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The Spanish word parrilla [paˈriʎa] means a cooking grill or barbecue of the type commonly found in South American countries. By analogy, the metal frame used in the torture was given the same name because of its appearance and because the victim was placed on top of it like the meat on a barbecue. The parrilla is both the metal frame and the method of torture that uses it.
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The parrilla was used in a number of countries in South America, including Argentina during the dirty war in the 1970s and 1980s and Brazil. In Chile during the Pinochet regime (1973 to 1990) it became notorious as a routine tool of interrogation.
The victim was stripped naked, then laid on his or her back on a metal frame, often a bed-frame. Straps were used to restrain the victim in a position convenient for torture, with legs spread and arms either above the head or away from the sides of the body. The straps were tightened to prevent movement. Methods of preparation included heavy stimulation of the genitals, often with vibrators and ointments that increase sensitivity, such as peppermint oil or various types of pepper.
Electricity was drawn from a standard wall socket and fed through a control box to the victim by two wires terminating in electrodes. The control on the box allowed the torturers to adjust the voltage and thus the severity of the electric shocks.
A variety of methods were used to administer the shocks. A common method, chosen to maximize pain and distress, was to use electrodes fixed to particularly sensitive parts of the victim's body for the duration of the torture session. In another method, a wire is fixed to the victim and a wire with a bare end or an electrode with a wooden insulating handle is moved around to touch different sensitive parts of the body in turn, so as to cause a current to flow through the body between the two electrodes. For a male, the fixed wire was wrapped around his penis head or was replaced by a conducting wire mesh bag that fit snugly over the penis and testicles. They would also insert a thin metal rod into his urethra. For a female, it was attached to an electrode – either a short metal rod or, for better electrical contact, a moistened steel wool pan scrub - and this electrode was inserted into her vagina. Other methods include metal clamps attached to the nipples, labia and clitoris of the women. The clamps would be plugged into an electrical unit and the voltage increased over time. The torturer then touches the second electrode to different places on the body, such as the feet, legs, torso, neck, mouth, nipples, penis head, breasts and clitoris. This caused excruciating pain, at both the place where the second electrode touched the body and in the penis or vagina of the victim. Damage was often caused where the movable electrode was applied close to the point where the fixed electrode had been placed. It also caused intense pain and violent muscle contractions. Typically the person being tortured was kept blindfolded to add to the sense of helplessness as it was impossible to predict where and when the moving electrode would next be touched to the body. This type of torture would continue for long periods of time, often over days and weeks.
Opinions differ as to whether any form of torture achieves the purpose of those who use it. Whether or not the parrilla was effective in that sense, it achieved a number of the torturers' objectives as effectively or more so than the other methods of torture available to them:
- The parrilla was easy for the torturers to use. Unlike beating and other forms of physical torture, it required no physical exertion on their part and the severity of the torture was finely adjustable by simply varying the strength of the shocks.
- It had a powerful psychological effect, even before any shocks were applied to the victim. Women, in particular, found the process of being prepared for a session on the parrilla degrading. For some women, part of their preparation was to be raped on arrival in the torture room in order to "soften" them. Sheila Cassidy wrote that she thought herself fortunate not to be raped as she knew other women had been. Even when the women were not raped prior to the parilla, many women found being forced to strip, being tied down in an exposed position, and then raped via the insertion of the electrode into the vagina to be sexually abusive and intimidating. Instilling this feeling of degradation in the victims was intended by the torturers. A part of the torture process was that both female and male victims were made to feel utterly helpless and in the power of their torturers.
- Its physical effects were severe. When shocks were applied, victims say the experience was indescribably painful. Sometimes the violent muscle contractions in the restrained limbs caused them to fracture. Some prisoners even died.
Elsewhere in the world
Electric shock torture has been, and still is, used in many places in the world, and often the victim is restrained on a frame or table. Only in South America was this type of torture called the parrilla. Metal bed frames connected to car batteries were used for electrocution in Tuol Sleng during its existence as an extermination center in Democratic Kampuchea.
The use of the parrilla has declined in many places where it was once common. In Chile it is no longer used, but its reputation survives. It appears to have been one of the most feared of all the methods of torture, possibly because many prisoners suffered it and it suited the authorities to publicize its widespread use. As a result, it has achieved an almost legendary status. For example, the former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, has been asked in interviews about her own torture as a young woman in 1975. She says she was 'spared the parrilla', so indicating in a single phrase that in her opinion her tortures were less severe than those of many of her fellow Chileans.