Exposing the Crime of Torture


Attorney Hiram Villagra is a member of the Corporation for Defense of the Rights of the People (CODEPU) legal staff since 1986. He represents 40 former prisoners of Villa Grimaldi as plaintiffs in criminal complaints for the crime of torture.

Interviewed by Memoria y Justicia, May 2003

Factories of Terror
Repressive agents of the dictatorship subjected prisoners to torture since the very day of the military coup, September 11, 1973. Later torture was institutionalized by the DINA, the Comando Conjunto, and by the CNI secret police. It reemerges during the years of protest in the 1980s. Torture takes place under different contexts. It is important to point out that all political prisoners were subjected to torture. Not only did they endure unjustified political imprisonment but also direct torture. This alone makes them victims of human rights violations and gives them the right to demand and agitate the issue.

Within these former political prisoners subjected to torture, the survivors of torture centers are key. Their testimony allows us to continue filing cases against the factories of terror such as Villa Grimaldi, Venda Sexy, Jose Domingo Cañas, and other such places in which an entire structure existed to systematically apply torture. These were true torture factories designed to produce a determined result: confession, demoralization, and fear with the object of facilitating the break up of opposition to the military regime.

The torture centers involved the planned use of a facility for the purpose of exterminating a group, serve as secret prison, and generate serious effects of forced disappearance upon a particular social group. Therefore, the criminal methodology unit, the extermination unit, and the unit of perpetrators are one single team that act in concert with each other, which makes the issue complex.

Witnesses and also Victims
With the first criminal lawsuits filed against former agents and officials of the DINA, the former political prisoners who had been held in secret torture centers participated in the cases as survivors, testifying from their condition of witnesses. In most cases, they viewed themselves primarily as witnesses to the disappearance and execution of their friends. The first associations of former prisoners were organizations of survivors of the various DINA detention and torture centers. The primary purpose of these organizations was to contribute to the search for the whereabouts of the victims of forced disappearance.

In two criminal complaints, one filed in 2001 with the Ninth Criminal Court for torture at the Aviation War Academy (AGA) and the other filed in 2002 for torture at Villa Grimaldi, our aim was to win recognition of torture as a crime in and of itself. All survivors experienced extremely serious situations. And there we have a paradox. Killing is acceptable under certain circumstances but torture is never tolerated. All international pacts have clauses condemning torture. The penal reproach for the practice of torture is high in international law. Later torture was incorporated as a form of genocide, first, in the Convention for the Prevention of Genocide [ratified by Chile in 1953]. Later it was included in the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment [ratified in 1988 by the military regime with reservations, which were removed in 1991].

Zero Tolerance for Torture
However, the social and political reproach regarding torture is quite lower. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions do not consider the specific issue of torture; in fact, most have excluded it. Torture was viewed as a minor issue when the first criminal complaints were filed. The first draft of the Argentine due obedience law was strange because it excluded persons who perpetrated aberrant and inhumane acts. Subsequently, the question arose: "Do aberrant and inhuman acts include forced disappearance? And torture?" That torture was not considered seemed to imply that it does not in the category of an inhuman and illegitimate act. We have the distinct sensation that torture does not have a social reproach.

An issue that concerns us is the tendency to downplay the importance of torture, and this has to be dispelled. It is a serious issue that has not received the attention it merits. The number of victims of torture is very high, much higher than the number of persons who disappeared or were executed at Villa Grimaldi. Many victims of torture are witnesses in the cases because they saw a prisoner executed in Villa Grimaldi or saw a prisoner whom later disappeared from Villa Grimaldi. In the course of narrating what they observed as witnesses, they also testify about their own torture. This produces a very complex and unique situation, as the witnesses are also victims of crimes.

Child Hostages of the DINA
Two major types of legal cases arise from Villa Grimaldi: one on behalf of survivors and the other for executed prisoners. Another group that merits particular reproach is the case of child hostages. A criminal suit was filed for a group of minors who the DINA took as a means of pressuring their parents. Plaintiffs range from Macarena Aguilo who was 3 years old to Tito Peña and Hugo Chacaltana who were arrested at 16 and 17 years of age, respectively.

Generally, two situations affect the children. The older child was punished for his or her own political participation but was also utilized to strike against a nuclear family with deep political participation. Hugo Chacaltana, for example, is a nephew of Atilio Ugarte Gutierrez, a victim of the Caravan of Death in Copiapo. The other situation was that of minor children employed explicitly as hostages. The DINA took children as hostages in order to pressure their parents. Such was clearly the case with Macarena Aguilo as well as two sisters, Lena and Casandra Parvex, who were 3 and 7 years old, respectively.

Beyond the extreme cases of children forced to listen as their parents were being tortured, I am firmly convinced that merely bringing a child into the atmosphere of Villa Grimaldi is a form of torture. Although this situation was not taken up in these complaints, that child will hear screams, will see bleeding people, and will see people pass through the halls with their heads covered. This is the second subject of the complaints and the plaintiffs have testified extensively. Macarena Aguilo and the Parvñex girls have testified in court. It has been difficult for them, as they live in exile and are adults today. Macarena Aguilo is mother of a three-year old, the same age she had at the time of her abduction when she was taken to Villa Grimaldi. It is very important that torture be recognized as a crime against humanity, especially in the abduction of minors used as hostages.

Because they survived torture, the testimonies of former prisoners are vivid accounts that carry great weight as witnesses. The premise of concentrating on a few so-called emblematic cases involving loss of life is shattered because the testimonies tell us that that the practice of torture as exercised against Chileans was a massive form of violence.

The investigations are progressing in these cases and we believe we will have indictments for the crime of torture at Villa Grimaldi in the near future.

See "In Focus: Villa Grimaldi"



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