Congress, among Chile’s least trusted institutions, pushed through a law with deadly consequences. Lawmakers dismissed critical voices and exploited public anger and media hyperbole to make it even easier for police to kill. But social problems aren’t solved that way.
It turns out that our lawmakers convinced a country anguished by escalating crime that a good law can solve the problem. One problem, one law.
Parliament and political parties are the least popular and trusted institutions among Chileans, and yet they believed in these institutions – or felt the need to believe. It’s fear.
Still, I value the efforts of some lawmakers. Without doubt, rather than rising crime, we are seeing the transformation of crime. Assaults are more violent, organized gangs have real firepower, which contributes to a loss of public safety, further exacerbated by media reporting. Especially TV broadcasters use fear as a weapon to push ratings.
But the death of police officers – paradoxically, one was killed the same day a law facilitating the use of force passed – rocked society.
If voters should demand one thing from their representatives, it’s that they legislate such sensitive issues with rationality and retain their cool. They were not elected to react to polls and indulge in populism.
A law is an instrument that governs the behavior of citizens and institutions. It must be thought in the long term.
The Naín-Retamal law, which further facilitates the use of lethal force and was named after two slain officers, went through four committees and both chambers in less than a week. The Lower House vote took 20 minutes, even though 18 separate articles were voted. No experts were heard, the critical opinions of the UN and Amnesty International were ignored. Not even police representatives were asked. This law, which will have deadly consequences, was rushed in light of public and media pressure.
During the social uprising in 2019/20, 49 percent of citizens said the police should not use service weapons in certain circumstances, but now 95 percent think officers should use their weapons more often, according to a poll published the day the law was voted.
Of course, it was necessary to advance legislation on this front, yet in a couple of years, Congress will be reviewing this law, once public perception changes.
Laws aren’t the only tool to fight crime. For example, after a series of collusion scandals a few years ago, Congress toughened penalties and facilitated self-denunciation, among others. A better legislative framework must be accompanied by concrete actions in the prosecution of criminals, better intelligence, migration control, and better technology.
That involves the government, governors, mayors. Hence, the measures announced by the government – including a broad anti-crime agreement involving mayors – are positive. Citizens must also act and stop watching from a distance, expecting others solve everything.
Crucially, our political class must conduct more intelligent and less emotional analyses. The opposition’s cynical exploitation of the drama caused by crime and the public expectations related to a solution is detrimental to lower crime rates.
Polarizing the debate and accusing the government and the left more broadly of failure to do something is not helpful. The leftist coalition aligned with the government, on the other hand, looked ridiculous when it threatened to take the law to the Constitutional Tribunal. Previously, these same figures accused the right of using the tribunal to kill laws it didn’t like.
While we must push for a multipartisan national agreement bereft of petty politics, we must also remember that this society is suffering amnesia. What was right yesterday is wrong today. Starting 2016, the Carabineros police force lost prestige after it was revealed that 134 officers, including the high command, stole 3.5 billion pesos (US$4.4mn) in public funds in the largest fraud in Chilean history. One pollster found that public support dropped to 17 percent.
In 2019, the social uprising began, to which the institution responded with massive repression and human rights violations, further sullying its image. These events turned the Carabineros into one of the most unpopular institutions and led to a situation in which it could not fill its vacancies. But right now, one pollster found public support surged to 79 percent.
What I can say is that once public safety perception improves and problems like pensions or inflation become prominent again, a police officer will feel free to kill someone, who turns out to be innocent.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.