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Thousands of Zombies in Chilean Society.

CHILE | Thursday, 28 June 2007 | Views [4765] | Comments [5]

I recently had the opportunity to tour Villa Grimaldi, which was once a torture camp during the early years of Pinochet's dictatorship. Our guide, Pedro Matta, was imprisoned and tortured there as a 23 year-old politically active college student. Hearing his first-hand experiences in Villa Grimaldi was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

One thing that has surprised me about Chileans is that they don't really talk about Pinochet's dictatorship. My guess is that the topic is hush-hush because the people are ashamed that such a brutal dictatorship is part of their country's recent past and as Chileans they wish to not be automatically associated with it. In some sense, it's a little like how I always brace myself for anti-Americanism and Bush-bashing whenever I admit being American, though I don't support our president.

The only Chileans I've been able to converse with about the dictatorship are young conservatives from my university. The conversation usually goes a little like this:

Me: "Chile is really modern and economically stable compared to many of the other countries I've traveled in in Latin America."

Chilean classmate: "That's because of Pinochet's economic programs."

Though this is, in part, true, I'm always taken aback by how matter-of-fact their response is. Pinochet resorted to medieval forms of torture to achieve progress. Yet another example of what my Latin American history professor refers to as the great Latin American paradox...

In any case, Pedro Matta is the first Chilean I've met who holds this viewpoint and is willing to share it. My first impression of him was that he reminded me of a Chilean version of my father. Though a few years younger, Pedro was of about the same stature and had the same thick mustache and eyebrows. He was politically active as a college student, as my dad and his friends were in mass campus protests against the Vietnam War. However, immeadiately when Pedro began to speak, the difference between him and my dad became apparent. I could sense that something terrible had happened to Pedro in his lifetime simply by listening to the way he spoke and watching the manner in which he carried himself.

Though it was extremely eerie to physically stand in the site of unspeakable human rights violations, I was impressed by the beauty of Villa Grimaldi. It was originally the estate of a wealthy family and though Pinochet tore down the buildings, ancient trees and stunning rose gardens still remain. Pedro told us about how upon seeing the rose garden, the officers decided to keep in intact. Ironically, this well-maintained garden was where the male guards took the female prisoners to rape them.

In the corner of Villa Grimaldi, there is a replica of the red, three story tower that stood during its prison camp days. It was used as a watchtower and the site of the most brutal torture. Pedro told us that the vast majority of the prisoners who were taken to the tower were disappeared. However, he does have one friend who was fortunate enough to survive.

The tower is located next to Villa Grimaldi's swimming pool. Pedro's friend told him that many nights she could hear the male and female guards having pool parties. The audacity of the guards to party while they weren't torturing the prisoners amazes me, as well as the fact that this is one of Pedro's friend's clearest memories. The capacity of the human mind to block out pain and focus on something trivial, such as the splashing and laughter of a pool party, is astounding.

One night a prisoner on the floor above Pedro's friend urinated while knocked unconscious. It leaked through the cracks in the floor. A breeze carried the smells of the garden into the tower as this happened. The scent of roses was stronger than the stench of the human excretement that rained down on her.

Pedro showed us a small hut where prisoners were locked up for extended periods of time, sometimes for weeks. The hut was about the size of a public bathroom stall. Not only was the closterphobia of being locked in the hut torture in itself, but its central location in Villa Grimaldi forced the prisoner to hear others being tortured. Pedro told us that through hearing the screams of fellow prisoners, most of whom were friends, he has been able to condition himself to fall asleep in any situation, however unpleasant it may me.

Of all the atrocities Pedro told us about, the stories of psychological torture had the greatest impact on me. One night after a torture session that left his hands permanently disfigured, Pedro was taken to a room where other victims were being held. A man offered him a cigarrette to ameliorate his pain. While they smoked and Pedro wondered what sort of outside connections this guy had to get cigarrettes, they exchanged stories. The man's wife had been tortured in front of him in an effort to get him to tell them names. When he refused, the guards began to torture his infant child. He still did nothing.

The man wanted to know what Pedro would have done in that situation. Pedro said that he didn't know. Tears began to run down his face when he told us that he still doesn't know. He asked us to think about what we would have done.

In my culture, the idea of a heroic man saving his wife and children from harm's way is a romantic cliché. Consequently, my first instinct was that I would have given up names. However, that would mean that others would suffered what I had suffered. More children would be tortured. This question has run through my head many times since my visit to Villa Grimaldi. Like Pedro, I still have no idea what I would have done.

Through this story in particular, I have been able to better comprehend the way the brutality of Pinochet's dictatorship has affected Chilean society as a whole. This type of human rights violation is not unique to Chile; many other Latin American countries suffered in the same way. The difference is that while in Argentina the majority of the imprisoned were disappeared, in Chile many more prisoners were released back into society.

Maybe the parents of the tortured infant told him what happened when he was old enough to understand. Or maybe not. In any case, the children, parents, and friends of the tortured have in turn have become victims of torture. Pedro refers to himself as a zombie, and says that thousands of zombies like him exist within Chilean society.

Tags: chile, politics



As a father of two young boys, the tale end of your story chills me to the bone ...

  simon_monk Jun 28, 2007 8:28 PM


travel is not always comfortable, but as you say, it can be powerful - it's one of the best reasons to do it.
I've been thinking for the last 24 hours since I read your blog what *would* I do? And I still don't know. But I got up this morning and gave my little girl a few extra kisses.

  crustyadventures Jun 29, 2007 11:13 AM


I enjoyed this article. I'm wondering if you have Pedro Matta's email. I'm a professor at USC and trying to reach him for copyright of the cover image of his tour book.



  Macarena Gomez-Barris Jul 12, 2008 9:22 AM


I went to the Villa Grimaldi today and had the same tour as you with Pedro Matta. I am left without words.

  Penelope Lawrie Apr 19, 2009 10:34 AM


I know Pedro Matta well and have verified his information. All that I see here is correct. He also has stated publicly that the people who did the torture were not trained at the School of the Americas, as is commonly alleged by the US left. He states that several were trained in Sao Paulo, Brazil by the police. Pedro Matta gives lectures, and I hope you will contact him and have a great experience for your class or group. He is a sensitive, truthful, and courageous man.

  Russell W. Ramsey Jan 18, 2013 11:04 AM



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