Return of Chilean Military Aggression?

The Chilean protests of 2020 resulted in the death of 36 people, with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reporting 28,000 people were jailed during the events. Chile, one of South America’s most stable nations in the post-Cold War period, has been relatively free of coups since the 17-year rule of General Augusto Pinochet; whose rule left more than 3,000 people dead and missing. 

This said, the casualties suffered by the social movement have been the worst since the dictatorship. Furthermore, the protests within the last year have seen the rising involvement of the militarised police system inside Chile. Whilst the tactics under Piñera’s government were not the same under Pinochet’s – this rise in violence is worrying for Chile.

The social unrest began back in October 2019, within Chile’s capital city Santiago. What would start as minimal protests surrounding an increase in subway fares, eventually spiralled into an eruption of violence. Piñera’s authorisation of deploying the national police force (the Carabineros de Chile) would mark the start of aggressive clashes between protestors and the Carabineros for several months.

The clashes prompted human rights organisations to allege serious human rights violations. Five human rights reports – authorised by Amnesty International, amongst others – denounced the brutal and discriminative violence of the militarised police. Amnesty International has received hundreds of complaints about serious human rights violations that range from excessive use of force to torture, illegal raids and arbitrary detention. Chile’s National Institute for Human Rights received similar allegations, as well as reports of sexual violence. Exact figures are hard to come by. However, it is reported that there were 194 sexual violence violations in the first two months. 

The number of protestors who suffered eye mutilations as a result of state violence has received much attention. The Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos (INDH) places the figure upwards of 427 people. The Chilean Ophthalmology Society state this is the highest number of injuries of this type registered during protests in the world. The injuries were the result of indiscriminative use of riot guns, with Carabineros officers often aiming at demonstrators’ heads.  

The scrutiny directed towards the Carabineros raises questions about their place in today’s society and the decision not to dismantle them after Pinochet’s rule ended in 1990. Since 2017, high-ranking police officers have been investigated for malfeasance, reducing public trust in the Carabineros, which plummeted from 65% in 2009 to 17% at the end of 2019 (CEP surveys). Meanwhile, more than 35 generals who were part of the Carabineros forces have been ousted in the wake of a series of scandals.  

Furthermore, the Carabineros, were never significantly reformed after Pinochet’s rule ended in 1990 and as previously stated are still a very prominent force within society today. It is this connection between past and present that provides an explanation of the continuities and parallels with dictatorship-era repression. It helps highlights that the climate for repression to occur is not fixed and can be carried out in two very different political contexts; both in a military junta as well as a democratically elected government.  

Chile has witnessed its worst civil unrest since the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Carabineros’ ever-growing presence within Chilean Society, as well as their increased violence, has now been made visible on the world stage. Their use of aggression violating human rights highlights striking comparisons to the dictatorship of Pinochet and the Cold War period. 

In wake of their continued aggression, somewhat 30 years after the end of Pinochet’s rule, it is clear change needs to come. Whether that be in the form of constitutional amendments, with the current framework allowing the excessive use of force, change in core government tactics in response to protestors or a switch in government. Until then, the legacy of Pinochet and the Cold War will live on today in Chile’s society.   

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