Chile: No More Murders, Torture, or Sexual Violence Against Protesters

| Resist!

Above: No More Torture, SOA Watch

On December 10, International Human Rights Day, School Of America’s Watch reiterates our deep condemnation of the brutal state violence and systematic human rights violations – murders, sexual violence, torture, and serious injuries – that the Chilean military and police are exercising against the protesting civilian population. Since October, protesters have been calling for a new Constitution and demanding that the State, led by President Sebastián Piñera’s government, end abusive neoliberal policies.

According to Chile’s Prosecutor General’s office, at least 23 people have died during the protests. The National Human Rights Institute (INDH) has filed 6 official manslaughter complaints before Chilean courts for cases where there are clear records that state agents killed these individuals. Additionally, more than 2,808 people have been injured during the demonstrations as a result of police or military brutality, and according to the INDH, the vast majority of these injuries are from bullets, pellets, and beatings.

Concerningly, numerous protesters have lost an eye as a consequence of the vicious state repression that seemingly targets their faces. As of November 30th, 241 people had officially reported serious eye injuries, and the New York Times even published an article called The head of Chile’s Medical College, Patricio Meza, stated, “Unfortunately in Chile, we have had a greater number of cases than in any situation of social unrest that has occurred in the world. The only world statistic that is a little closer to what we have seen in Chile is from Israel, where there were 154 patients with injured eyes, but in six years.”

As of December 3rd, the INDH had also filed 517 offical complaints of torture and cruel treatment, as well as 106 complaints of sexual violence. On November 25th, an effort to call out and organize against the Chilean State’s use of sexual violence,  an interdisciplinary women’s collective called LASTESIS led a mass mobilization in Santiago, where they performed a piece called “A Rapist on Your Path” and likened the oppressive state to a male rapist. This creative demonstration of resistance went viral, being replicated in numerous countries, and is a direct affront to the use of sexual violence by state forces and the Chilean police’s motto of “a friend on your path.” 

Members of LASTESIS told El País that “many women detained in the protests see how the police and the State use sexual violence to sow fear and that women do not express themselves and exercise their right to protest.” The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25th) was initially established in memory of the Mirabal sisters, who were brutally murdered in 1960 under the Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. 

It is important to note that the Chilean State is also prosecuting protestors. Chile’s Prosecutor General’s office reported that 30,102 people have been arrested and taken to Detention Control Hearings from October 18th through November 22nd. Of those arrested, 20,000 have been charged or formally accused of protest-related events, and 1,957 political prisoners have been held in pretrial detention.

US Training and Responsibility

On October 18th, President Sebastián Piñera declared a State of Exception, thus militarizing the streets during the first 10 days of protests. For context, it is important to keep in mind that Chile is only second to Colombia in terms of the number of military and police personnel sent to train at the US Army’s. One of the demands of the Chilean organizations in the protest is an end to the training of Chilean state agents at the School of the Americas.

In Chile earlier this year, US Army Southern Command sponsored “Command Force” training exercises. Years ago, these exercises for Elite Special Forces were held in Guatemala for the Kaibil Special Forces Brigade, which has an abysmal human rights record.

We also denounce the training that the Carabineros Special Operations Group (GOPE) received in 2017 from US Special Forces under the pretext of Pope Francis’ visit to Chile. The Carabineros are heavily implicated in the ongoing violent repression against protesters. In 2018, 40 Chilean police officials received – a country with one of the worst human rights records in the Western Hemisphere. This course is supported by the US and developed in coordination with US Special Forces. This “anti-terrorist” or civilian-targeted warfare training has been under intense scrutiny and last year, a GOPE member murdered Camilo Catrillanca, a member of the Mapuche community.

At School of America’s Watch, we reject and denounce the logic of military and police training that targets civilian populations and teaches state forces to look at their own population as an “internal enemy”, the results of which are currently playing out in Chile and throughout the Americas.

  • Steven Berge

    Another dose of reality that maybe Ayatollah Khomeini may have been spot on when he said, “The U.S. is the great satan.” I feel sullied and somewhat responsible by how my tax dollars are spent. That is why I, however small, exert effort to change the establishment. Go Yellow Vests!

  • Lynn

    Thanks for reporting on the brutality of the police and armed forces in Chile. You’ve prompted me to reflect on some of that brutality I observed in my recent visit to Chile.

    I was just in Chile, mostly Santiago, for two weeks. I decided to go for the funeral of a priest who invited me to work in Chile back in the 80s. Given the recent conflicts, the funeral was canceled, but I was happy to be back in Chile at such an important time. My godson, friends and I participated in a number of peaceful protests and spontaneous town halls (cabildos) where people gathered to outline what they want in a long over-due new constitution.

    On November 14, Chile’s indigenous nations called for a day of peaceful solidarity, remembrance and ritual in Santiago’s central square which still bears its colonial name, Plaza de Armas (Weapons Square). It was the one year anniversary of when police in the south of Chile killed a Mapuche man, Camilo Catrillanca. On all four sides of the square (about the size of two soccer fields) we counted and photographed no fewer than 40 heavily armed police in military-style riot gear and about 5 tear gas tanks and 2 water cannons. This was not for one of the bigger gatherings 10 blocks away in what the pro-democracy protesters now call Dignity Plaza. This massive show of force unlike anything I’ve seen in the US – supposedly to “keep the peace” – was for about 2000 people who gathered in front of the nation’s Catholic Cathedral in order to pray to the four directions, light candles, sing songs, fly flags and dance. I couldn’t imagine one of us, the celebrants, bringing a weapon to Weapons Square, but all of the police had shotguns loaded and ready – ready for what?

    Sure, it was hot, so a few people were selling beer and we saw no more than a handful drinking. Sure, the statue of Chile’s colonial founder Pedro de Valdivia was ripe for mounting and covering his head with a Mapuche flag. Sure, the flag on Pedro’s smug mug was a primo backdrop for selfies. My 26 year old godson was not at all as surprised as I was to learn that almost all Mapuche medicine men and grandmothers have cell phones and enjoy selfies as much as I do.

    Leaving the good-natured fun of Pedro to others, we walked past the line of candles that went from Pedro across the Plaza to the Cathedral. We noticed the Cathedral doors were boarded up, similar to the doors of the nearby Starbucks and McDonalds and other targets of neoliberal/corporate power. I was surprised to see the Cathedral boarded up since it was where many of us turned to for refuge during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship. At the main entry of the Cathedral there was some commotion. Ten riot police were lined up – trigger ready – to “keep the peace”. An older civilian man, very humble looking, possibly from the countryside or one of Santiago’s sprawling slums was standing at one end of the line of police, as if he was a civilian on their side. He quietly held a picture in his hands. I moved closer to see it since it was not a big banner, but letter size. I thought it odd for him to be standing with the police. It was a picture of Camilo Catrillanca. No words on the picture. No words on his stone sober face. No words of protest on a tee-shirt. Just this sunburnt older man standing along side the police, the setting sun bouncing off a nearby glass skyscraper right in to his non-flinching eyes.

    Then it all started. A row of younger celebrants stood face to face with the police. Evenly numbered, 10 to 10. Police armed for war. College age celebrants, armed with words: “assassins”, “turn on your helmet cameras, it’s the law”, “our cameras film everything”, “join us, don’t fight us”, “we’re Chilean, just like you”, “we’re unarmed, just like Camilo”.

    BOOM! What sounded like an M-80 firecracker came from across the plaza, from Pedro, still mounted on his horse. Medicine men and old ladies taking selfies started to scramble. The young celebrants stood frozen for a second. The officer next to the silent old man spoke in to his shoulder microphone, perhaps he gave the order. The 40 riot police all of a sudden seemed like 80. The celebrants rushed to gather their sacred branches, their candles, their blankets, their drums. Just as I saw the water cannon coming for us, I turned to my godson and signaled, “we’re outta here”. The young celebrants scattered. “Walk, walk, walk and don’t run”, signaled me to do the opposite of what I had learned to do 30 years earlier. My PTSD was all of a sudden back, but luckily adrenaline kicked in and now I needed to get my godson and myself to safety. We chose the street directly behind a row of tear gas tanks, blindly trusting they didn’t operate in reverse. As we passed, they revved their engines and plowed forward in to the plaza.

    Before we turned a corner, I looked back. Everyone was scattering, walking, but scattering. Not everyone. The silent old man stood his ground. The police were no longer in a line next to him. They were clubbing anyone they suspected of resistance. There really was no resistance. The “front-line” resisters were busy protecting peaceful protesters at Dignity Plaza given ours was meant to be the most peaceful of peaceful gatherings. The silent man stood at the door of the Cathedral. Stood with his picture still held just above his waist. Stood as if he had nothing to lose. Stood, looking exhausted from a hard days’ underpaid work and likely a long commute to get to the celebration. The spray from a water cannon (now known to have poisonous chemicals) went right over his head, and he just stood there. I told my godson to wait a minute. We watched long enough to see he had made the choice he wanted to. He could walk away. He did not.

    Later we learned there was a fair amount of resistance. The “front-line” had been called in, maybe by a Mapuche grandmother with a cell phone or one of the young celebrants that were calling out the police in front of the Cathedral. I don’t know the injury count, the lost eyes, the beatings, but I do know nobody was reported dead, unlike the next day when police shot two medics who were trying to resuscitate a young protester in cardiac arrest. I don’t feel good about leaving the old man there, but I had promised my husband and myself I would stay clear of tear gas given my asthma and mild COPD (a likely remnant of living with daily tear gas for over a year back in the 80s). We all have our roles, our capacities and we make our choices. Also, I could swear my last sight of the old man included him standing there with something I didn’t see earlier – a proud smile on his face.

    We walked a few blocks to the home of my godson’s cousin who met us on the street. He quickly showed-off the healing bullet wound in his hand, as if it were a new tattoo. Little did I know there was a pre-planned hand-off. From my godson’s shoulder bag came three home-made slingshots. Great. So much my certainty that all celebrants in the Plaza de Armas were unarmed. Yet, on that day in that place of peaceful and sacred celebration, my godson chose not to use the weapons. Not to be part of the “front-line”. The slingshots were meant for another time, another place, another person. And I guess I have to ask myself, what kind of weapons are slingshots when up against what we saw back in the plaza? Since October 18, government forces have shot over 350 protestors in the eyes, among even worse abuses of human rights including murder.

    Every time I visit the Plaza de Armas (since leaving Chile in 89, I’ve visited perhaps 7-8 times), I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a little boy selling bread. This was in 88, still under the Pinochet dictatorship. He asked if I’d buy a piece of bread. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old and had no shoes. I bought a piece of bread and then asked him, if you could change the name of this plaza, from Plaza de Armas (Weapons Square) what would you name it? He thought about it and pretty quickly answered, Plaza de Pan (Bread Square). Interesting, I thought. I asked, why. “Because people come to this square for bread, not weapons.”

    I wonder if that old man in front of the Cathedral, perhaps no older than I am, was that barefoot little boy back in the 80s. If so, I hope his children and grandchildren achieve the new constitution so many Chileans have wanted for so long. A constitution that replaces the 1980 constitution put in place under Pinochet. A constitution that puts human rights (such as clean air, water, land and just wages, education, health and retirement) above personal property rights. A constitution that gives everyone a right to bread, and as Chilean folks singer Victor Jara said so well, a constitution that puts first and foremost the “right to live in peace”.