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.
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.
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 or was replaced by a conducting wire mesh bag that fit snugly over the penis and testicles. For a female, it was attached to an electrode – either a short metal rod or, for better electrical contact, a wetted steel wool pan scrub - and this electrode was inserted into her vagina. The torturer then touched the second electrode to different places on the body, such as the feet, mouth, nipples, breasts and genitals. 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.
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:
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 (May 1976 - 7 January 1979). Electric torture is widespread in the US in the form of the Taser, which is marketed as a less than lethal weapon, but is often used in ways that have little to do with lethal force substitution. Stun guns and electrified prison restrain devices are also widespread, and can be abused at any time the prisoner is said not to be following orders.
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.