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Chile's Era of Brutality Preserved

A lush villa outside the capital is where hundreds died and thousands were tortured in the '70s during military rule. Now a movement led by survivors has made it a memorial to their suffering.

July 10, 1997|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTIAGO, Chile — The demons of memory stalked Pedro Alejandro Matta from the Mack truck assembly line in Hayward to the streets where he worked as a private detective to his bungalow in a San Francisco suburb.

There was no escape from Villa Grimaldi.

When the Chilean refugee closed his eyes, he was back in the concentration camp on the outskirts of Santiago, an elegant 19th century estate converted into the dictatorship's biggest clandestine detention center.

He was stumbling blindfolded through a gantlet of unending torment, natural beauty and human absurdity: The smells of prisoners' urine and of 5,000 rose bushes. The tower where guards tortured prisoners to death and sniped idly at cows in neighboring fields, whose carcasses they retrieved for impromptu barbecues. The "barbecue grills"--electrified interrogation racks where victims could hear off-duty captors cavorting in the estate's swimming pool.

The torture damaged Matta's shoulder. And his face was scarred by the worst injury of all: "The psychological pain of having felt the shame of belonging to the human race. Of learning what one human being is capable of doing to another human being."

Matta will never forget Villa Grimaldi, and he has made sure that Chile will never forget either. After 15 years in exile, he returned and joined fellow survivors in transforming the landscape that claimed at least 227 lives. The Park for Peace-Villa Grimaldi--a combined park and memorial that human rights monitors say is the first of its kind in Latin America--was opened in March by Chile's government.

Villa Grimaldi represents the clashes that persist beneath the surface in Chile and other former Latin American dictatorships--conflicts between past and present, military and civilian, left and right.

Despite the repression that killed as many as 3,000 people, former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet still heads the military here. A onetime commander of Villa Grimaldi holds the rank of brigadier general, protected by an amnesty law. Many Chileans see the military as heroes who laid the seeds for the nation's continent-leading prosperity.

But for many other Chileans, the remaking of Villa Grimaldi challenges an alarming tendency in the region to hide the past. In neighboring Argentina, for example, the Navy School of Mechanics functions on the Buenos Aires riverfront with no outward sign that, 20 years ago, it was a death camp where prisoners were dragged onto airplanes and then hurled into the Rio de la Plata.

Democracy and free-market prosperity flourish today in Argentina, Chile and other South American nations partly because pragmatic accords with former military rulers left atrocities unpunished. There is a delicate balance between moving forward and denying recent history altogether, as the Chilean housing minister explained when he inaugurated the memorial.

"We wanted to preserve this place in order for Chileans to conserve this piece of our history and reflect on the future with the firmness that comes from acknowledging the past,' said the minister, Edmundo Hermosilla.

The efforts of the government, neighbors and survivors prevented the site from becoming "just another condominium," Hermosilla said. The new Villa Grimaldi tells the stories of the place, the history of Chile and the mission of a man who traveled back into the depths of the horror.

Nightmarish Details

Matta, 47, is tall and rugged. His eyes slope slightly downward and his mustache droops, contributing to his melancholy look. On a recent tour of the park, he reconstructed his nightmare with wry humor and an oral historian's obsession with detail. He has memorized such things as the names of the four techniques with which he and other prisoners were hogtied and hanged from beams and the home addresses of former torturers whom he tracked down in comfortable retirement.

"There is a part of the population for whom this is the past, it is far away," Matta said. "They don't care what happened here. And when people don't care, that is when you are in danger that experiences like Villa Grimaldi can repeat themselves."

The estate was once a bastion of refinement. Built in the early 1800s, it was the headquarters of the Uruguayan ambassador's extensive farmlands outside the capital. Against the backdrop of the snowcapped wall of the Andes on the east, the Spanish-style main house featured a pillared facade and a surrounding array of fountains, a garden of statues hewn from Carrara marble, exotic trees and flowers.

In the early 1970s, the government of President Salvador Allende used Villa Grimaldi as a conference center that hosted receptions for Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

After the military overthrew Allende in 1973, Villa Grimaldi fell into the hands of the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), one of South America's most thuggish secret police forces.

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