Chile's national police, the Carabineros, have a long and bloody track record of silencing groups demanding their labour, social and economic rights. Their continued existence and violence shows how the Carabineros serve as a key institution for maintaining social structures that perpetuate social injustices that benefit the elite.
October 2019 marked a watershed in Chile. The social uprising was the eruption of silenced and ignored demands, grievances and aspirations that had been building up for decades. In the words of one of the main slogans: ‘It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years’. The slogan represented the anger at an economic development model instituted by the Pinochet dictatorship – and followed afterwards – that has led to more precarious living conditions and generated one of the most unequal societies in Latin America.
The authorities did not see it coming or know how to deal with it. Just days earlier, President Sebastián Piñera told a national television show that ‘in the midst of the turbulence in Latin America, Chile is a genuine oasis with a stable democracy’. He praised the country’s economic growth and stability compared to other countries in Latin America, with crises affecting Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Haiti. His blindness to the uprising reveals the existence of two visions of Chile: one shaped by the elite, who do not acknowledge the structural violence implicit in state policies, and the other shared by those who suffer it.
The same blindness affected the manager of the Santiago subway system, who said on television, ‘kids, this didn’t catch on’ two days before the protests sparked by the increased subway fare shook the city and the entire nation. The ‘cabros’, literally ‘kids’ referred to the thousands of students who had begun jumping subway turnstiles on 14 October 2019 in protest. His words were like a match dropped into an oil tank, as people of all ages took to the streets of cities throughout Chile to express their various social demands. In Santiago, as a result of the massive fair evasions, the subway administration decided to close its stations on 18 October, leaving thousands without transport and forcing them to walk for miles back home. Protests escalated with at least 20 stations burned. Meanwhile, a photo of President Sebastián Piñera eating pizza at one of the richest neighbourhoods in Santiago went viral. From then on, a series of protests shook the country.
On 19 October, the government declared a constitutional state of emergency, which restricted freedom of movement and assembly. It sent the military out onto the streets and imposed a seven-day curfew, but this did not stop the protests. On the contrary, despite violent repression, huge demonstrations continued to be held daily. Carabineros, the Chilean national police force, used tear gas, water cannons filled with chemicals causing burns, and rifles loaded with heavy metal pellets against children, teenagers, protestors, artists and journalists. Many were arbitrarily detained. A Carabinero even entered, shot at and wounded adolescents at school. The authorities and the Carabineros intimidated Chilean artists who joined the public demonstrations.
Every day there were so many injuries that health professionals set up volunteer stations near the protestors’ meeting places to offer them assistance. But even the Red Cross health posts were attacked by the Carabineros. At that time, the COVID-19 pandemic had not yet begun so there was no objective or reasonable justification to prohibit mass gatherings.
By reason or by force: the state’s brutal response to Chile’s awakening
The October 2019 social uprising has been compared to the August 1949 ‘Chaucha revolution’ in Santiago. Both were characterised by a precarious economic situation, social discontent caused by the government’s failure to meet social demands and a hike in public transport fares, as well as the subsequent protests and severe repression that left several dead and injured. While there are clear similarities, the two historical moments also differ due to the government responses.
Repression: Structural violence enforced by the Carabineros
There is a pattern to the Carabineros’ actions : they repress and censor all dissident voices, be they protestors, artists, adolescents or journalists, basically all speech that displeases them or criticises the status quo. This is sufficient reason for action, with violence as their institutional response. They regularly violate national and international laws without state sanction, despite inflicting violence and injuries. Indeed, the political authorities have continued to support them and their violence with impunity, even though they have injured thousands and killed others.
Take the case of Moisés Órdenes, for example, a 55-year-old man who was protesting in a public square and holding a frying pan when 12 Carabineros attacked him. The result? A punctured lung, a dislocated shoulder and blinded in one eye. Fabiola Campillai, a 36-year-old woman was completely blinded when a tear gas canister hit her in the head while she was going to work a few blocks from her home. Gustavo Gatica, a 21-year-old student and photographer, was also completely blinded when Carabineros shot him in both eyes during the social uprising.
This pattern of protecting the elite is not new, and is deeply rooted in the history of the institution. The Carabineros were set up by the Ministry of War in 1907, and were made up of soldiers and emerged from a unit of ‘Gendarmes’ whose principal role was to protect internal colonial settlements. While in 1925, they theoretically became independent of the army, they remained a highly militarised, hierarchical institution, led exclusively by army generals.
The Carabineros have a long and bloody track record of silencing groups demanding their labour, social and economic rights. For example, the 1931 ‘riot of Norte Grande’ led by leftist groups in response to the national economic crisis, ended in the arrest, murder and disappearance of around 100 people, including labour and communist leaders. Similarly, in 1934 in the Ranquil Massacre, this time in southern Chile, Carabineros killed more than 100 peasants and settlers who were contesting the confiscation of their land. In 1946, the Carabineros were involved in the ‘Massacre of Bulnes Square’ in which six people were killed. One of them was 19-year-old Ramona Parra, known as the first martyr of the Communist Youth in Chile. She was assassinated for marching in solidarity with the unions of the Mapocho and Humberstone saltpetre works. Then, in the late 1960s, in the ‘Pampa Irigoin Massacre’ Carabineros took the lives of nine men and a nine-month-old boy, who was asphyxiated by the tear gas, and another 52 people suffered gunshot wounds.
Most of these cases never saw justice, despite the gravity of the crimes.
Despite these incidents, since the 1960s, the Carabineros has received proportionally more funding than the army, and has been in direct proportion to their increased use of force against civilians. In response, the government of Salvador Allende disbanded the Carabineros’ most violent group, but after the 1973 coup d’état, the Pinochet military government reconstituted it as a ‘Special Forces’ unit. After 1973, the Carabineros became Pinochet’s machine of massive repression, its officers actively participating in systematic human rights violations in Chile throughout the civil-military dictatorship. At the end of the dictatorship in the 1990s, several groups condemned their complicity with the civil-military dictatorship, but the forces were not disbanded and remain active today. The Chilean constitution currently recognises the Carabineros as an armed corps accountable to the Ministry of the Interior and Public Security.
So, how does an institution with a track record like the Carabinerosde Chile still exist today? There is no one explanation, but clearly the Carabineros serve as a key institution for maintaining social structures that perpetuate social injustices that benefit the elite. Similarly, by allowing the Carabineros to continue to inflict life-changing injuries and murder civilians with impunity, the state has sided with violence. The psychologist Tamara Jorquera explains that the abuses serve as a form of social control and a way to subdue the population for fear of falling victim to their violence and impunity. The social order is preserved by creating subjects who are afraid to protest.
However, Jorquera also argues that despite this, there are always expressions of resistance. Art and creativity in particular have emerged as one of the main means to express collective demands without people exposing themselves to the abuses and excesses of the Carabineros.
Expression as a political tool in Chile
In the first few days of the social uprising, it was clear that the mainstream media was not up to the task and on several occasions, its coverage was biased and even censored. It did not report on social demands; it showed images of some protestors engaging in riots and violence, but not the excessive use of violence by Carabineros and the military. Thanks to the widespread use of mobile phones to record videos and images capturing both the social demands and the violent repression of protestors, social media became the main channel of information from many different perspectives from those witnessing the events in Chile.
Similarly, Las Tesis, the collective that created the viral hit ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A rapist in your way’) recognised by Time magazine, faced a criminal suit by the Carabineros for ‘inciting violence against authority’ for their video ‘Manifiesto Contra la Violencia Policial’ (Manifesto against Police Violence). In the video, they recited:
‘They persecute us, block the exits of our homes, provoke us, infiltrate as protestors and set everything on fire. They parade through our streets while armed. They throw tear gas, hit, torture, rape, destroy and blind us…. The government does not listen and renews their weaponry. And they don’t stop. The police don’t look after me, my friends look after me. .. Burn the cops, burn the cops
The social and political situation in Chile today is a result of the many social demands that were ignored and silenced during decades of authoritarian rule, which itself was designed to maintain an economic model which left many Chileans in precarious living conditions. People have long used non-institutional means to express their social demands, but in Chile the excesses and abuses by the police – in particular the Carabineros – were used as a key mechanism to restrict peoples' capacity to protest. The police in Chile were constantly mobilised against citizens who sought to assert their economic, social, cultural, environmental and indigenous rights. Indeed, the institution of the Carabineros seemed to be designed to have minimal control and accountability in order to generate a widespread fear of falling victim to its violence and impunity, and through that fear uphold a dominant social order.
Despite this, the social uprising since October 2019 succeeded in giving voice to social demands thanks to the many independent media, journalists, photo-journalists, citizen reporters sharing their work in social networks. These voices also publicised the abuses and violence of the Carabineros and military ignored by traditional media outlets. At the same time, the artistic expression seen on the streets, walls, and monuments echoed with the social demands, the struggles for the rights of the most marginalised, and the commemorations of the many victims of state violence.
Art has proved such a powerful means to express social demands and condemn state violence that the Carabineros have tried to harrass and intimidate artists who have shared ideas that have unsettled the authorities. Despite many attempts to stop artistic expression, artists continue to expose their abuse, showing that critical art is a political tool and a form of resistance to the social and political models that dominate most of Latin America.
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