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Remnants of dictatorship

New life for properties used as detention and torture centers under Pinochet

Crosses inside the abandoned cemetery of Pisagua, a small town in Chile's Atacama desert, that was the most important detention center for political prisoners during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, some 1,255 miles north of Santiago, Oct. 20, 2006. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

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)