Chile’s new shadows

The army on the streets, demonstrators targeted, activists receiving death threats: Chile’s crackdown of the current wave of protests smacks of the Pinochet years, writes Roxana Olivera.

María Candelaria Acevedo is living through another nightmare.

In her hometown of Concepción, the second-largest city in Chile, five hours south of Santiago, people took to the streets on 25 November banging pots and pans, just as civilians had done to protest against the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet three decades ago. They made their way towards Plaza de la Independencia, where many arrived with their hands in the air to show they had no weapons. Others sang Víctor Jara’s iconic protest anthem ‘El derecho de vivir en paz’ (The right to live in peace.) Some waved the Chilean flag, others the Mapuche indigenous flag. All called for Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to step down.

Armoured police vehicles encircled the square to break up the march. Protesters threw rocks at them. Riot police, dressed in full combat gear, jumped out of the vehicles and, some wielding batons, advanced on the crowd. Police used tear gas and water cannons and fired bullets. Protesters fled in all directions to seek shelter, and as tear gas engulfed the streets, police and soldiers began to make arrests. First responders arrived to tend to the wounded, but they too were assaulted by police.

Similar scenes have occurred throughout Chile since 18 October 2019. A hike in subway fares in Santiago caused thousands of people to take to the streets, but soon demonstrations morphed into broader protests against social inequality, President Piñera’s neoliberal economic policies and abuse of power. The president mobilized the army to impose order. ‘We are at war with a powerful enemy,’ Piñera said on 20 October.

The ‘war’ bulletin so far: some 10,000 civilians have been arrested in just over two months; 3,460 people have been injured, and 26 have lost their lives.
For the past two months, Acevedo​, who is a 61-year-old Communist Party member and the leader of the Sebastián Acevedo Movement Against Torture, has been visiting jails, looking for people arrested by riot police. Most of them, she says, are youth and minors. ‘Many of them are being beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted, but these human rights abuses are not being reported in mainstream media,’ she tells me, the sound of bullets and tear gas still going off in the background.

Acevedo​ is worried: the threats and violent crackdown evoke scenes of the Pinochet military dictatorship (1973-90), as well as painful memories from her own life.

Pinochet’s crimes

On 9 November 1983, Acevedo​ was fast asleep when around 50 armed men, dressed in civilian clothes, stormed into her home to arrest her. The then 26-year-old accounting student, and member of the Communist Youth of Chile, did not attempt to resist arrest as the men planted boxes filled with weapons in her house.

Her father, Sebastián Acevedo, saw his daughter being dragged blindfolded into a white van parked outside his home. María Candelaria’s children, aged five and six, looked on, petrified.

When you’ve survived something like that, it’s hard not to imagine that you could go through it again

An hour later, María Candelaria’s brother, Galo, was detained too. Like his sister, he had joined the Communist Youth of Chile and taken a stand against the Pinochet regime. They were two of the thousands of people detained and tortured or exiled during the Pinochet regime – while more than 3,200 were executed or forcibly disappeared.

Both María Candelaria and Galo were accused of being ‘terrorists’. They were interrogated and tortured. María Candelaria was sexually assaulted and received several rounds of electric shock on her breasts, genitals and rectum. ‘Each session lasted around 20 minutes,’ she recalls. ‘And each time it took place, I thought I would die at the end of it.’ Galo endured beatings in the stomach, knees and ears, as well as waterboarding and electric shocks on his chest and genitals.

After two days of unsuccessful efforts to find his children, in an act of desperation, Sebastián doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. As he walked in flames, he screamed his children’s names, demanding information about their whereabouts.

That afternoon, María Candelaria was released from custody. At the hospital, she was not allowed to see her father and was only permitted to speak to him over the phone. ‘He told me that he loved me very dearly, and he asked me for forgiveness,’ she recalls. ‘He said he had no choice but to do what he did, and he also asked me to secure my brother’s release.’

Chile protests: Maria Candelaria Avecedo today, at 61
Maria Candelaria Acevedo​ today. Roxana Olivera

Sebastián Acevedo died a few hours later, aged 52. Galo was not as lucky as his sister. He would spend two years in jail. He was not allowed to attend his father’s funeral.

Three weeks later, María Candelaria was arrested again. She would spend one year in prison. She says she never carried or used weapons. Her work was strictly political – distributing pamphlets and setting up barricades during protests. ‘My only crime back then was to stand up to police brutality and human rights violations,’ she says.

Is history repeating itself?

Today, 36 years later, Pinochet may be long gone, but similar police violence, security tactics, and arbitrary detentions have returned to Chile. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the United Nations have all concluded that grave human rights violations have been committed during the recent protests. So far, 792 lawsuits – 617 of them for torture and inhumane treatment – have been launched against the state.

Luis Manuel Mardones, 57, also a victim of torture under the Pinochet dictatorship, was arrested after trying to shield a 14-year-old girl from police brutality

‘This is a catastrophe both in medical and human rights terms,’ says Dr Enrique Morales, President of the Human Rights Department for the Medical College of Chile. Among the injured, some 357 protesters have suffered severe eye injuries after being shot in the eyes with rubber bullets, rubber-coated steel pellets or teargas cartridges by police. ‘Many of the victims reported being shot in the face while taking photographs or recording events with their cell phones,’ says Morales. He says that more than 100 of those cases will result in permanent loss of an eye. At the time of writing, two of them have lost eyesight in both eyes, while 23 have lost vision in one eye.
Besides, there have been hundreds of reports of abuse of detainees in custody, including brutal beatings and sexual abuse. For instance, Luis Manuel Mardones, 57, also a victim of torture under the Pinochet dictatorship, was arrested after trying to shield a 14-year-old girl from police brutality. Not only did he end up with a broken arm and other injuries – Mardones says he was forced to strip naked and squat on the ground as police prodded his testicles with their batons. ‘Next time we catch you at a protest, we’ll lock you up for good,’ he says policemen told him.

This hasn’t stopped Acevedo from protesting. She and a group of her Communist Party colleagues – all members of the Sebastián Acevedo Movement Against Torture – have been organizing several of the peaceful marches that are now taking place in Concepción. And as a result of their active engagement in anti-government demonstrations, they are being targeted. Several of them have received death threats. 

Carla Yáñez, for example, was preparing a demonstration of A Covered Eye, in which students wear blood-stained T-shirts and cover an eye in solidarity of those who have lost eyesight because of police assaults. She was approached by an unknown individual, who said he needed to talk to the person in charge of the Sebastián Acevedo Movement. As she turned to talk to him, he told her: ‘Take care of your children, f***ing bitch!’

Yáñez’s 19-year-old daughter Javiera, then started receiving notes on bits of scrap paper, reading: ‘F***ing communist, I am going to kill you.’

Fellow activist Magdalena Paredes, 28, was just stepping out of her house to join the demonstration when she was handed a similar note: ‘F***ing communist, we are following you.’

The recipients believe that these threats were intended for Acevedo​. Asked whether she fears for her life once again, she admits that she does. ‘When you’ve survived something like that, it’s hard not to imagine that you could go through it again. But I won’t let that fear stop me,’ she says. Now more than ever, she feels the need to keep her father’s memory alive. ‘I feel his presence every day,’ she says. ‘It’s as if I carry his weight on my back… I just can’t let the horrors of the past happen again.’