After the dictatorship, and although Carabineros de Chile’s Director General was part of the junta, the police force could position itself as the most respected institution in the country. Gone were the human rights violations by some of its members. But in recent years the institution started to fall from grace again, suggesting the fish stinks from the head.
Carabineros’ reputation suffered most during the dictatorship. Specifically after it became known that a group belonging to the institution’s intelligence directorate was involved in the ‘Slit-Throat Case’ in 1985. They kidnapped three communist party members and murdered them cruelly by cutting their throats one after another. The bodies were dumped near the airport – where now three giant chairs commemorate the victims – to intimidate other leaders that were fighting to regain democracy.
Scandal after Scandal
After 1989 some serious changes occurred to deal with this history. But by 2016, the downfall began. The public was perplexed when it learned about “pacogate” – “paco” being a derogatory term for Carabineros. The scandal involved an illicit association of high-ranking officials who defrauded the Treasury by at least US$24 million over at least 10 years.
And the scandals kept coming.
Among them the “Huracán” case. Police intelligence fabricated digital ‘evidence’ to frame a group of Mapuche leaders. After that came the “Catrillanca” case, in which a Mapuche was killed but the patrol described the event as an armed confrontation while bodycam footage was destroyed.
During the “social outbreak” that started last year, Carabineros special forces engaged in harsh repression that included shooting at protesters’ faces, causing almost 200 eye injuries. The comptroller general is investigating seven generals of the institution’s high command for their administrative responsibility in the procedures of controlling public order from October 18, 2019.
And although the uniformed police had several months to review protocols and procedures during the pandemic’s critical phase in anticipation of a complex October, which will see the uprising’s first anniversary and the constitutional plebiscite, a Carabinero pushed a 16-year-old protester over a bridge railing so he fell seven meters into the Mapocho river. The boy was seriously injured and the event sparked a wave of protests at home and even abroad.
A Threat to Democracy
Worse, the police have divided the citizenry to a degree that is dangerous for democracy. Carabineros have protected even unauthorized marches for the Rechazo (reject) option in the constitutional plebiscite while repressing Apruebo (approve) supporters. But they were also in the “eye of the hurricane” when they protected truckers that manifestly violated the law by cutting the main roads in southern Chile. With the move, the truckers protested violence in La Araucanía region, where Mapuche seek recognition of their historical land rights. Different treatment for the same situations, which has politicized the Carabineros.
Without doubt the Carabineros urgently require a complete and profound restructuring. Citizens must once again be able trust a key institution of the state. In fact, the government has promoted such a debate in Congress, according to the opposition. But the move remains insufficient.
However, considering the role the institution’s head, General Mario Rozas, has played, it is very difficult to see how that change could come with him at the helm.
He has served less than two years in that position but has always been controversial. Rozas is a strong-willed person and has an aggressive tone. Whenever he gives an interview, makes statements, or harangues his people in leaked audios, he brings the dictatorship to mind. This is so evident that he has publicly expressed his admiration for General Rodolfo Stange, who headed the institution as a Pinochet loyalist. Stange was accused of obstructing justice in the ‘Slit-Throat Case’ and even refused to step down when requested to do so by former president Eduardo Frei.
Rozas is not the kind of person that could lead a police force in a democracy.
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.