” says the prosecutor.
“Families will be threatened.”
The women and girls of the Manitoba Colony are understandably worried and frightened these days.
But their fears and worries are muted, and they spend their days silently cooking, washing, cleaning and making clothes as instructed by the colony’s leaders.
Some have even vowed to recant their testimonies – and now favor releasing their erstwhile attackers.
“A lot of people support the men in Palmasola,” says one woman in the community, her eyes trembling with tears. “And if we – the victims – talk, those men in prison will hear, and families will be threatened.”
Bolivian law says convicts serving 25 years are not eligible for conditional release until they have served two-thirds of their sentence. In this case, that is 16 years and eight months.
But what if the political lobbying of a powerhouse agricultural group – which the 90 Mennonite communities of Bolivia are – begins to find weak links in the system?
Forgiveness – more than belief in demonic rape – is at the core of the Mennonite faith in the Manitoba Colony.
For the rape victims, however, the colony’s new resolve to free the jailed men, perhaps represents something else: a humiliating reminder of their worth within their community.
“Mennonite culture is pretty sexist,” says Perez. “And apart from that, the women are shy, and don’t want contact with the outside world.”
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