Mitrione’s advanced torture techniques sowed unspeakable terror through the Southern Cone, and most of them outlived his creator to be perfected and improved upon, becoming commonplace shortly after his death. In the 1970s and 1980s, his innovative electroshock techniques derived in others that are used up to this day, and many of which were born in the South American climate of fear. These techniques, which forever influenced the modern political landscape after the Cold War, are portrayed accurately in the Metal Gear franchise, especially in most recent games, and torture sequences have become a hallmark in the sense that they usually signal a point of no return in the storyline, a section in the narrative where the characters’ true intentions begin to emerge and twists disrupt our previous understanding of the story as initially laid out for the protagonist. Thus, torture in the MGS series has become not only an aesthetic staple, but a significant part of its narration.
Here we shall take a look at some of the most common torture practices in general, and their depictions in the games.
Beatings comprise the most rudimentary form of torture for the purpose of extracting information. The advantages of this technique are mainly the fact that anyone can subject another person to physical punishment, eliminating the task of requiring equipment or training personnel for its use. The main disadvantages are physical exertion on the part of the torturer, the fact that a crude torturer may permanently harm the victim leading to its death, and the fact that if trained well, the victim has a harder chance of breaking down compared to other torture techniques.
Beatings were notable incarceration procedures in Stalin’s Great Terror, where the victim was usually beat naked for added humiliation. Most of his purged high-ranking party figures underwent these treatments before being shot, as in the case of Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria. Beatings were unusually effective in making arrested subjects confess to complete fabrications and fictitious crimes, which bordered on the impossible. This was done to have a bureaucratic record to justify the arrests and executions. There are countless stories of victims of Stalinism undergoing vicious beatings, and George Orwell himself depicted it in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, detailing the soul-crushing experience of political prisoners in the Stalinist through the now infamous Room 101 and the beatings that accompanied the process.
Beatings are generally featured often in the series, but nowhere near as graphically and detailed than in “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” (2004), where the sadistic Soviet colonel Volgin uses them for pleasure more than for their intended purpose, resulting in him being quite a useless interrogator.
The “parilla” (meaning barbecue in Spanish) was developed in the 1970s during Operation Condor and quickly became one of the most used methods of interrogation. “Parrilla” means the frame on which “asados” (barbecues) are placed to be grilled, and the terminology was used due to the similarity between that and the person strapped to the metal frame.
The “parrilla” consists of a large metal frame on which the victim is strapped to naked, so that the electric current traveling through the frame can be more effective. 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.
I couldn’t exactly tie Mitrione to this practice, but it is implied that he had a hand in the perfection of this technique (all of his torture techniques involved electricity and electroshock to important degrees). It can be assumed that the widespread use of these devices were in no small part thanks to him.
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 was fixed to the victim and a wire with a bare end or an electrode with a wooden insulating handle was moved around to touch different sensitive parts of the body, so as to cause a current to flow through the body between the two electrodes. For a male, the fixed wire was wrapped around the penis or was replaced by a conducting wire mesh bag that fit 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 wet steel wool pan scrub – and this electrode was inserted into the vagina. The torturer then attached 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 on the genitals 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 attached to the body.
Although there is no verifiable way to determine whether torture actually works to extract information, this type of torture technique made the torturers achieve several objectives, such as prevention from physical exertion (as in beatings) and weakening of interrogated prisoners, some of which were left with severe wounds and even died.
Massively used throughout Chile, the reputation of this device survives, having been one of the most feared methods of torture among the Chilean population, and it carries with it a stigma of fear and taboo. When asked in interviews about her torture in 1975, the former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet has been known to say she was “spared the parrilla,“ as a way of saying that her torture sessions were noticeably less severe than those of many other comrades.
Modern computer-controlled versions of this device were depicted in “Metal Gear Solid” (1998) and “Meta Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” (2001), both during very memorable sequences.
The “picana eléctrica” (electric baton) is a prod designed to cause electric shock when applied on a victim. Its voltage can be controlled, minimized or maximized, and thus can make a torture session last for different periods of time, with different degrees of pain.
Adapted from electric cattle prods, the “picana” is reported as having been created in Argentina around 1932, introduced by police chief Polo Lugones, son of the famous poet and novelist Leopoldo Lugones. It did not spread to other countries until “Operation Condor,” when it began to be used in all the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil). The folklore surrounding this torture technique sowed fear in citizens, and in my country nobody knew its horrors better than the Tupamaro revolutionaries.
The “picana” techniques were greatly improved under Mitrione’s direction, as mentioned in the previous section. He revolutionized its usage completely, and rendered it deadlier than it had ever been. Through carefully administered shocks in the gums and genitals, victims could be tortured repeatedly and with maximum pain enough for them to remain alive and give a confession, although discovering the precise amount of pain cost Mitrione several deaths, mostly beggars kidnapped from the streets.
The advantages of this technique are the accuracy, portability, ability for voltage to be manipulated, cheap production cost and ease of use of the main instrument required to perform it, the “picana.” Like the parrilla, this is one of the most well-known torture methods in all of South America, especially in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, so much that the word itself has infiltrated popular culture, firmly engraved in the minds of those unfortunate enough to undergo its intended purpose. In countries like Uruguay, there is still no worst insult than calling someone a “torturador” (torturer), often said to policemen and agents known to have been closely associated with the dictatorship, and this torture tool is the first one that springs to mind when dwelling in the scars of Uruguayan memory.
The picana was first used in “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops” (2006) and continued to be used in “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” (2010), and is featured in the upcoming “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” (2015).
While not a torture technique, truth serums sometimes form an integral part of the torture procedure due to the purpose of extracting the most reliable information possible. A “truth serum” is a colloquial name for any of a range of psychoactive medications used to obtain information from subjects who are unable or unwilling to provide it otherwise. Any information from the truth serum report is corroborated by further investigation. They have been used in the course of investigating civil and criminal cases, and for the evaluation of psychotic patients in the practice of psychiatry.
Truth serums have been used by the Central Intelligence Agency as seen in the US Army and CIA interrogation manuals declassified by the Pentagon in 1996. Russians have also been known to use it, but more on their own agents rather than enemy spies.
In the series, truth serums are either heard of or seen directly. Examples include Emma Emmerich injected off-screen in “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” (2001), Cunningham injecting Big Boss with one in “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops” (2006) and its most recent and probably most important depiction will be in the upcoming “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” where the character Huey Emmerich is injected with one during an interrogation, about a crucial plot point which is shrouded, as of this date, in absolute mystery.
Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment in which a prisoner is isolated from any human contact, though often with the exception of members of prison staff. Although not a form of active torture per se, it can cause severe psychological damage due to the isolation, resulting in hallucinations and even dementia. As such, it can be considered a form of passive torture.
The purposes of solitary confinement can vary, but it is used as a form of punishment for insubordination, as an example to other inmates or as a form of torture to extract a confession.
Individuals can crack on solitary confinement in a few weeks, although most take months. Throughout history, in both the capitalist and communist blocs, several people have proven strong enough to survive the conditions of this unspeakable torture, through sheer determination, imagination, exercising of the mind and hope. José Mujica, ex-president of Uruguay, resisted 14 years in prison, two of which he spent completely isolated in a dark well having only contact with the prison staff. He claimed that in such a state, even a spider can become a best friend. He also claims that he suffered from hallucinations.
I’ll give a non-leftist example so as to not sound biased; another famous case is the one of British communist Edith Bone, who spent 7 years of solitary confinement in a Hungarian prison after being arrested for presumed espionage. In captivity, she developed a series of mental exercises, including reviews of geometry, language and vocabulary to avoid insanity. She was verbally aggressive and progressively won minor victories against her jailers; she used these projects to maintain a stable identity during her long period in prison. When she was released in the 1956 student revolt she abandoned communism, forever. This is precisely what makes me cringe regarding torture for political ends, and I don’t want readers to think I support one end and criticize the other merely because of politics. These acts are heinous and must be properly denounced regardless of political ideas.
This type of torture was featured (perhaps) for the first time in the original Metal Gear, in the form of the prisoners Solid Snake liberates, who are shown to be alone. This trend continues until “Metal Gear Solid,” where Meryl, the DARPA chief and even Solid Snake himself are placed in solitary cells. However, it’s not until “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” (2014) that we see it at its most brutal, depicting the Sandinista guerrilla Chico in a solitary cage out in the open in Camp Omega, with fellow prisoners like Paz sharing the same punishment.
Possibly the most heinous of all, there are registered cases of dismemberment used as a legitimate torture technique, particularly used as an extreme warning to comrades of the captured subject more than for the purpose of extracting information. It could have been also reserved for most wanted subjects hated by key people in the government as personal revenges, or quite simply, for the purpose of sadistic gratification through extreme abuses of power and position. It should be noted that at least in the Western Hemisphere, this technique is rare and isolated, although it is more than likely that there have been numerous incidents we will never hear about.
Most prominent of all is the story of Miguel Ángel Soler, head of the Paraguayan Communist Party, who was captured by the Stroessner regime (enthusiastically backed by the US due to Stroessner’s staunch anti-communist views) and was tortured and dismembered alive with a chainsaw by the secret police. It should be noted that while his torture was taking place, Stroessner listened on the phone.
In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Big Boss’ right-hand man Kazuhira Miller is apparently dismembered after a torture session in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. While we still have to wait for the game to be released in order to confirm what truly happened to him (it’s probable he lost his limbs in an explosion, but hard to believe regarding the game’s themes), it should be noted that Soviets during the Afghanistan War could seldom capture Mujahideen rebels as they were very elusive, properly nicknamed “ghosts” in Russian (“dukhi”), and there were cases of captured Mujahideen being released by the Soviets after standard questioning. Thus, it would be inaccurate to portray this, although Kojima may be paying tribute to films he’s been known to like, such as Rambo. On the other hand, Soviet soldiers were the ones captured by the CIA-backed Mujahideen (future Al-Qaeda terrorists and children of US foreign policy), and although most were mercilessly killed for being infidels, some still live in Afghanistan after befriending their captors, and have even converted to Islam.
Afghan barbarism and treatment of Soviet soldiers is well-documented, and I decided to share this insight by a British SAS member in order to at least, redeem the reputation of Soviet soldiers who, no matter whether you think their intervention righteous or not, did their job regardless and faced gruesome odds such as the following:
“You see a lot of sickening sights in the SAS, an awful lot. I can stomach most things, but this was truly nauseating. A body was lying on the ground. You could tell it was a body from the congealed blood that stained the stony ground in circles around it, but it was barely recognizable as a human being.
The torso had been mutilated. The limbs stomped a mash of ruby red flesh and splintered bone. The head had been kicked off and used as a football. No features could be made out; no eyes or nose were left on this gruesome, bloody skull – just a few remaining wisps of blond hair that gave the clue as to who this once was: a Russian crewman on a Hind E helicopter.
The Mujahideen had shot down his aircraft just half an hour earlier. God knows how badly he had been hurt when it had crashed into the trees just outside the Afghan village, but he had clearly tried to crawl to shelter. The villagers had got to him first and showed no mercy.
They had attacked him with their boots, with knives, with crude farm tools. Now they circled, panting, swathed in sweat, jostling to crow over the victim, their hands and clothes stained with his blood.
I felt bile rise in my throat. Somewhere, at the edge of my memory, I recalled some lines from Kipling’s ‘Young British Soldier’:
‘When you’re lying out wounded on Afghanistan’s plains,
‘And the women come out to cut up what remains,
‘You roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.’”
I don’t know for the moment what truly happened to Kaz, but in case Kojima settled for the comfortable and unrealistic approach of making Soviets in The Phantom Pain look straight out of a Rambo film (especially when it was the Mujahideen the faction doing most POW atrocities) just to pay some silly homage, then the credibility of his story-telling has sure suffered a lot since the brilliance and historical accuracy of Peace Walker, but that’s beyond the point (as I always say, I don’t care for Soviets being put under a bad light as long as there is historical accuracy to its depiction). What matters is that at least, there is a mainstream videogame franchise honest, serious and bold enough to depict these themes in the first place, regardless of the characters’ apparent political ideology and the games’ perception of real historical and political themes.