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Sexual violence, torture and Chile’s struggle for historical memory

Activists are battling the possible demolition of a notorious clandestine detention centre, hoping to transform it into a memorial. Español Português

Katia Chornik
Katia Chornik
7 October 2019
Recent photo of what the former torture centre Venda Sexy looks like now. Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales de Chile, All Rights Reserved.

An otherwise unremarkable house on Calle Irán, in south-east Santiago, Chile’s capital, has a sombre history. The two-storey building was used to detain, torture and exterminate political opponents under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). The widespread use of sexual violence against detainees, blindfolded at all times, prompted its macabre name of Venda Sexy (Sexy Blindfold), allegedly coined by perpetrators.

Women were particularly targeted for sexual abuse, suffering rape, forced pregnancies, abortions and sexual slur. A German Shepherd dog called Volodia was trained to rape inmates. Female and male prisoners were also subjected to beatings, hangings, electric shocks, Russian roulette, asphyxia and deprivation of sleep, among other torture methods. Prisoners called the secret detention centre La Discothèque due to Pinochet’s agents blasting loud music at all times.

According to the association of survivors, at least 85 political prisoners were held here between 1974 and 1977. More than a quarter of them (23) were killed and made disappear. They were among the 41,470 victims of political detention, torture, forced disappearance and extra-judicial execution perpetrated by Pinochet’s regime across 1,168 detention centres — crimes that in many cases, as Amnesty International notes, are still waiting for truth, justice and reparation to be served.

Following decades of campaigning by survivors, in 2016 the State granted the property Historical Monument status

Venda Sexy has been in private hands since the end of the Pinochet era. Following decades of campaigning by survivors, in 2016 the State granted the property Historical Monument status. But the murky sale in April of the property by its owner to an estate agent has angered survivors and activists hoping that Venda Sexy might finally be turned into a memorial centre open to the public.

Moreover, there are fears that the former detention centre will be demolished, erasing not only an important site of memory but also a key to understanding the origins of the ongoing gendered violence carried out by the State against political opponents in present-day Chile.

Memory for sale

Businessman José Saravia bought Venda Sexy in 2005 and lived there with his family until recently. In 2016, the State offered Saravia the valuation price of 356,000,000 Chilean pesos (US$495,765), but he demanded 486,000,000 Chilean pesos (US$676,803) and refused to negotiate a lower price. However, in April this year, Saravia, who owns the company Aluminios Centauro Limitada, sold the house to real estate firm Sociedad de Inversiones Arriagui Limitada for just 211,000,000 Chilean pesos (US$293,838).

Image of victims of Venda Sexy torture house. Daniela Fernández Romero, All Rights Reserved.None

This deal happened despite Chilean law giving the State priority in acquiring privately owned Historical Monuments if they come up for sale. Responding to a Freedom of Information request filed by survivors, the National Monuments Council said it was not informed of the sale and that it is currently liaising with two ministries to find a solution. It is unclear why Saravia decided to sell the house for less than half the money he previously asked of the State, or why a real estate firm would buy a property whose bloodstained history is so notorious.

Since the news of the sale became public in August, activists have organised various protests outside Venda Sexy, with placards reading La memoria no se vende (Memory is not for sale). Survivors believe that those selling and buying Venda Sexy are seeking to prevent it from becoming a public site of memory. Many fear the property will be demolished, as with other notorious centres for political detention and torture of the dictatorship, such as Villa Grimaldi and José Domingo Cañas 1367.

Captive songs

My own connection to Venda Sexy is both personal and professional. As a child, I had scant knowledge of the political violence of the Pinochet era. We lived abroad, and my parents, political exiles, told me little. It was only as a teenager in the 1990s, after we returned to Chile, that I began to comprehend the magnitude of what happened in the detention centres of Pinochet’s regime.

Remembrance act outside Venda Sexy in protest of its potential demolition. Daniela Fernández Romero, All Rights Reserved.None

Against their wishes, I accompanied my parents to an ecumenical memorial service held outside Venda Sexy. They had been imprisoned there, and this was the first time they had returned. Standing outside on a grey evening, the painfulness and emotion of that experience for them can hardly be described.

Attending the service and meeting other survivors also had a profound impact on me. At that time, I was studying the violin and learning that music was so prominent at Venda Sexy, as a backdrop to and even a component of torture, shocked me. Later, this was to spark my long-lasting interest in collecting songs and memories of musical experiences in political detention centres, many of which form part of a digital archive I have compiled.

Although Pinochet’s agents used music against political prisoners in several detention centres, this practice seems to have been applied the most systematically at Venda Sexy. For survivor Beatriz Bataszew, the loud, constant music “was noise, except for one song that is engraved in my mind.” The song was “Hoy canto por cantar” (Today I sing just for the sake of singing), popularised by New York-born Puerto Rican singer Nydia Caro. “The officers from the DINA secret police amused themselves with it”, Bataszew recalls. “They would say to us “sing” because singing also means grassing on someone”.

Another survivor, Elías Padilla, told me that “they played Radio Concierto FM throughout the day. It was something very strange, absurd, contradictory, even shocking. You could hear the musical hits of 1974, like those of Barry White or Charles Aznavour, while they were torturing you. In addition, music silenced our cries and laments”.

But as in other political detention centres I have researched, prisoners at Venda Sexy also used music as a form of self-expression, communication and resistance. Such was the case of Ana María Arenas who, after being brutally tortured, sang a Mexican bolero and a Christmas carol to let her friend, a fellow captive at Venda Sexy, know she was there.

Reckoning with sexual violence and memory

Venda Sexy has unique historical importance as a site of torture and resistance. But it also serves as a reminder of the gendered violence perpetrated by the Pinochet regime – and of the progress that Chile still is yet to make in this regard.

Sexual violence was an institutionalised aspect of torture under Pinochet and has been reported by nearly all female survivors

Sexual violence was an institutionalised aspect of torture under Pinochet and has been reported by nearly all female survivors. But perhaps as a result of society’s failure to fully reckon with this legacy, post-transition Chile has also been slow to prevent political sexual violence.

In November 2016, the Chilean Parliament passed a law on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Although this law makes reference to pain or suffering of a sexual nature, women survivors have lobbied successive governments since 2014 for separate legislation classifying political sexual violence as a distinct crime. Bataszew, one of the leaders of the Colectivo Mujeres Sobrevivientes Siempre Resistentes (Collective of Always Resisting Women Survivors), insists that such a law is necessary to prosecute past crimes and prevent them from being repeated today.

The Colectivo is perhaps the most vocal survivors’ group reclaiming Venda Sexy as a site of memory and denouncing its recent sale. Survivors’ groups, academics, and activists, among others, have proposed several ideas for the future of the property if the State manages to acquire it and make it available as a site of memory, similar to Londres 38, another former torture house. Bataszew imagines that Venda Sexy would be primarily run by women and envisages a broad consultation among survivor and feminist groups to decide the use of the building in detail.

The Colectivo is campaigning side-by-side with the Coordinadora Feminista 8M (Feminist Coordinator 8M). The latter is an eclectic group of females of all ages, from secondary school pupils to retirees, demanding women’s rights and gender equality. Formed in 2018, the Coordinadora has organised a “Feminist General Strike” on International Women’s Day (8th March) for two years running. This year’s demonstration, named “Super Feminist Monday”, involved targeted actions such changing the names of metro stations to prominent women often airbrushed from Chilean history as well as a march in Santiago that attracted 800,000 people, according to organisers. Demands for justice and truth regarding historical human rights violations are also stated in the ten-point programme of the Coordinadora Feminista 8M.

Bataszew is proud that the issue is of interest to other groups. “We women survivors of the Pinochet dictatorship are inheritors of past struggles, and connect with current struggles”, she told me. “That is why we need an active memory”. Demolishing Venda Sexy, or further sequestering it away in private hands for decades to come, would deny survivors and activists the opportunity to transform this sinister building into a space that can prompt society to reflect on the violations to human rights committed under Pinochet and the ways in which gendered state violence is still pervasive.

Javiera Manzi, a spokeswoman for the Coordinadora Feminista 8M, told me that the Chilean State continues to use political sexual violence against girls and women protesting for equal rights. “This is a systematic practice that unequally affects women”, she argued. A recent example of this was the detention of a group of female farmers, girls and a pregnant woman, who were forced to strip and were kept in a yard overnight without clothes, food or water. “There is a need for memory now and for the future,” Manzi added.

Protests for the recuperation of Venda Sexy continue. Last month, a multitudinous event outside the house featured speeches, performances of cueca sola (a variant of the national dance of Chile, danced by women whose loved ones are missing) and the theatre play Yo amo los perros (I Love Dogs, based on the story of an agent who trained dogs to rape women inmates at Venda Sexy). The event also included the unveiling of a tile commemorating women victims, which was created collectively.

"Here at Venda Sexy Popular Militant Women Resisted and Survived Political Sexual Violence Perpetrated by The Civic-Military Dictatorship"

Zabrina Pérez, a member of the women survivors’ group and the driving force behind the tile, explains why it was placed outside Venda Sexy: “Here, comrades lived the terror, but that terror also becomes strength and life.”

A second theatre play dealing with Venda Sexy, Irán #3037, has just premiered and will be on show at the Universidad Mayor in Santiago until 26 October. This play imagines the domestic life of the family that lived in the former torture house until recently.

While the future of Venda Sexy as a memory site is still uncertain, the various initiatives of activists and artists are showing a clear determination to keep the memory of the dictatorship alive and to build a society free from sexual violence.

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