For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the three-acre estate was a gathering place for many of Chile's artists and intellectuals. Over the years Villa Grimaldi's various owners hosted parties and cultural events. The structures included meeting rooms, entertainment halls, and a theater, as well as a school that was open to the entire community. It was a gathering place for many left wing and progressive cultural and political figures during the Popular Unity years, the period associated with the election of Salvador Allende, a Socialist, to Chile’s presidency in 1970.
This liberal atmosphere changed suddenly when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in a military coup d’etat on September 11, 1973. Chile's wealthy oligarchy, the Nixon administration, and the Central Intelligence Agency, were among the supporters of Allende's overthrow. The owner of Villa Grimaldi at the time of the coup, Emile Vassallo, was pressured to sell the estate to the new government in order to protect his family. This is one of the first examples of the state of siege that was enforced under Pinochet for the next 17 years. His regime began to detain thousands of political activists, students, workers, trade unionists, and any other subversive individuals who spoke out against his military government.
Plaque at Villa Grimaldi with the names of hundreds of people either missing from or killed there by Pinochet's secret police.
Villa Grimaldi was taken over by the DINA, Pinochet's secret police, under Colonel Manuel Contreras and became an interrogation center under the cover of an electrical utility company. It was referred to by the government as Cuartel Terranova, but continued to be referred to as Villa Grimaldi by the greater population.
An estimated 4,500 people were detained at Villa Grimaldi, and of those at least 226 "disappeared" forever. Victims included Carlos Lorca, the British physician Sheila Cassidy, the MAPU leader Juan Maino, the CEPAL diplomat Carmelo Soria, and future Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who was tortured with her mother. Prisoners were supposedly detained for interrogation but their detention usually lasted for long periods of time without explanation and many prisoners were subject to torture. According to the Rettig Report, they were kept in several different living situations: The Tower, a tall structure containing ten narrow spaces measuring 70 x 70 centimetres and two metres high in which multiple prisoners were held. The tower also contained a torture chamber. Apparently, people brought to the tower were detainees considered to be of some importance and whose stage of intense interrogation had finished. Many prisoners who went to the tower were never seen again. Chile Houses were wooden structures designed for solitary confinement. They consisted of vertical sections similar to closets in which the person had to remain standing in darkness for several days. Corvi Houses were small wooden rooms built inside a larger room, each containing a bunkbed. This was supposedly where prisoners stayed while they were undergoing intense interrogation and torture.
The forced voyeurism exercised at Villa Grimaldi has been likened to places like Abu Ghraib. Electric shock was the most common form of torture used by agents at Villa Grimaldi. Agents tied naked prisoners to a bare metal bed known as la parilla, or the grill, and shock devices were attached to sensitive parts of the body such as the lips or genitals. Other torture methods included hanging, underwater asphyxiation, beatings, burning, verbal abuse and general degradation. Detainees were sometimes drugged and hypnotized during interrogations.
By 1978, Villa Grimaldi was no longer a detention center. It was sold to a construction company which demolished the buildings with the intentions of redeveloping the estate into housing complex. La Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos de Peñalolén y La Reina (The Permanent Assembly for Human Rights of Peñalolen and La Reina) was a community led movement that found out about these plans and initiated a campaign to redevelop the land into a memorial of the lives lost there in the name of human rights and the preservation of historical memory.
Villa Grimaldi as a memorial site was first opened to the community on December 10, 1994. The Villa Grimaldi Peace Park was subsequently opened in March 1997.