Villa Grimaldi – Parque por la Paz
The site of a former clandestine detention and torture centre under the Pinochet
dictatorship in Chile
from 1973, and now one of the main memorials in Santiago
commemorating this dark era of repression and brutality. It is more abstract and art-focused than documentary in nature, and more directed at an internal clientele of (relatives of) former victims and human rights activists, but also an important element in Santiago's dark tourism portfolio.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: The Villa Grimaldi was originally a private estate, at one point a restaurant even, but was taken over by the military, more specifically the secret police DINA, shortly after the Pinochet putsch in September 1973 and converted into one of the regime's main clandestine detention and torture centres (cf. Londres 38 and the Memorial Museum).
Officially the site was renamed "Cuartel Terranova" ('Newfoundland barracks') and it remained operational until 1978. Some 4500 political prisoners are believed to have passed through this grim institution – and well over 200 of them (were) "disappeared", i.e. most likely killed and their bodies disposed of.
Apart from regular brutal beatings, various torture techniques were employed here, Nnominally this was to extract "information" from the detainees – though you can't help but thinking that much of the torture was more for the "fun" of the torturers. Frequently included was the so-called "grill". That meant: the use of an iron bedstead onto which the victim was tied naked, and then subjected to electric shocks, including directly to sensitive body parts such as the genitalia.
Most victims belonged to the "usual suspects" categories of left-wing activists and intellectuals ... intellect is typically what right-wing military dictatorships fear most. But one somewhat different case that stands out was that of one Carlos Alberto Carrasco Matus. He was a prison guard having been coerced into the service of the DINA, and at one time was pressured into singling out victims to be detained and tortured. However, Carrasco was plagued by moral scruples and developed a more sympathetic attitude towards the prisoners, helping them with passing on information, or supplying extra food. When found out by his superiors, he became a victim himself. He was hung from the large Ombu tree in the centre of the Villa Grimaldi complex and beaten to death with iron chains.
In addition to a complex of small cells constructed outside the main Villa building, extremely small isolation cells were installed inside the tower. Originally this was a water tower, but during the time of the site's use as a prison also functioned as a watchtower. These cells were so small that the inmates could not even lie down but had to stand or sit upright – for prolonged periods of time, without food or water. Many of those prisoners selected to be held in the tower were amongst those who then "disappeared", i.e. it was the precursor to execution, and thus the most feared part of the whole complex.
A set of small buildings near the base of the tower, which originally had been in use as changing rooms for Villa guests, i.e. before it became a prison, was turned into a photo studio with a darkroom and an adjoining workshop for forging documents.
The swimming pool of the old estate was not only used by the guards for its intended purpose, i.e. for their own recreation, but also to hide tortured prisoners under a tarp during inspections, e.g. by the Red Cross.
After the site ceased being a prison, though it remained occupied by the secret services, the main Villa Grimaldi building itself was demolished at some point in the late 1980s, and other parts of the complex were dismantled too – clearly in an effort to destroy the evidence of what had been going on here.
Still, after increased public pressure, the site was eventually opened up in 1994, four years after the official end of the dictatorship and the return to democracy. The non-profit Villa Grimaldi Peace "Corporacion" formed in 1996, the Peace Park opened in 1997 and the site was declared a national monument in 2004.
The official name "Parque por la Paz" – 'peace park' – indicates the focus of the institution. It's more a cultural centre, as well as a research and archive institution, but not a public documentation centre in the sense that many other memorial museums around the world are. In fact, the Villa Grimaldi is more a pilgrimage site than a museum in any case.
The grounds have been landscaped and various elements of artwork added. There is also a stage/auditorium for commemorative and cultural events. But very little original material or structures of the former prison site remain. Informational material is very limited except for a few plaques and a small exhibition in one of the rooms of the former darkroom/forgery huts. They have, however, now added the provision of multi-lingual audio-guides.
But those in search of a really rich educational exposition of what happened in Chile
in (and around) the dictatorship period 1973-1990 should thus rather head for Santiago
's excellent Memorial Museum
and maybe leave the Villa Grimaldi as an add-on tribute visit afterwards.
What there is to see: One of the few original structures still in situ is the former main entrance – that through which arriving prisoners would have first entered the complex. This gate, however, is now permanently closed – as a symbol for not allowing anything like the atrocities committed here to ever happen again.
Instead you enter through a new gate further up the street, near the office and archives. As you come in, the landscaped park nature of the site certainly does not strike you as particularly grim at all, on the contrary. It's decidedly tranquil. But you don't have to probe much to get to the former nature of the site – at least if you can read Spanish or use an audio-guide (or have a translator/guide with you). There are two information panels near the start of the circuit around the site, one of which briefly outlines the history of the place in a time-line chart, the other providing an overview plan of the Park.
In addition there's a new scale model of the prison site as it would have looked like ca. 1975, i.e. with the original Villa Grimaldi at its centre and the added infrastructure installed by the military/secret police around it. This reconstruction model is based on survivors' witness accounts. It also helps picturing the purposes of the various points of the Park you'll see later on. The model, however, is a simple monochrome white – perhaps to take the grimness out of it. An older model (in colour) of the Villa Grimaldi can be found stowed away near the archives building by the entrance.
The only traces of the real Villa building are bits of the foundations and some steps, but nothing of the actual house, as this had been demolished by the military in the late 1980s.
From the old, now permanently locked entrance gate (a plaque in the ground and a large-scale sculpture in front make quite a point of that fact), you come to a kind of birch tree arboretum. The brick patterns in the ground represent the outline of the former cells.
A couple of such cells have been reconstructed for illustration – though these look like mere garden sheds and are locked, so you can't really get anything like an impression of what they must have been like – other than their small size indicating very cramped conditions indeed.
The locations of further buildings/rooms, including torture cells, are only indicated by means of tiled plaques set into the ground. The placing of these in the ground is deliberately intended to reflect the inmates' limited vision: as they were blindfolded most of the time, the ground was all they could ever (partially) see.
At the far end, in the western corner of the complex, is a curved wall of names of victims of the Villa Grimaldi site. Nearby still stands the original large tree, more precisely an Ombu tree – for those who'd care to know such botanical detail – which is actually a giant evergreen herb bush typical of the South American pampas. This tree's large, sturdy branches were used by the torturers to hang prisoners from and beat them.
The neighbouring rose garden contrasts with this grim story both in scale and sweetness. This garden is dedicated to the female victims of the former prison, and each rose is accompanied by a small nameplate on a stick.
You then pass a large patio under a tent-like roof covering rows of chairs, which is a space used for cultural events and memorial services. Finally you come to the far south-eastern corner of the complex. Here the dominating structure is the "torre", i.e. the tower that served both as a watchtower and special cell tract. It was here that the smallest isolation cells were located – being kept in these was a form of torture in itself. But worse still, prisoners transferred here typically went on to being "disappeared". Knowing this, the tower is probably one of the darkest elements of the whole complex – even though the present tower is actually a reconstruction too, and the inside is not accessible.
Right next door, however, there is a small exhibition room, housed in one of the two small original buildings left standing, which had served as a photo darkroom and a document forgery centre during the dictatorship years. The door was locked when we got there, though, but my guide asked someone at the office to unlock it for us. Whether that is normal procedure I do not know.
The contents of the exhibition consist mostly of personal items belonging to a selection of "disappeared" victims – in addition to a poster with a collage of portrait photos of such victims, giving them a face for the first time at this otherwise rather abstract memorial site. Amongst the personal effects on display are several moving items such as toys, letters, drawings, pieces of jewellery, as well as documents and even records and books (one a children's Christmas story in German!). One display cabinet is dedicated to the former guard-turned-prisoner-and-victim Carlos Carrasco (see background info
En route back to the entrance, you pass the original former swimming pool, now empty, and a row of poster-like memorial plaques along the wall. Next come a number of individual memorials that various political organizations/parties set up here. A couple of them are defiantly sporting communist
symbolism such as the archetypical hammer-and-sickle.
In the centre of the front part of the Park stands a large tilted cube, which is not only another monument, but also contains some artefacts that are possibly the darkest in nature of the whole site: on display in the only dimly lit small room inside the cube are items retrieved from the seabed of Quintero Bay, including rusty pieces of iron rail tracks. These rails were used by the DINA to weigh down victims that they threw into the sea, sedated and tied up, in order to "disappear" them, i.e. "dispose" of the bodies (cf. the "death flights" later employed to an even larger extent by the military dictatorship in Argentina
– see e.g. Parque de la Memoria
). One part of the glass display cabinet features a magnifying glass singling out a simple button. In this context, then, even such a simple item as a button, which must have been part of a person's garment, takes on a hefty dose of poignant darkness.
Finally, the Park is also home to an archive of oral testimonies and other material, housed in an ancillary building near the entrance, but this is obviously more geared towards researchers rather than ordinary tourists.
On the whole one can say that, as a dark tourism destination, the site derives its attraction mainly from its authenticity of place, but it is, after all, more a commemorative park
than a memorial museum
proper (unlike the elaborate Museo de la Memoria
in downtown Santiago de Chile
Also, the place is certainly not touristy. Our little group of three were the only visitors. At least, however, they now cater better for foreign visitors by providing multi-lingual audio-guides.
The site is located in a suburb of Santiago de Chile
, some 7 miles (11 km) to the east of Plaza de Armas, at Av. Jose Arrieta 8401.
Access and costs: a bit out of the way; free admission.
Details: If you want to get there independently you could use bus lines 513 and D09, or simply get a taxi (for much more convenience – they're not expensive in Santiago, and perfectly safe too). When I went (in December 2011) I had special arrangements made which included private transport (car with driver) and an independent guide/translator (as my Spanish is close to non-existent). These days, foreign visitors have it much easier (and cheaper) since audio-guides are now provided at the site, in a range of languages that includes English.
An cheap and sporty alternative for getting to this far-out location is going by bicycle – the company La Bicicleta Verde (see also under Santiago de Chile) can provide rental bikes as well as maps. They can also arrange special tours by car with an English speaking guide (that's how I did in back then)
– see this sponsored page!
Opening Times: daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (guided tours, in Spanish, by prior arrangement – check villagrimaldi.cl)
Admission free – but of course if you do what I did and arrangae for a private guide and transport then this will cost you (quite a bit actually); but I found it well worth the investment. Whether the new audio-guides cost a fee I do not know, but I would presume so, though it's unlikely to be much.
Time required: when I was there, with a guide, we spent well over an hour at the site; but without a guide I suppose you'd need less time, unless perhaps if you use an audio-guide (whose running time I do not know, though).
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
nothing in the vicinity, you'd be best off heading straight back to the centre of Santiago de Chile
- Villa Grimaldi 01 - Parque por la Paz
- Villa Grimaldi 02 - plan of the grounds
- Villa Grimaldi 03 - traces of the demolished villa
- Villa Grimaldi 04 - model of the original villa grounds
- Villa Grimaldi 05 - original gate
- Villa Grimaldi 06 - now permanently closed
- Villa Grimaldi 07 - where cells used to be
- Villa Grimaldi 08 - reconstructed cell
- Villa Grimaldi 09 - torture tree
- Villa Grimaldi 10 - wall of names
- Villa Grimaldi 11 - rose garden
- Villa Grimaldi 12 - tower and former photo lab
- Villa Grimaldi 13 - now an exhibition room
- Villa Grimaldi 14 - faces of the disappeared
- Villa Grimaldi 15 - personal items
- Villa Grimaldi 16 - German traces
- Villa Grimaldi 17 - documents
- Villa Grimaldi 18 - Carlos Alberto Carrasco Matus
- Villa Grimaldi 19 - swimming pool
- Villa Grimaldi 20 - memorial monuments
- Villa Grimaldi 21 - defiantly communist symbolism
- Villa Grimaldi 22 - cube with evidence
- Villa Grimaldi 23 - reappeared evidence of the disappeared
- Villa Grimaldi 24 - traces
- Villa Grimaldi 25 - office and oral archive