Amish rape gang used cattle sedative in reign of terror
A conservative Christian sect is still coming to terms with the predatory actions of a gang of men who used cattle anaesthetic on hundreds of victims in an epidemic of sexual violence that lasted for years.
Seven members of a Mennonite community in Bolivia have been sentenced to 25 years each in prison for a sustained rape campaign within the agrarian commune.
Ultra-conservative elements of the Mennonite community - like the better-known Amish - follow a strict code separated from modern society, which rejects inventions such as cars and electricity.
Prosecutors said the crimes began in 2005 when a veterinarian in the isolated community, Peter Weiber, managed to alter a substance derived from the belladonna plant, which is normally used to sedate cattle, for use on humans.
A group of nine men then spent the next four years terrorising the community, spraying the substance into the bedroom windows of victims at night before attacking their unconscious targets.
Sometimes entire families were sedated while the women and girls inside were assaulted.
"The victims were raped in a repeated manner. Among them, there were adults, children and elderly women," prosecutor Freddy Perez told the local El Dia newspaper.
The exact number of the gang's victims may never be known.
Lawyer Oswaldo Rivera told the BBC that some women still had no recollection of being attacked, while others feared being ostracised by the tightly-knit community, within which women are expected to abstain from sex until marriage.
Mr Rivera said almost 150 victims had taken part in the trial, but there could be a similar number too afraid to give evidence, the BBC reported. Prosecutors were also hampered by the community's reclusive nature.
One woman who did speak out, Katarina Wall, recalled only hazy details of her attack.
In an interview with Time, she recalled waking in her bed with a man on top of her, but her arms were too heavy to raise in resistance.
She woke up from her "terrible dream" the next morning with the sheets beneath her and her sleeping husband stained with blood from the attack, the magazine reported.
The eight men were arrested in June 2009 when an investigation was launched after community elders began suspecting the actions of one man and caught him breaking into a victim's bedroom.
Along with the seven jailed over the sexual crimes, Weiber was sentenced to 12½ years in prison for providing the narcotic that the men sprayed to render the women unconscious before the attacks, said Judge Luis Enrique Perez.
Prosecutors said a ninth alleged accomplice was still at large.
The eight men, aged between 18 and 45, were sentenced during a closed hearing at Palmasola prison in the Santa Cruz region last week.
Time quoted Jacobo Friesen, whose 36-year-old wife and 13-year-old daughter were attacked by the gang, saying the men would be lynched if they were acquitted and returned to the community, such was the outrage at their actions.
Community elders also expressed disbelief in the crimes, denying there was anything in the reclusive community's culture that encouraged such actions against the local women.
But other Mennonite insiders were not so surprised at the group's sustained and brutal campaign over such a long period of time.
The Mennonite Weekly Review, a US Mennonite community news organisation, has posted reports in its latest issue about the inequality between women and men in some of the more conservative Mennonite colonies.
Their publication reported that communities often dealt with justice swiftly and in-house, but this case was handed over to secular authorities to limit any vigilante retribution towards the accused men, such was the anger at their actions.
Mennonites are orthodox Protestants who reject wealth and power and adhere to a pacifist philosophy.
They live in isolated communities that accept varying degrees of integration with modern society. While some are indistinguishable from their neighbours, the BBC reported that the community where the attacks occurred was ultra-conservative, with no paved roads or electricity.
Its members still moved around in horse-drawn buggies and adhered to traditional dress.
After fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 19th century, the Mennonites settled first in the United States but spread to South America, where up to 40,000 Mennonites live today in agrarian colonies in Paraguay and Bolivia.