SANTIAGO – Military helicopters flying over Santiago’s deserted streets during the curfew and the armed forces guarding local supermarkets are signs of the times these days in Chile that evoke for many Chileans the darkest years of the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
The militarization of Chile to quell the disturbances and looting that have prevailed in several cities since last Friday, and during which about 10 deaths have been reported, is a flashback to times that seemed to have been forgotten in a country that considered itself an oasis of peace within a sometimes tumultuous Latin America.
It was the government’s hike in metro fares in Santiago that lit the fuse resulting in the explosion of violence, with protesters committing arson, looting and clashing with police, actions that led the government to put securing public order into the hands of the military in the country’s main cities.
The situation got worse with the imposition of an overnight curfew, an unprecedented measure in Chile since the reestablishment of democracy after the military regime.
This restriction left neighborhoods in the capital deserted and in almost complete silence, a calm that was only interrupted by the sound of military and police choppers and the sirens of firetrucks dispatched to deal with assorted emergencies.
In other parts of the capital the environment was very different. Groups of demonstrators peacefully challenged the curfew and others stood guard to protect their homes and businesses from looters.
In some capital neighborhoods, where the disturbances got worse, patrols of Carabineros – Chile’s militarized police – and soldiers armed with assault rifles forcefully attacked looters and groups of troublemakers.
The actions of the security forces have been harshly questioned by human rights organizations, which have denounced the unbridled use of force in making arrests, in torturing detainees and mistreating minors.
The National Human Rights Institute (INDH) verified the case of a boy who was shot in the liver and kidney, a girl who was hit by a shotgun pellet in the leg and six people with eye injuries, all of this bodily damage – the INDH said – caused by Carabineros, police and the armed forces.
On the social networks, a number of videos have appeared showing the violence with which security forces are moving against demonstrators.
In one of those videos, two police officers are kicking a person, then give him 10 seconds to make his escape but wind up firing shots after him, although it could not be determined if the man was hit.
In another video, about 15 marines in Valparaiso surround two people and hold them at gunpoint while they kick and beat them.
These are hard images to watch – and very unusual in Chile – but they hark back to the Pinochet era, when soldiers deployed around the country terrorized the populace.
At dawn, with the end of the curfew, Santiago was trying to recover some semblance of normality, although the presence of troops at stations along Line 1 of the metro, the only line in operation, provide evidence that this is not just any other Monday.
After two days of having grocery stores closed in the face of the looting, most people were out and about trying to buy food and basic supplies, or getting gasoline for their vehicles.
This pent up demand for food and fuel resulted in long lines at the few establishments that opened their doors – all the while guarded by police and troops – with people stocking up on everything in sight as if there were no tomorrow.