Since massive protests started in October, Chilean police forces have committed widespread human rights violations with impunity, including eye mutilations, torture, arbitrary detentions and sexual abuse.
On 8 October 2019, speaking on the TV programme Mucho Gusto, Chilean president Sebastián Piñera described the country as a ‘real oasis’ and ‘stable democracy’ with a ‘growing economy’. Ten days later, Piñera had fallen into a nightmare: across Chile people were mobilising against his government, not only due to a 30-peso (three pence) rise in public transport fares, but to fight the social inequality and neoliberalism imposed during General Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Piñera chose to answer these demands with repression. During peaceful student protests, Chile’s police force, the carabineros, shot a teenaged girl in her leg, causing profuse bleeding. The resulting Pandora’s Box exposed the carefully-constructed lie repeated in Piñera’s Mucho Gusto address: the reality is Chile is Heaven for a few but Hell for many. When Piñera implemented a State of Emergency on 19 October, in an attempt to contain the protests, it became clear that Chile had neither a stable democracy nor a growing economy.
After a week of mass mobilisations that set the country on fire, Piñera called for a ‘return to normality’, as TV coverage of the protests faded and daily routines gradually began to reappear. Nevertheless, this raises the question: what was ‘normal’ in Chile before 18 October?
Although local and international organisations – including the United Nations – released four lapidary reports condemning human rights violations in Chile and called on the government to confront the escalation of abuses committed by carabineros, Piñera turned a deaf ear. Instead, he implemented a series of measures to strengthen repression, including a law against hood-wearing and an anti-barricade project.
Human rights violations in so-called ‘democratic’ times are not a novelty in Chile. On 14 November 2018, people took to the streets to protest the police killing of an indigenous Mapuche farmer, Camilo Catrillanca. One month earlier, the secretary of a fishing union, Alejandro Castro, was found dead in the port city of Valparaíso. While mass media reported that Castro had committed suicide, there was strong suspicion of state responsibility.
Unfortunately, the deaths of Castro and Catrillanca are not isolated cases. Similar characteristics can be identified in, among others, the killing of Mapuche activists Macarena Valdés in 2016 and Matías Catrileo in 2008. Human rights violations in Chile, especially against state opponents, are often covered up with the tacit support of mass media.
Furthermore, the fact that people go to protests with lemons, bicarbonate water and gloves to resist the effects of teargas reflects the naturalisation of police violence. Beyond the use of teargas, carabineros habitually engage protesters with water cannon trucks, rubber bullets and physical aggression. Since 18 October 2019, state violence has intensified, with police employing the particularly disturbing tactic of firing rubber bullets and teargas at people’s heads.
Other violations documented by the National Institute of Human Rights (Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos, INDH) include arbitrary detentions, sexual abuses during detention, torture, excessive use of force, the erosion of press freedom and suspicious deaths.
Blinding protesters: ‘it’s mutilation’
On New Year’s Eve in Valparaiso, protester Diego Lastra lost an eye when he was shot in the face with a teargas cannister. On the same night, independent photographer Nicole Kramm lost 80 per cent of vision in her left eye, due to an unidentified object fired by carabineros in Santiago. Vicente Muñoz, a first-year theatre student from the University of Chile, lost his left eye on 11 November. As he left Santiago’s Plaza de la Dignidad, the epicentre of the protests, he was shot from less than two metres away. Three days earlier, Gustavo Gatica, aged 21, lost both eyes while taking pictures during a protest attended by 75,000 people. The frequency of cases suggests carabineros have deliberately broken protocol to repress peaceful protesters – or people who are not protesting at all.
Eye mutilation has become an iconic symbol of police violence and the number of victims increases day by day. As reported by CIPER, the government’s omission of warnings raised by human rights defenders over the number of eye-mutilations – which had reached 360 cases by 3 January – could form the basis of charges in a lawsuit against Piñera. Indeed, as pointed out by Law 20.375, the Head of State is primarily responsible for violations committed by state bodies.
Additionally, according to Amnesty International investigator Pilar San Martín, the government is consciously attempting to harm people based on the modus operandi of carabineros. Indeed, even if the use of rubber bullets has been limited since 20 November, the number of people presenting eye traumas has continued to increase mainly due to the impact of teargas bombs.
Located in the heart of Santiago, in Plaza Italia – now renamed by protesters as ‘Plaza de la Dignidad’ – the metro station Baquedano will never be the same. The station was set on fire by protesters after it was used as a torture centre during the State of Emergency. During the intense early weeks of protests, the station became a headquarters for carabineros, without any signal identifying its new function. As reported by CIPER, on 22 October Nicolás Lüer was taken into the station’s underground tunnel and heavily beaten by carabineros. He says he saw other detainees with their hands tied and hanging from pipes.
Although the public prosecutor dismissed allegations that carabineros were torturing people inside the metro station, there are no security cameras in the tunnel confirming the version offered by Carabineros de Chile. Another alleged victim, David Muñoz, was beaten and shot in his right leg on the same day inside the metro station. The bullets removed from his body were made of steel and coated in rubber.
According to the INDH, three adults and a child were hung by their wrists – described as ‘crucified’ in the press – from the aerial of a Santiago police station during the night of 21 October. A student in the city of Antofagasta told El Desconcierto that he was detained by carabineros while waiting for a bus to go to work. He was tasered, beaten up and tortured during an interrogation, alongside other detainees. Moreover, the student said that carabineros kept his ID card and that a police officer was present while a doctor attended him in a clinic. The diagnosis was that he had soft injuries but no sign of torture. The INDH presented 476 lawsuits in defence of 568 victims of torture between 19 October and 30 November.
The Piñera Government has defined the current situation as a ‘social crisis’. This inappropriate definition designates responsibility to the population rather than to the violent and unequal economic and social model. The elevated number of human rights violations imply a crisis within neoliberalism itself, of a system increasingly viewed as illegitimate and which can only endure through force. When the population no longer wants carrots, the government resorts to the stick.
There will be a special focus on Chile at Alborada’s London event ‘Latin America Uncovered’ on Saturday 29 February. The day will include.
Alborada co-editor Nick MacWilliam and Roberto Navarrete (director of Chile’s Student Uprising), both recently returned from witnessing the social struggle that has engulfed Chile since October, discuss their thoughts on where the movement goes from here and what challenges it faces.
6.15pm: Panel Discussion on ‘Trump, the Media, and Latin America in 2020’: Joining us will be Matias Orellana, who has become a symbol of resistance after losing an eye to police violence in the current Chile protests. He will discuss his experiences and provide an insider’s account of the movement. Alborada founder and co-editor Pablo Navarrete who has also recently returned from Chile will speak about the role of independent media in Chile and outside in denouncing the government human rights abuses taking place.