Is Chile returning to the bad old days?

With severe police violence on the rise, many fear the country is sliding back into an era of Pinochet-style repression, reports E Xant*

Camilo Catrillanca. Alejandro Castro. Macarena Valdés.

If we’d been paying attention, perhaps we would know these names. But it is perhaps not surprising that the names of these activists at ‘el fin del mundo’ – a term Chileans use to describe their country at the bottom of the world – are unfamiliar to international ears.

Since the second election of billionaire president Sebastián Piñera in December 2017, there have been violent clashes between activists, indigenous communities and the police. Elected by less than a third of the electorate, Piñera won 54 per cent of the vote with a 47 per cent turnout.

His slogan ‘better times’ was built around growth, boosting employment, promoting mining and strengthening the police. His stance on ‘terrorism’ has translated into repression of ‘delinquents’: progressive and radical movements, school and university students and indigenous uprisings.

The atmosphere on the ground has worsened since Piñera’s election.

First colonized in the 16th century by Spanish invaders, the Southern Araucanía region of Chile, where 18 per cent of the indigenous Mapuche population live, is the epicentre of conflict. Piñera is pursuing his vision of a ‘developed Chile’, which means vast hydroelectric and mega infrastructure projects, bypass roads, and the contamination of rivers and the environment. These are the main sources of confrontation. Repressive measures go hand-in-hand with securing transnational company interests. Up against armed forces equipped with Israeli weaponry, the Mapuche fight to defend their territory from the state’s extractivist policies.

The atmosphere on the ground has worsened since Piñera’s election. Even the historic International Women’s Day demonstration in Valparaíso faced aggressive tactics from Special Forces. The use of chemically enhanced teargas, rubber bullets and arbitrary detention (where beatings and forced undressing occur), and misuse of water cannon against peaceful protesters, mimics the tactics of the dictatorship, with Piñera stating that the state has ‘the obligation to combat this scourge with all the force of the will and rigour of the law’.

The most recent case of state violence took the life a young Mapuche. Camilo Catrillanca was a prominent indigenous figure in the movement for the liberation of Wallmapu, who died at the hands of the ‘anti-terrorist’ contingent Comando Jungla (Jungle Commando). This specialist force shot the 24-year-old in the back of the head in broad daylight. 

This assassination, in November 2018, was met by public outcry. There was a cover-up, the video evidence destroyed by an officer on the pretext that it supposedly contained ‘private images’. Even more insulting was that the Special Police Operations Group (GOPE) had spent $22 million Chilean pesos (US $32,000) on GoPro Hero5 Black cameras and memory cards as recently as June 2018.

Activists are concerned about other deaths, such as that of Macarena Valdés, a Mapuche environmental campaigner in Panguipulli, in August 2016. In September 2018 her widower Rubén Collío, believing that the Chilean authorities are hiding the truth about his wife’s death, took the case to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Macarena was found hanging from the beams of her home by her eldest son. Forensic pathologist Luis Ravanal stated that, in absence of certain injuries, ‘there are no signs that show that the body was suspended through hanging while [Macarena was] alive’

There is an ominous trend of conservative regional leaders doubling-down on opposition voices

Then there was Alejandro Castro: a fisher and union leader who read philosophy and poetry. He helped organize the environmental campaign group No+ Más Zonas de Sacrificio (No More Zones of Sacrifice), which gathered momentum in the coastal towns of Quinteros and Puchuncaví last August, when toxic air in the central zone hit crisis point. He was found in October, hanging from railings by the straps of his backpack in Valparaíso. His mother and partner say the ‘suicide’ was staged.

This wave of repression has been met by resistance. Protests, all over the country days after Catrillanca’s assassination, were mounted by students, Mapuche leaders and communities, feminists and the conscious masses. Thousands took to the streets of Santiago, Valparaíso, Temuco and Concepción in November. They demanded justice, and the resignation of Andrés Chadwick (Interior Minister) and Hermés Soto (Director General of Police Force).

Road blocks ablaze, student strikes, mass demonstrations, and even a carcelorazo were organized. The latter, which dates from the days of dictatorship, is a popular people’s protest that involves the banging of saucepans and pots and pans from windows, balconies and plazas, to make a racket of popular discontent.

 Catrillanca’s grandfather, a Lonko (Mapuche community leader) stated the gravity of the situation: ‘We do not trust any government. We always supported politics when they spoke of the return of democracy, in the time of dictatorship. We managed to obtain it, everyone together. What was the response of those who called themselves democratic? It was not democracy, but a subjugation, as with Pinochet.’

This is all the more concerning given that the Constitution is still the one Pinochet imposed under his rule. Inherited from military dictatorship, with added anti-terror laws, many clauses act as a restraint on real democracy – limiting political activity, effective union organization and citizens’ rights, while enhancing executive powers. The anti-terrorist law is used to incarcerate indigenous leaders without trial. Under ousted Marxist leader Salvador Allende unionization had reached 33.7 per cent, but hasn’t recovered since. Today trade union membership is only 17.7 per cent.

With fascist friendships developing between South American presidents, there is an ominous trend of conservative regional leaders doubling-down on opposition voices and resorting to direct violence in order to quell legitimate protests. Rightwing repression creeping upwards in a supposedly stable Chile is a worrying indicator of where things may lead throughout South America.


*E Xant is a pseudonym