Remnants of dictatorship

SANTIAGO, Chile — During Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, political prisoners were held in navy ships and stadiums, in office buildings and police stations. Military bases, expropriated houses and resorts: all served as detention and torture centers.

Now, some of these former secret detention and torture centers are being transformed into memorials and museums, so Chileans can remember the horrors of military dictatorship. Altogether, Chile was home to more than 1,130 secret detention and torture centers during Pinochet's rule, which lasted from 1973 to 1990.

Earlier in this decade, the government began supporting human rights groups' efforts to create memorials out of former detention centers, as a sort of symbolic redress for what occurred under Pinochet's rule. The government has allocated money for plaques, small museums, memorial walls, crosses and sculptures on historically significant sites, such as where executions took place. Efforts have also involved renaming streets, health centers, conference halls, parks and schools after victims of that era. There are now about 170 such memorials and plaques around the country, 67 of which are in the Metropolitan Region of Santiago.

The government has declared many of the former detention centers national monuments, thus ensuring their protection from destruction, alteration or any potential sale. In some cases, this meant buying the property from private owners.

Only one of these former detention center sites has been fully completed. Others are in the process of being readied, and some still have a long way to go.

During Pinochet's reign, some of the detention centers were secret. People would be arrested in massive raids, or targeted individually, and would then be taken to secret sites. In these places, it was easy to disappear forever: No one knew of their existence, so there was nowhere to search for the missing.

Over time — and with the testimony of survivors — these secret sites were eventually exposed. In 2004, a government-appointed commission took testimony from former detainees, and registered nearly 28,000 torture survivors. Years earlier, another government report listed nearly 3,000 people who died or disappeared during military rule.

Here is a tour through some of the memorial sites:

National Stadium

The National Stadium in Santiago began holding prisoners from the day of the coup, and it closed two months later, in November 1973. Estimates of the total number of prisoners range from 7,000 to 20,000, including about 1,000 women. This was one of the first massive detention and torture camps controlled by the army, and although the government acknowledged its existence, visitors were banned. Hundreds of male prisoners were crammed into dressing rooms and corridors, while the women were held in the dressing rooms in the pool area. Torture took place on the cycling track, in administrative offices, in corridors and on fields. There is no solid figure on how many people were killed or disappeared from the stadium.

The proposed memorial includes 10 areas on the stadium property that symbolize significant events or aspects of prison life. These include descriptive plaques, exhibits, a memorial wall, sculptures, murals and eventually a museum. Messages and names engraved on the walls by prisoners will also be preserved. This project has yet to win approval.

(American-Chilean photographer Cristian Montecino took this picture in one of the corridors of the National Stadium as new prisoners were brought in, during one of the three authorized visits of the press. Montecino, who had arrived in Chile from the U.S. several months earlier, was killed by the military two years later. Courtesy of Marcelo Montecino)

(Hundreds of prisoners were held in these cold and damp areas beneath the bleachers of the stadium. Courtesy of Museo Estadio Nacional, Memoria Nacional)

(One of the two dungeon-like dressing rooms at the cycling track, where prisoners were taken for the most severe torture sessions. Often they would not be able to return to the main stadium on their own, and would have to be carried back in a blanket by other prisoners. Pascale Bonnefoy/Global Post)

(The entrance to what used to be the men’s dressing room in the pool area where women prisoners were held. A special exhibit was installed in March to remember this site. The banner at the entrance reads: “A people without memory is a people without future." Pascale Bonnefoy/Global Post)

(Ximena George-Nascimento stands next to a partial list of the women prisoners held at the National Stadium. She was imprisoned there for nearly a month. Pascale Bonnefoy/Global Post)

(This hallway was the women’s sleeping room. The women slept side by side in two rows, their feet meeting in the middle. Pascale Bonnefoy/Global Post)

Londres 38

Londres 38, located on a quaint cobblestone street in downtown Santiago, housed the offices of the Socialist Party until the day of the coup that vaulted Pinochet to power. Taken over by the military, the three-story building was used by the secret intelligence service DINA to hold and torture prisoners, mostly in 1974. About 70 prisoners at a time were forced to sit on chairs day and night while blindfolded, their feet and hands tied. Interrogations and torture would usually take place on the third floor. Detainees typically remained there no more than one month, before they were taken to other secret detention centers. According to reports, 96 people were executed or disappeared there. Thirteen of them were women, two of them pregnant.

The military eventually handed the property to the right-wing Instituto O’Higginiano, which, in an attempt to erase history, replaced the street number 38 with 40. Former prisoners, victims' relatives and others came together to turn the property into a memorial, which should be inaugurated in September. They have already changed the street number back to 38.

(Londres 38 as it looks today. Pascale Bonnefoy/Global Post)

(The entrance to Londres 38. Prisoners recall seeing the black and white tiles from beneath their blindfolds. Courtesy of

(About 70 prisoners would be held in these rooms, their hands and feet tied. Courtesy of

(Black and white tiles like those on the first floor of the building were placed in front of Londres 38 with the names, circumstances of death or disappearance and political affiliation of victims. Source: Colectivo Londres 38)

Jose Domingo Canas

Before the coup, this home in a residential area of Santiago was owned by a Brazilian sociologist. Afterwards, it was used by the Embassy of Panama to give refuge to asylum seekers. But in mid-1974, the house was taken over by the secret intelligence service DINA. Many prisoners arrived here between 1974 and 1975, often from Londres 38 or another torture center. The house could hold about 40 prisoners at any given time. Over 100 survived, while another 42 disappeared.

The structure is all on one floor, with an adjacent building, small pool and a garage. Up to 10 prisoners were held in a 3-foot by 2-foot feet pantry room, without ventilation or windows, which was referred to as the “hole.”

After the dictatorship, the government ordered that all property confiscated by the military be returned to the original owners. In this case, the owner sold the property to the toy company Rochet. In 1999, neighbors, human rights groups and others came together to attempt to rescue what remained of the house in order to create a memorial — they were involved in negotiations between the government and Rochet. Negotiations stalled because the company owner, Pablo Rochet, demanded a high price. A year later, he began demolishing the property. A court order halted the destruction, but Rochet ignored it, and in December 2001 he finished destroying the place completely.

The site has since been declared a National Monument, and work is underway to unearth the remains of the original foundations of the house, building and pool. At the back, there will be a small museum and a memorial with the faces of the more than 40 people who disappeared there.

(The original house on Jose Domingo Canas street. Courtesy of Proyecto Internacional de Derechos Humanos.)

(A woman lights candles at the sculpture that memorializes victims. Courtesy of the National Monuments Council)

(Jose Domingo Canas today, with work underway to unearth the original foundations and build a museum in the back. Pascale Bonnefoy/Global Post)

Villa Grimaldi

Villa Grimaldi was a beautiful 3-acre resort and events center located on the foothills of the Andes mountains that was owned by a wealthy businessman. Months after the coup, the military seized the estate and the secret intelligence service DINA set up its headquarters and most infamous secret torture center there. It was used through 1978, although 1975 was the year in which the most prisoners were held there. Some 5,000 prisoners are reported to have passed through Villa Grimaldi. Nearly 20 of them died and another 226 disappeared.

In 1987, with the property still under the control of the secret intelligence service, Villa Grimaldi was sold to a construction company, which promptly began destroying it. In the twilight of dictatorship, the media caught on and public pressure halted the demolition, although most of the buildings had already been destroyed. After the return to civilian rule — and prompted by neighborhood associations and human rights groups — the government re-took the villa. A few years later, a group of architects began designing what would soon become the Park for Peace Villa Grimaldi.

Inaugurated in 1997, the park is open to the general public and offers guided tours to visitors. Some of its installations have been recreated. Numerous cultural and human rights-related events are held there.

(Villa Grimaldi’s main estate before demolition. Courtesy of Pedro Alejandro Matta, from “Villa Grimaldi, a Visitor’s Guide,” by Pedro Alejandro Matta) 

(In the middle of the Park for Peace there is a water fountain that marks where prisoners arrived. Courtesy of Maria Obias)

(The rose garden remained intact as the estate was used as a torture center, and blindfolded prisoners recall smelling roses when taken outside. The garden was destroyed during demolition, but was revived in 2007. Each of the 53 rose plants has a small sign with the name of a woman who died or disappeared during the dictatorship. Courtesy of Maria Obias)

(Three or four prisoners would be held in these sealed punishment cells, which were seven feet high and only three or four feet long. Prisoners had to take turns sitting down or try to breathe from cracks in the wall. Courtesy of Maria Obias)

(Posters with the faces of some of the disappeared near the entrance to the villa. Courtesy of Maria Obias)

Patio 29

Although not a detention center, Patio 29 in Santiago’s General Cemetery has also been declared a national monument. After the end of military dictatorship, in 1991, 126 unidentified bodies were exhumed from this area — they had been buried after execution or death by torture, most in the early years of dictatorship.

Nearly 100 of these bodies were later identified, and the remains were turned over to relatives for a proper burial. Years later, however, new exams proved that in 48 cases, the bodies were incorrectly identified.

The memorial involves a demarcation of the patio, close to the nearby tomb of famed musician Victor Jara. This “Music Plaza” will have filaments that will sound musical notes with the wind.

(One hundred and twenty-six bodies of unidentified human rights victims were exhumed in Patio 29 in 1991. Courtesy of the National Monuments Council)

Read more GlobalPost dispatches about Augusto Pinochet:

Defending the dictator

Chile's secret laws

Chile reconsiders military spending provision


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