Chilean Chronicles, Part 46: The Incomplete Victory of Villa Grimaldi

The pool where DINA agents played with their children at Villa Grimaldi.

The pool where DINA agents played with their children at Villa Grimaldi.

Of all the many disturbing details at Villa Grimaldi, the former restaurant turned torture center turned peace park, perhaps the most unnerving was learning about the sounds of children playing at a pool.

By itself, of course, the noises of children joyfully splashing around in water with their parents need not be a cause for distress.

But Villa Grimaldi during the Pinochet years was no normal place.

The people hearing the children’s pleasure were prisoners being held, blindfolded and beaten, in a red tower just yards away from the pool.

A tower where prisoners were tortured at Villa Grimaldi.

A tower where prisoners were tortured at Villa Grimaldi.

Some of the parents were those who had tortured the prisoners, who were men and women, opponents real and imagined, old and young.

They made their victims stand in excruciating positions, shocked them with devastating volts of electricity, violated them in nearly every way imaginable before taking their children with them to relax and enjoy a weekend afternoon.

In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen wrote about the festive atmosphere and energy many Nazis brought to their assigned tasks of murdering Jews during the Holocaust.

We’ve also learned about the families of high-ranking Nazis who lived near death camps.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Rian Malaan’s book My Traitor’s Heart revealed tales of apartheid-era guards killing a black South African and having a barbecue while the man’s fleshed burned nearby.

But never before have I heard about this integration, this immersion, this utter lack of self-consciousness that all standards of decency and self-respect have been eroded.

I am not suggesting that there was virtue in the other examples of barbarity, but rather that for me this marked a new low.

It is important to note that we do not know that this happened because the DINA guards have told us that it occurred.

They and those responsible for the place destroyed everything that they could, trying, as oppressors and torturers and abusers often do, committing not only the first crime of violation, but attempting the second crime of denial.

Rather we know that it was constructed from the memories of the survivors.

So, too, was the small wooden shack built on the other side of the villa. Inside the shack are black and white sketches drawn by former detainees. One shows an inmate leaning down to comfort another who is prostate on the ground after having been tortured.

A sketch of a prisoner comforting another prisoner who has been tortured at Villa Grimaldi.

A sketch of a prisoner comforting another prisoner who has been tortured at Villa Grimaldi.

In this way, and in many others, Villa Grimaldi represents the triumph of memory over forgetting.

Set in a residential neighborhood in the neighborhood of La Reina, the compound, like its country, appears hermetically sealed from the world.

Passing through the red brick gate, one enters a green space whose air is filled with the cacophony of light green birds that look like parrots.

The reminders of the place’s bloody past are everywhere.

They’re in the gallery of black and white photographs that a pair of women with red shirts studied solemnly.

The sentence, “We cannot nor do we want to forget,” stands in large black letters underneath the images.

Two women look at a gallery of victims at Villa Grimaldi.

Two women look at a gallery of victims at Villa Grimaldi.

They’re in an enormous metal cube that stands on one of its corners. Opening the door and entering the dark interior, one sees the rusted pieces or railway tracks that were used to weigh down the bodies of murdered victims before they were thrown from helicopters by Pinochet’s minions into the ocean.

The tactic worked for many, but not all, of the victims.

The body of Marta Ugarte, a revolutionary opponent of the dictatorship, washed up in 1976.

The Chilean newspaper of record, El Mercurio, reported the death as a love affair gone wrong, but a crack had appeared in the facade of the wall of silence Pinochet had erected.

A picture of Ugarte, along with a handwritten letter, appears in one of the few rooms that still stood after the facility was destroyed. The room also contains photographs and articles and personal items of many others of the thousands killed during the murderous regime.

The names of the people killed are listed on a memorial wall in chronological order in a corner of the park.

The oppression went in phases, with the regime focused at different times on the communists, the MIRistas, or violent revolutionaries, and labor organizers. The early years of the regime, 1974 to 1976, saw the highest level of killing.

The peace park, which opened in 1997, has a rose garden dedicated to the women who were tortured and killed there.

A rose garden that honors women victims at Villa Grimaldi.

A rose garden that honors women victims at Villa Grimaldi.

Small mosaic plaques that each have a rose placed on their side dot the park.

Political parties like the communists have created memorials for those who suffered the same fate.

The door through which prisoners used to be brought is locked.

On the ground near the door is another plaque which states the door’s former purpose and declared that it will never be opened again.

The plaque on the door next to the door where prisoners used to be taken at Villa Grimaldi.

The plaque on the door next to the door where prisoners used to be taken at Villa Grimaldi.

A mosaic-covered stone in the shape of many leaves extends from the door instead.

Each of the elements in the park-aspects that include an international conference preceded by an adaptation of Euripedes’ The Supplicants and a poem by Oscar Hahn that concludes with the line, “The bone is a hero of resistance”-embody Chile’s effort to honor the victims and remember that deadly era in its history so that it never happens again.

Indeed, each name, each age recorded, each painstaking detail noted also represents a small victory for memory over oblivion.

Yet they are also incomplete.

This is so for several reasons.

The first and most basic is that, as Martha Minow wrote in the introduction to her book, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, any attempt at memory after coming together after mass violence is both necessary yet inevitably insufficient because it cannot undo the trauma that has already occurred.

The second is that, as Patricio Guzman shows us in Nostalgia for the Light, the record is incomplete.

There are still women combing the Atacama Desert and looking in the Andes Mountains for the remains of their loved ones.

There are still disappeared who have not reappeared, whose precise fates are not known.

Beyond that, there are many in Chile who do not want to allow themselves to know about their country’s past.

Dunreith and I asked the guard at Plaza Egana, the Metro station which lies a couple of miles away from the compound, how to get to Villa Grimaldi.

He said he didn’t know.

Neither did the woman who sold tickets at the station.

Or our taxi driver, a young man with a beard and ponytail, who drove us up and down the street on which Villa Grimaldi is located.

Barbara Azurraga, a guide at the villa and a Master’s student in history who is doing memory-related projects at Catholic University and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, said many Chileans do not know about the Villa.

The subject is taboo, she said.

She also explained that many policemen live a few blocks away from the villa and don’t like its presence or mission.

The retired military people who live near the policemen feel the same way.

And yet Manuel Contreras, the former DINA head who oversaw its brutal operations, is incarcerated nearby.

Chile lives in this state of incomplete victory, of half the country saying in a national poll that they want to turn the page on the nation’s past while 80 percent say they want their children to learn about the past.

Hugo Rojas and others have noted, serious questions remain about what the third generation will learn about the 1973 coup a half-century after it occurred.

But what is clear from going to Villa Grimaldi is that there is a cadre of folks in the country who have committed themselves to confronting what happened there, to documenting it and honoring those who were abused and killed, and to striving with all that they have to ensure that such torture does not happen again in this once and now again peaceful nation.

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