Concentration camps and torture centers in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship, 1973-1990

The “Concentration camps and torture centers in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship” mapping project consists in diagramming every place used by military agents and civilian supporters of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, which was held between September of 1973 and March of 1990. To accomplish this, I will use a list of centers, camps, and public buildings used for torture and systematic killings provided by Valech Report I.

This list shows approximately 1170 places which are arranged by regions, and in 7 different groups: Concentrations camps, clandestine centers for detention and torture, civil public buildings used as detention and torture centers, military units used as detention and torture centers, investigation police units used as detention and torture centers, police units used as detention and torture centers, and prisons used as detention and torture centers. For this first approach, I will map the first group with an overall of 12 places from a list derived from Wikipedia of detention and torture centers in Chile during that period. I will include information related to the numbers of prisoners, and dates when these places operated as military centers. Additionally, I will attach images and links with references (if available) about the history of the places during the coup and/or nowadays. For the final version of this map, I will include the total number of detention and torture centers listed on the official records, plus it will also include a regional search feature. Thus, the user will be able to search not just by the type of place, but also geographically.

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Figure 1. First database I created on a spreadsheet. It contains the names, places, operation dates, and the number of prisoners of every detention/torture center between 1973 and 1990 in Chile listed in the Valech Report I. This database is grouped by type of facility.

This project is designed to be useful for different disciplines, backgrounds, and scholarly levels to use this tool whether for academic research, school work and other purposes, with a strong emphasis on high school teachers and students. It intends to facilitate discussion about human rights, systematic use of violence by the state, censorship, memory, and trauma, among other topics. With a particular stress on Chile, this project also attempts to start discussions about global and more contemporary issues resonating with Latin American history during the cold war, post-colonial approaches, and other modern connections such as human rights violations, and state violence.

Moreover, after 30 years, it is important to show how these places look in the present: some of them have become in museum houses, memorials, cultural centers, but the majority still functions as public buildings, private houses, or have even been demolished. It is important to mention that, even though the biggest detention and torture centers were of public knowledge, the majority of these places were clandestine, and therefore, their location are still unknown.

This map tool intends to be part of a larger project: a multimedia resource web page with proposed activities and content to help high school teachers in Chile to program and organize their classes related to Pinochet’s dictatorship. The educational curriculum in Chile is a national one, so this unit is expected to be taught in every high school in the country. This uniformity of content responds to a governmental necessity to create a sense of citizenship in future generations, but at the same time, it does not consider socio-cultural specificities of each region, city, village or neighborhood. In this track, it should be said that Chile is still a country with divided visions and strong feelings about the events that occurred after the coup in 9/11, so there is no consensus of positions: there is no right story to tell, and there is also no good way to tell it. This makes the task of teaching the dictatorship period an incredibly complex one. Therefore, creating tools to interpret raw data, such as geographic location, numbers of prisoners, and dates, can be helpful while lecturing and discussing complex topics such as this inside the classroom.

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Figure 2. Process of building the map. General view of Chile. The content has already been posted by using the first three groups of the Wikipedia list: concentrations camps (blue), clandestine centers for detention and torture (green), and civil public buildings used as detention and torture centers (orange).
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Figure 3. Zoom into Santiago’s map. Distribution of detention and torture centers in the capital city of Chile.

Specifically, the goals of this project are:

  • To make visible these places, which, after the return to democracy, instead of being memorialized, have been forgotten, ignored, and in many cases demolished. The visibility of these places can be approached on a national, regional, local, and even a domestic scale.
  • To create a tool for high-school teachers, students, and scholars who need to teach or research about this topic. By mapping these centers, it can be easier to visualize and compare them with other types of related information, such as concentrations of centers in urban/rural areas, north/south, dates of operation/ numbers of prisoners, historical facts, etc.
  • To produce the first approach for interpretation of these sites. As mentioned before, many places which served as detention and torture centers still exist, but without anything that points out the history behind them. In this way, they have been ignored for decades without any official recognition. By mapping these places it is possible to create awareness among locals (and non-locals too) about the existence of these sites (of which many were in nearby areas where people used to live or frequent without noticing them), related to historical sensibilities, and the relation of the placement of torture and detention centers inside and outside urban spaces.
  • To create a more interactive and user-friendly tool. Considering a large number of sites is necessary to present this tool with a very attractive and easy-to-use interface. In this sense, the predominance of the image for searching and exploring places inside the map can be useful to achieve this objective.

The primary and official source of information about detention and torture centers during Pinochet’s dictatorship is the Report of the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture (Informe de la Comisión Nacional sobre Prisión Política y Tortura) which is also known as Valech Report I (Informe Valech I). This report was released in 2004, whose objective was to try to make up for the shortcomings left by the previous National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación is commonly known as the Rettig Commission). The Valech Report I contains a development on the origin, mandate, legal framework and definitions relating to dignity, integrity, liberty and security of people. It also provides a description of the operations conducted by the Commission, about the process constructed for the collection of information of the situation of political incarceration and torture. Valech Report I also contacted victims to interview and evaluate their background to prequalify them for official recognition as victims of state violence.[1]

There are also other lists which circulate on non-governmental internet sites such as memoriaviva.com, archivochile.com, memoriamapu.cl, but, apparently, their data is also based on the Valech Report I, and oral histories of some of the detainees and survivors. Many of these lists are complete as detailed in the Valech Report I, showing up to 1170 sites (approximately), but others like the Wikipedia annex, Political centers for detention and torture in Chile (1973-1990), just show a selection of it. In this version 0.5 of this project I intend to use the data provided by Wikipedia, first, because it shows a brief summary of the list given by Valech Report I. This helps me as the project’s developer to have a first approach on how the final map is going to look, by noticing tendencies, clusters of sites, and to foresee future issues such as inaccurate addresses, and difficulty in mapping in rural areas. Second, the Wikipedia data is already organized by the name of the place, location, operating dates, and number of prisoners, which is the data that I am mostly interested in displaying on the map. Third, the arrangement of the data is particularly of interest to me, because it is not organized by regions –as expected—but is organized by building and site categories. This new form or categorization helped me to think about the possibility of display filtering options for the users of the final map, by geography and type of facilities, opening more ways of searching and presenting information. Fourth, many sites are shown in the Wikipedia annex also have Wikipedia web pages, which I can add later to the description of the places displayed on the map.

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Campo de Concentración “Ritoque” during 1985 and after 1990. Source: www.memoriaviva.com
Centro de Torturas Las Cabañas
Centro de Tortura “Las Cabañas”, Santo Domingo. Google Earth, 2016.

As I mentioned before, it is relevant to the project to add pictures of the places to the mapped sites for a better user experience with the tool. Unfortunately, there is no unified image database about this topic. Therefore, is necessary to search each picture one by one. But most places lack of images as many are/were military facilities (areas where taking pictures is not allowed), have been demolished or are difficult to access. A partial solution for this issue can be using Google Street to take a screenshot of the site (if the address exists, and also if Google Street is available in those areas).

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Figure 4. Mock up: the introductory page which will appear before the map is displayed. It will contain a brief summary of the history of the detention and torture centers during the dictatorship.
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Figure 5. Mock up: After the introductory page. The map will display a general view of the country with the pinned places. Each color will represent a different facility category. The user will be able to search by type of building and region by using the tabs and pictures at the left of the screen, using keywords on the search bar, or by exploring the map.

Another potential problem associated with the use of the images is copyright. Many pictures circulate on the internet without naming the photographer, which can lead to future issues. It is necessary to be careful, and choose images with ‘Creative Commons’ allowing the use of them for educational purposes.

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Figure 7. Results displayed within the interface.

Can mapping be political?

The act of mapping is a very subtle one. By pinning the sites, you can point out something that apparently looks minor to our eyes. A bunch of coordinates, which at first instance, are not very appealing further than giving us the exact position of something that is –or it was—there. In this case, mapping makes visible places where thousands of people were tortured and murdered by the state. Some of them are still missing. By showing a place like these detention centers, it is also to make a call of attention to sites that contains parts of the recent history of Chile, but they have been abandoned at the mercy of oblivion. How many times people have passed by one of these places but they have never known about it? Hence, how we can contribute to the development of civic education through the interpretation of these places? During these years for democracy, it has been little interest from the state to create an interpretative program for these places on-site. Many restitutive policies have been carried out, but with no real intention to open the past (and its data) in a more engaged way for the citizenry. Accessibility does not refer only to make data public, but also to make that data more intelligible. Here is the 0.5 Version of the Mapping Project:

Click HERE to experience the full screen version of the map.
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[1] Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos, Chile. Biblioteca Digital INDH, Informe de la Comisión Nacional sobre Prisión Política y Tortura (Valech I), http://bibliotecadigital.indh.cl/handle/123456789/455

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