History of Chile Human Rights

A History of Abuse: Chilean Carabineros and Social Change

SANTIAGO – After multiple organizations documented abuse, calls for reforms in the Carabineros police force have grown louder. But the institution has been criticized on similar grounds throughout its history. Chile Today looks at previous incidents and their results.

Since the massive protests started on October 18, the Carabineros police force has received heavy criticism. As a result of multiple reports by many international organizations that described abuse by state forces, President Sebastián Piñera announced reforms for the 95-year-old institution.

Most accusations revolve around unlawful arrests, torture, sexual abuse and violence in the midst of peaceful protests. And many actions suggest Carabineros act in line with an internal culture of violence. This would render the abuse a systemic problem that is more serious than many politicians and law enforcement officials would admit, even though the institution has a vivid history of violence.

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Past Violence

In 1927, vice-president Carlos Ibañez del Campo was Chile’s real ruler and President Emiliano Figueroa was his puppet. Ibañez del Campo ran a “clearly authoritarian” government under which political opponents were exiled, the press censored, and unions repressed.

In this context, in April that year, Ibañez del Campo merged the Army Carabineros, responsible to protect rural roads from bandits, and the fiscal police forces of major cities. The merger produced the Chilean Carabineros, a national police force upholding law and order and taking charge of prisoners.

Ibañez del Campo put himself at the helm of the institution, and was criticized by the political elite for the move since they worried he had created his personal praetorian guard. Such fears were warranted. Two months later Carabineros reopened a former colonial prison on Alejandro Selkirk Island, far to the west of Valparaiso, where they incarcerated nearly 200 political prisoners.

In July 1927 Ibañez del Campo was elected president, after which he stepped up his authoritarianism. But the 1929 stock market crash also pulled down the already frail Chilean economy, causing massive protests which the Carabineros suppressed violently, resulting in seven deaths. The turmoil only stopped in 1931, when Ibañez del Campo left for Argentina.

Afterward, the Carabineros returned to their barracks to protect themselves from an angry public that wanted retribution. During this time, civil volunteers fulfilled police duties, until on July 28 the Carabineros came out saying their acts resulted only from following the orders of their superiors in government.

President Arturo Alessandri tried to curb the power of the Carabineros by separating them more strictly into branches. But these reforms helped little.

In 1934, Carabineros violently confronted a group of workers who were protesting miserable working conditions. The events culminated in the massacre on the bridge of Ranquil, where nearly 200 workers tried to prevent Carabineros from crossing. Precise numbers do not exist, but estimates range from 100 to 400 residents killed. A similar bloodbath occurred in 1938 during the Seguro Obrero massacre, and again in 1969 with the massacre of Puerto Montt

Legendary Chilean folk singer Victor Jara refers to the massacre in Puerto Montt in his song Preguntas por Puerto Montt

Return to Democracy

Carabineros, along with the military, took part in the coup on September 11, 1973, and their leader was member of the military junta that ruled until Augusto Pinochet disposed of it. Under the dictatorship, Carabineros were crucial instruments of the repression. The institution helped the military and the secret service to capture and torture alleged or real opponents of the dictatorship.

And in the 1985 “Caso Degollados” (Degollados Case), which remains a testament to cold-blooded murder by state forces and caused popular outrage even during the repression, Carabineros executed three Communist Party members by cutting their throats. The bodies were left on the roadside near the airport in Pudahuel district.

After the 1988 plebiscite many politicians recognized – yet again – the need for reforms to ensure Carabineros would not attack citizens anymore, but Augusto Pinochet blocked any reform attempts. He remained commander-in-chief until 1998 and was strongly supported by all state forces. This means the Carabineros have never come under the full control of the president, that is, civilian control. The institution remains a state within the state and officers are more loyal to their commanders than the civilian-led and democratically-elected government. This raises the question of how free and democratic Chile really is.

Yet the repression affects even individuals serving in the institution. In 1998, wives of low-ranking officers protested their husband’s low wages but were arrested and beaten while their husbands lost their jobs. A decade later they went to the Inter-American Court of Justice, because Chilean courts wouldn’t help. More recently Carabineros have been involved in scandals Chile Today covered as well, like the Catrillanca case, Pacogate, and the 2019 human rights abuses.

Former director of Carabineros arrested for torture during dictatorship

Current Reforms

While Carabineros are still admired, they have also killed many innocent citizens without any consequence. And evidence shows that beyond attempts to clean their clean their image, they repress the community they swore to protect without hesitation.

And the reports by the international organizations are clear: Although they see different culprits – Amnesty International blames the president while Humans Rights Watch emphasizes lack of Carabineros’ internal control – the organizations agree structural reform is urgent, or the abuses will continue.

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