Once a lovely old mansion sprawling in the hills of the posh Penalolen neighborhood on the outskirts of Santiago, the melodically named Villa Grimaldi became much more after September 11, 1973. Almost from the moment of US-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup, overthrowing the government, Villa Grimaldi in Chile was transformed into a detention center infamous for the brutal torture of at least 4,500 political prisoners.
Today, the Villa Grimaldi Park of Peace is a tourist attraction, in a sense. Those interested in the dark underbelly of Pinochet’s reign—often lauded for economic growth under the neo liberal auspices of active supporters like economist Milton Friedman and diplomat Henry Kissinger—come here on tours geared to the politically and historically astute traveler. Along with the Memory Museum, National Stadium and Government Palace, Grimaldi stands to remind people at what cost came that fiscal expansion.
Prisoners were generally captured in the middle of the night by strike teams and brought to the large, somewhat isolated compound in trucks. Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a human rights activist, remembers waking up to her eyes and mouth being taped shut, then being wordlessly beaten and thrown into a cell with several other women, including her mother, many of whom were then systematically raped. She was eventually released thanks to intervention by influential relatives.
Other prisoners were not so lucky. After “The Welcome,” as guards called the initial beating, they would be strapped to a device that tortured them with electricity for several hours, whether they talked or not. Afterward, they would be killed, detained for further torture (suffocation, boiling water and beatings) and in some cases turned. Pedro Matta, a law student at the time, remembers being interrogated by a former comrade, who told him guards had first tortured his wife, and then his baby, before he changed sides. “What would you have done?” the man asked.
Prisoners who cycled through Villa Grimaldi were never officially acknowledged by the government, and were instead added to the list of those who “disappeared.” Almost 300 were never recovered. This was only one of many such torture centers operating throughout the country during Pinochet’s rule.
Visitors to the memorial which opened in 1997, can see plaques commemorating the names of those tortured and killed here, and wander through the attractive old rose gardens, torture chambers and cells specifically designed to deny those inside sleep, rest or dignity. Though the original mansion has been, for the most part, torn down, exploring the sprawling compound can still consume several hours.