‘We are survivors of torture not victims’ – Mario Venegas teaches others how to treat torture survivors

By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

Mario Venegas knew the regime deemed him a danger to the state when he was detained, without trial, due to his role in the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, or MIR – a Chilean political organization. During dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile more than 40 years ago, Venegas spent more than two years in four different concentration camps where he faced torture – both emotionally and physically.

His country ultimately expelled him and he fled to the United Kingdom. But he couldn’t find work in the U.K., and he was rejected from countless opportunities because he was marked as a “communist,” he said. He moved to the U.S in the hope of getting a better job and starting life over.

Mario Venegas never gave up – he completed his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of London, and worked as a chemist in the U.S. while fighting with various organizations to end human rights abuses such as politically sanctioned torture. He is a long-standing member of organizations such as Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization focused on human rights, and the Chicago Torture Justice Center, or CTJC, a community center for Chicago police torture survivors, among others.

Although he retired from his full-time job in the pharmaceutical industry about three years ago, Venegas remains active in his fight for human rights. He is also the father of three adult sons. His oldest son was born in Chile; his second son was born in England while his youngest son was born after Venegas moved to the U.S.

Venegas emphasized the need for anyone working with or helping torture survivors to be well trained to offer insightful responses. His interest in educating healthcare professionals stems from his own experience with a doctor who struggled to communicate with him.

“Soon after I moved to Chicago, I was just getting an EKG done,” Venegas said. “But having that test done… my mind flew back to 40 years ago when I was being tortured with electricity. The doctor kept telling me to relax but I just couldn’t. When I told him that I couldn’t because it reminded me of my torture, he didn’t know what to say and just left the room.”

The doctor sent a technician in to finish the job. Later, the doctor confided that he did not know how to react to “victims of torture.” Venegas was quick to correct him – saying that he and so many others were “survivors of torture, not victims.”

“(Venegas) has educated so many people on the importance of providing services and community to torture survivors,” said Joey Mogul, a partner at the People’s Law Office. “Because of him, we no longer call those tortured ‘victims’ but ‘survivors,’ recognizing they have resilience and so much to offer us all.”

Even though he left Chile some 40 years ago, Venegas still struggles to deal with the psychological imprint that his torture left on him. While the physical torture he endured was painful – near electrocution, water boarding, solitary confinement – Venegas said that his psychological torture is much harder to overcome.

“When they were torturing me, they played me a tape of a baby crying and told me that it was my son in the next room,” he said. “I’m lucky that it was just a tape and not really my son, but even now, when I hear a child crying out on the street or wherever, my mind flies right back to that moment.”

In reality, his son was safe and out of harm’s way. After decades of treatment, Venegas is now comfortable talking about his past and says that it is important to start a conversation about torture and torture survivors.

“People who have been tortured do not leave as the same people that they were before they (were tortured),” he said. “It’s hard to trust people when you’re a survivor. People need to know how to talk to survivors and how to treat them and help them.”

Mogul said that it his Venegas’s will to help others that inspires her the most.

“He, himself, has suffered harrowing experiences of torture under Pinochet’s regime in Chile,” she said. “Despite the pain he has lived through and continues to suffer, he provides so much help and support to other torture survivors. He is selfless in how much he gives to others.”

Venegas also emphasized the need to educate Americans about how the U.S. trained officers to torture others through organizations such as the School of the Americas, a military training institution focused on training officers from Latin American countries.

“The two officers who tortured me the most when I was back in Chile, both graduated from the School of the Americas,” he said. “But in the past, people didn’t understand about why I wanted to talk about torture in the U.S. They didn’t know that the U.S. was training all these people… But now there is more awareness”

The School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia, was closed in 2000 with ABC reporting critics labeled it “a school for dictators, torturers and assassins.” A new training facility opened at the same location.

In addition to educating people about human rights and torture survivors, Venegas also speaks to middle school and high school students to tell them about his story in the hopes of making them more conscious of and conscientious about torture survivors.

“There are not many people who are doing what I’m doing,” he said. “We don’t always see results right away, but it takes time. Education takes time. It’s not just a nightmare for us (torture survivors), we need to talk about it and get out of the denial. We need to accept it and tell people about it.”

Alice Kim, the director of human rights practice at the University of Chicago said that Venegas’s ability to galvanize action and change has helped to activate a new community of activists.

“Mario (Venegas) is someone you can count on to connect issues, find common ground and work towards a shared analysis of systemic problems,” she said. “He has an astute critique of the system and he puts actions behind his words.”

Photo at top: Mario Venegas is a survivor of torture and activist, who aims to increase awareness about torture survivors and the care that they need. (Aqilah Allaudeen/MEDILL)