Weekly Report - 30 March 2023 (WR-23-13)

CHILE: Good guys or bad guys?

The bill in question is an amalgamation of two earlier drafts and is named after Eugenio Nain and Carlos Retamal, policemen killed on duty, respectively in October 2020 and October 2022. Pro-police public feeling has been running high after the deaths of two further Carabineros officers in March, at the hands of criminal groups: Carabineros Corporal Alex Salazar died when run over by a car on 12 March in an incident in Concepción, the capital of the southern region of Biobío; Sergeant Rita Olivares was shot dead in Quilpué, in the region of Valparaíso, on 25 March. At a press conference on 27 March, Boric said that it was important for the Carabineros to know they had popular support, and that “criminals will be pursued with inclemency and within the law, because this cannot continue to happen, and we will stop it”.

The government has decided to respond to public opinion with a raft of new legislation. Among other things, the Nain-Retamal bill gives police greater powers to stop and search immigrants and to detain them if they don’t have an identity card. Other bills in preparation cover a harder line on issues such as kidnapping, carrying arms, extortion, sicariato (the use of paid killers), and illegal migration.

However, there are also concerns that in the heat of the moment congress may end up rubber-stamping a dangerous reduction in civil liberties. The large majority in favour of the Nain-Retamal bill in the lower chamber may conceal divisions within the government coalition that will come to the fore when it gets to the senate. At issue is the concept of ‘privileged legitimate defence’, which replaces current legal wording requiring police to respond proportionately to any threat. Instead, the new text grants police officers an initial presumption of innocence in the use of firearms, which troubles civil rights activists. It clearly also troubles members of the pro-government coalition, some of whom voted in favour of the bill on the understanding that the controversial clause would be amended in the upper chamber.                

In public relations terms the Carabineros have had a patchy history; for some Chileans they remain the ‘bad guys’ while for others they are heroes. The force has in the past been accused of police brutality and corruption. In the violent Estallido Social of 2019-2020 (street demonstrations which left a toll of over 30 dead and many blinded by tear gas), the Carabineros was accused by the United Nations and civil liberty groups of violating human rights. Coincidentally the human rights NGO Amnesty International said on 28 March that promises of post-social explosion police reform made by the incumbent government have so far come to nothing. 

At the moment public opinion is strongly in support of the police. Evelyn Matthei, the mayor of Providencia, a district in the capital Santiago, supported the ‘privileged legitimate defence’ approach. Matthei, a member of the right-wing opposition Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI), said “if there is an issue a case can be made in the courts but we have to give the benefit of the doubt to the Carabineros, not to the drug dealers”. According to national pollster Cadem, Matthei is currently Chile’s most popular politician with a 70% approval rating. The same poll shows 86% of respondents favour giving the Carabineros greater powers, while 82% support the policy of Rodolfo Carter, another UDI mayor, of the Santiago district of La Florida, who has used bulldozers to demolish so-called narco-houses, private homes that have been taken over by drug dealers and addicts. 

Use of force

Members of Chile’s ruling coalition have also been backing a bill which includes similar provisions on the legitimate use of for

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