Damning allegations of human rights abuses, cover-ups and impunity have prompted growing calls for a root-and-branch reform of Chile’s national police force, known as the Carabineros.
The force has been accused of a string of abuses since the outbreak of widespread protests a year ago – most recently when an officer was caught on camera bundling a 16-year-old demonstrator over the railings of a bridge in Santiago.
The victim, named only as AA, fell 7 metres onto the concrete river bed, sustaining multiple fractures, and is now recovering in hospital.
The officer responsible has been dismissed by the Carabineros – reportedly for an “administrative” misdemeanour – and charged with attempted murder.
But the government has reiterated its unequivocal support for the force and its leader, Gen Mario Rozas, under whose leadership the Carabineros have racked up more than 8,500 allegations of human rights abuses in the past year.
Last week, two Carabineros officers were charged with torturing six detainees last October. Four of the victims were children, and the youngest just 14 years old.
The court heard that the officers had beaten and insulted the detainees, then extracted powder from a tear gas canister and smeared it across their faces while they were handcuffed.
“The political responsibility for human rights violations in Chile since October – and subsequent efforts to hide them – lies with the interior ministry,” said congressman Giorgio Jackson, a member of the Frente Amplio opposition bloc.
“We need to change the culture of [the Carabineros] to ensure that the right to protest is guaranteed and that they cannot hide evidence or obstruct the course of justice. We need to re-found the police so that Chile has professional, effective and transparent law enforcement institutions.”
Chile’s political opposition are also moving to have interior minister Víctor Pérez removed from office just two months after his appointment.
President Sebastián Piñera last year narrowly survived a similar attempt to have him removed from office over his response to the protests. Former interior minister Andrés Chadwick was dismissed in December, and barred from holding public office for five years for “systemic violation of human rights”.
International NGOs have also joined in the chorus of criticism.
An Amnesty International report published on Wednesday details systematic human rights abuses on the part of the Carabineros and demands an end to a “tradition of impunity”.
“These are not isolated cases of officers who have not followed protocols – this report is the culmination of a year-long investigation that has found human rights abuses and the excessive use of force are entirely normalised, as is impunity for the perpetrators,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director.
“The highest levels of command in the Carabineros must be criminally investigated for their responsibility in permitting and enabling these abuses.”
The Carabineros’ reputation has fallen dramatically: in 2016 it was Chile’s best-regarded institution, but a survey published on Monday showed that its approval rating had dropped to 36%.
That decline was precipitated by a long-running embezzlement scam – reportedly the country’s largest ever fraud case – compounded by a scandal in which officers were convicted of planting incriminating messages on suspects’ phones.
The murder of an indigenous man, Camilo Catrillanca, by an elite police unit in November 2018 inflamed tensions further.
The government says that more than 3,500 Carabineros officers have completed human rights training courses, and the president has asked for three security laws to be debated in congress.
“Although there have been reforms, the Carabineros’ culture has remained largely the same,” said Lucía Dammert, a sociologist at the University of Santiago who focuses on crime and security.
“The institution remains centralised, autonomous and insulated from criticism – and discipline is built and maintained around the notion that they are battling a common enemy.”
Fresh demonstrations are expected on the 18 October anniversary of the start of last year’s uprising, and nearly 40,000 officers will flood the streets for the occasion.
A week later on 25 October, Chile will vote in a nationwide referendum on whether the country should replace its current Pinochet-era constitution.