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A New Anti-Terrorism Law to Reach Beyond Pinochet and the Mapuche

SANTIAGO – Bombs sent to a police station via mail have revived the debate around reforms to anti-terrorism legislation and a restructuration of the intelligence services. But repression and incompetence in counterterrorism efforts have created doubts about the real need and effectiveness of these initiatives.

“We are not facing a mere criminal, but also organizations which have support not only at home, but also from abroad. We face a powerful adversary and enemy,” interior minister Andrés Chadwick ominously warned when talking about the difficulty of finding those behind the letterbomb attack on a police station in Santiago. The incident left eight police injured. Letterbombs, which did not explode, were also sent to the office of former (2010-2012) interior minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter and Quiñenco, to main company of Chile’s richest family, the Luksics. 

These events have reactivated the debate around changes to the current anti-terrorism law, which the government has labeled “very urgent.” The reform would unfold in two stages.

First, the “short anti-terrorist bill.” If it passes (it already received Senate approval) it would allow the use of anti-drug and anti-money laundering methods, such as undercover agents, communication interception, and streamlining cooperation of the different investigative agencies’ counterterrorism efforts.

In a second stage, the country’s anti-terrorist legislation would be transformed from top to bottom. This restructuring would also consider cyber-terrorism and lone-wolf terrorism.

Origins

Current anti-terrorist legislation originates from 1984 and is based on the concept of “internal enemy” which the Pinochet dictatorship established as part of the National Security Doctrine. Under the doctrine, individuals or entities labeled terrorist were automatically “extremist,” “subversive,” “violent,” and/or “communist.”

During democratic transition, then-president Patricio Aylwin modified the legislation in 1992 to align it with international human rights treaties.

In 2010 Sebastián Piñera’s first administration modified the law again and eliminated the concept of “terrorist purpose” (punishing the mere intent), strengthened the pursuit of terrorist financing and protected teenagers from anti-terrorism legislation.

This latest version of the law has been invoked almost exclusively in the framework of the conflict between the state and the Mapuche people in the south, and against “anti-systemic” groups in Santiago’s Metropolitan Region. 

Machi Celestino Córdova visits his rewe

Despite these modifications, the legislation has fared badly. According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, 127 people in 21 different criminal proceedings were charged with terrorist crimes between 2001 and 2016 but only nine were convicted. What’s more, of those convicted, eight were acquitted by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, suggesting the law entraps innocent citizens in legal proceedings and the vicious news cycle rather than protecting the public from dangerous individuals.

Abandoning Past Traumas

Counterterrorism is a controversial and sensitive matter in Chile. Problems do not only result from its origins in the dictatorship, but also from severe wrongdoings by agents which execute the state’s legitimate monopoly on violence. Cases in point are Operación Huracán and Caso Bombas. In both cases police altered evidence, WhatsApp messages in Operación Huracán, among others, to frame suspects and get innocent citizens jailed.

Nonetheless, parliamentarians across the political spectrum have called for the approval of the law’s modifications and a new coordinated intelligence system.

Left-wing parliamentarian Felipe Harboe told local press that in addition to changing the anti-terrorism law, the left must also overcome old paradigms and “abandon the traumas of the past.”

New Legislation

The current proposal includes 11 changes, ranging from investigative techniques to re-define the term “terrorism” and enable a more objective interpretation of deeds prosecutors and courts could deem terroristic. 

Other, sometimes free-speech limiting, proposals include sanctioning excuses of terrorist actions, strengthening witness protection, restrict substitute penalties and possibility of probation for convicted terrorists, asset seizures, and others.

 

New Intelligence

A vital part of the planned reform covers changes to the national intelligence agencies, creating a State Intelligence System (SIE) and an “Intelligence Advisory Board,” comprising the ministers of the interior and defense, the undersecretary of the interior, and the heads of the organizations that would constitute the system. 

The entity would advise the president on intelligence matters in regular meetings and, through national intelligence agency ANI, coordinate anti-terrorist efforts of agencies such as customs, the IRS (SII) and the Gendarmerie.

A Serious Debate 

Terrorism is too serious for ideology or partisanship. Therefore, any law on the matter must distinguish between social conflict and terrorism. It is also necessary to contemplate the highest standards of democratic oversight over the institutions responsible for combating terrorism, without harming human rights and due process – hallmarks of the rule of law. Such oversight is currently practically non-existente.

This requires a serious debate in a rational environment, not the emotionally charged contexts right after an attack, or guided by an administration, like the current one, that’s desperate to gain a few points in the polls.

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