Asunción: Paraguay’s house of horrors

Without the multimedia sophistication of similar former detention centres turned museums in Addis Ababa or Tehran, Asunción’s Museum of Memory is a low-key affair but no less sinister. Housed in a small, unremarkable colonial building in the old Asunción, this modest museum was once the centre of government-sponsored torture and murder of political opponents during el Stronato, the dark period of Paraguayan history presided over by General Alfredo Stroessner.

Stroessner, son of a German immigrant from Bavaria and a Paraguayan peasant woman, was one of the region’s old-style strongmen. His regime – from his military coup in 1954 until his ouster in 1989 – was the longest dictatorship in the recent history of South America. While his loyalists claim that Stroessner who valued stability brought Paraguay into the modern world, his 35-year authoritarian rule saw at least 423 of the regime’s opponents killed or disappeared.

Compared to the excesses of Stalin, Hitler or Mao, these may seem like small potatoes but Paraguay is a small nation and these horrors are just that to Stroessner’s torture survivors and relatives of those murdered by his secret police. The number of victims of the regime was far lower than even those in neighbouring Argentina or Chile, both of which, like Paraguay, harboured prominent Nazi refugees, but human rights groups say Stroessner’s interrogation methods were no less brutal.

The museum’s exhibits are selected from some 700 000 documents created by the regime’s security forces and discovered in 1992 in a locked room of a police station in Asunción. All signage is in Spanish, but the photographs of victims and instruments of torture – whips, electric shock machines or tools for pulling out fingernails – speak for themselves, as does the documentary evidence of American collusion with Stroessner’s right-wing government against its leftist opponents.

In the back are the cells where prisoners were kept, with dummies wrapped in rags representing their bodies. Parked at the entrance is a red Chevrolet, the car used to bring detainees to this former centre of torture – a symbol of fear. The museum draws its guides from the shrinking pool of survivors of this infamous facility. A random newspaper clipping about the human bones found under the bathroom of a house that once belonged to Stroessner completes the picture.