The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia
The Perpetrators Were Caught, but the Crimes Continue
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, and windmills power potable water wells. When one family suffers a death, the rest take turns cooking meals for the grieving. The richer families subsidize 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 standardizing 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.
Mennonite boys and girls taking a walk in Manitoba Colony, Bolivia.
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 mechanized vehicle with rubber tires 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 millimeters 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.
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