All photos by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky. Noah Friedman-Rudovsky also contributed reporting to this article.
F or a while, the residents of Manitoba Colony thought demons were raping the town's women. There was no other explanation. No way of explaining how a woman could wake up with blood and semen stains smeared across her sheets and no memory of the previous night. No way of explaining how another went to sleep clothed, only to wake up naked and covered by dirty fingerprints all over her body. No way to understand how another could dream of a man forcing himself onto her in a field – and then wake up the next morning with grass in her hair.
For Sara Guenter, the mystery was the rope. She would sometimes wake up in her bed with small pieces of it tied tightly to her wrists or ankles, the skin beneath an aching blue. Earlier this year, I visited Sara at her home, simple concrete painted to look like brick, in Manitoba Colony, Bolivia. Mennonites are similar to the Amish in their rejection of modernity and technology, and Manitoba Colony, like all ultraconservative Mennonite communities, is a collective attempt to retreat as far as possible from the nonbelieving world. A slight breeze of soy and sorghum came off the nearby fields as Sara told me how, in addition to the eerie rope, on those mornings after she'd been raped she would also wake to stained sheets, thunderous headaches and paralysing lethargy.
Her two daughters, 17 and 18 years old, squatted silently along a wall behind her and shot me fierce blue-eyed stares. The evil had penetrated the household, Sara said. Five years ago, her daughters also began waking up with dirty sheets and complaints of pain "down below".
The family tried locking the door; some nights, Sara did everything she could to keep herself awake. On a few occasions, a loyal Bolivian worker from the neighbouring city of Santa Cruz would stay the night to stand guard. But inevitably, when their one-story home – set back and isolated from the dirt road – was not being watched, the rapes continued. (Manitobans aren't connected to the power grid, so at night the community is submerged in total darkness.) "It happened so many times, I lost count," Sara said in her native Low German, the only language she speaks, like most women in the community.
In the beginning, the family had no idea that they weren't the only ones being attacked, and so they kept it to themselves. Then Sara started telling her sisters. When rumours spread, "no one believed her," said Peter Fehr, Sara's neighbour at the time of the incidents. "We thought she was making it up to hide an affair." The family's pleas for help to the council of church ministers, the group of men who govern the 2,500-member colony, were fruitless – even as the tales multiplied. Throughout the community, people were waking to the same telltale morning signs: ripped pyjamas, blood and semen on the bed, head-thumping stupor. Some women remembered brief moments of terror: for an instant they would wake to a man or men on top of them but couldn't summon the strength to yell or fight back. Then, fade to black.
Some called it "wild female imagination". Others said it was a plague from God. "We only knew that something strange was happening in the night," Abraham Wall Enns, Manitoba Colony's civic leader at the time, said. "But we didn't know who was doing it, so how could we stop it?"
No one knew what to do, and so no one did anything at all. After a while, Sara just accepted those nights as a horrific fact of life. On the following mornings, her family would rise despite the head pain, strip the beds and get on with their days.
Then, one night in June 2009, two men were caught trying to enter a neighbour's home. The two ratted out a few friends and, falling like a house of cards, a group of nine Manitoba men, ages 19 to 43, eventually confessed that they had been raping Colony families since 2005. To incapacitate their victims and any possible witnesses, the men used a spray created by a veterinarian from a neighbouring Mennonite community that he had adapted from a chemical used to anaesthetise cows. According to their initial confessions (which they later recanted), the rapists admitted to – sometimes in groups, sometimes alone – hiding outside bedroom windows at night, spraying the substance through the screens to drug entire families, and then crawling inside.
But it wasn't until their trial, which took place almost two years later, in 2011, that the full scope of their crimes came to light. The transcripts read like a horror movie script: Victims ranged in age from three to 65 (the youngest had a broken hymen, purportedly from finger penetration). The girls and women were married, single, residents, visitors, the mentally infirm. Though it's never discussed and was not part of the legal case, residents privately told me that men and boys were raped, too.
In August 2011, the veterinarian who'd supplied the anaesthetic spray was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and the rapists were each sentenced to 25 years (five years shy of Bolivia's maximum penalty). Officially, there were 130 victims – at least one person from more than half of all Manitoba Colony households. But not all those raped were included in the legal case, and it's believed the true number of victims is much, much higher.
In the wake of the crimes, women were not offered therapy or counselling. There was little attempt to dig deeper into the incidents beyond the confessions. And in the years since the men were nabbed, there has never been a colony-wide discussion about the events. Rather, a code of silence descended following the guilty verdict.
"That's all behind us now," Civic Leader Wall told me on my recent trip there. "We'd rather forget than have it be at the forefront of our minds." Aside from interactions with the occasional visiting journalist, no one talks about it any more.
But over the course of a nine-month investigation, including an 11-day stay in Manitoba, I discovered that the crimes are far from over. In addition to lingering psychological trauma, there's evidence of widespread and ongoing sexual abuse, including rampant molestation and incest. There's also evidence that – despite the fact that the initial perpetrators are in jail – the rapes by drugging continue to happen.
The demons, it turns out, are still out there.
Eight Mennonite men are serving sentences in prison for the rapes of more than 130 women in Manitoba Colony. One of the alleged rapists escaped and now resides in Paraguay.
t first glance, life for Manitoba's residents seems an idyllic existence, enviable by new-age off-the-gridders: families live off the land, solar panels light homes, windmills power potable water wells. When one family suffers a death, the rest take turns cooking meals for the grieving. The richer families subsidise schoolhouse maintenance and teachers' salaries. Mornings begin with homemade bread, marmalade and milk still warm from the cows outside. At dusk, children play tag in the yard as their parents sway in rockers and watch the sunset.
Not all Mennonites live in sheltered worlds. There are 1.7 million of them in 83 different countries. From community to community, their relationships to the modern world vary considerably. Some eschew modernity entirely; others live in insular worlds but allow cars, TVs, cell phones and varied dress. Many live among, and are virtually indistinguishable from, the rest of society.
The religion was formed as an offshoot of the Protestant Reformation in 1520s Europe, by a Catholic priest named Menno Simons. Church leaders lashed out against Simons's encouragement of adult baptism, pacifism and his belief that only by leading a simple life could one get to heaven. Threatened by the new doctrine, the Protestant and Catholic churches began persecuting his followers throughout Central and Western Europe. Most Mennonites – as Simons's followers came to be known – refused to fight because of their vow of nonviolence, and so they fled to Russia where they were given settlements to live unbothered by the rest of society.
But by the 1870s, persecution began in Russia, too, so the group next sought refuge in Canada, welcomed by a government in need of pioneer settlers. On arrival, many Mennonites began adopting modern dress, language and other aspects of contemporary life. A small group, however, continued to believe that they would only be allowed into heaven if they lived in the ways of their forefathers, and they were appalled to see their fellow followers so easily seduced by the new world. This group, known as the "Old Colonists", abandoned Canada in the 1920s, in part because the government demanded school lessons be taught in English, and hinted at standardising a country-wide curriculum. (Even today, Old Colony schooling is taught in German, is strictly Bible-based, and ends at 13 for boys and 12 for girls.)
The Old Colonists migrated to Paraguay and Mexico, where there was ample farmland, little technology and, most importantly, promises by the respective national governments to let them live as they wished. But in the 1960s, when Mexico introduced its own educational reform that threatened to limit Mennonite autonomy, another migration began. Old Colonies subsequently sprouted up in more remote parts of the Americas, with a heavy concentration in Bolivia and Belize.
Today, there are about 350,000 Old Colonists worldwide, and Bolivia is home to more than 60,000 of them. Manitoba Colony, which was formed in 1991, looks like a relic of the old world dropped in the middle of the new: a pale-skinned, blue-eyed island of order amid the sea of chaos that is South America's most impoverished and indigenous country. The colony thrives economically off its members' supreme work ethic, ample fertile fields and collective milk factory.
Manitoba has emerged as the ultimate safe haven for Old Colony true believers. Other colonies in Bolivia have loosened their codes, but Manitobans fervently reject cars, and all of their tractors have steel tires, as owning any mechanised vehicle with rubber tyres is seen as a cardinal sin because it enables easy contact with the outside world. Men are forbidden from growing facial hair and don denim overalls except in church, where they wear slacks. Girls and women wear identically tied intricate braids, and you'd be hard pressed to find a dress with a length or sleeve that varies more than a few millimetres from the preordained design. For Manitoba residents, these aren't arbitrary rules: they form the one path to salvation and colonists obey because, they believe, their souls depend on it.
As all Old Colonists desire, Manitoba has been left to its own devices. Except in the case of murder, the Bolivian government does not obligate community leaders to report any crime. Police have virtually no jurisdiction inside the community, nor do state or municipal authorities. The colonists maintain law and order through a de facto government of nine ministers and a ruling bishop, all of whom are elected for life. Beyond being mandated by the Bolivian government to ensure that all residents have a state identity card, Manitoba functions almost as its own sovereign nation.