On September 8, 2014 — three days before the 41st anniversary of the violent coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende and brought General Augusto Pinochet to power — Santiago, Chile was again rocked by violence. That morning, the Chilean Supreme Court ruled against an appeal from a group of Marxist-Leninist radicals serving time for the 2007 murder of a police officer during a botched bank robbery. In the lead-up to the ruling, radical groups throughout the country had warned that the appeal’s denial would result in retributive attacks.
At roughly 2 p.m., a fire extinguisher filled with gunpowder exploded in an underground shopping center at the Escuela Militar metro station in the affluent neighborhood of Las Condes. The bomb injured 14 civilians and unleashed panic throughout the city. Ten days later, the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire (CCF), an underground anarchist terrorist group, published a short manifesto claiming responsibility for the Escuela Militar metro attack.
Though the attack was tragic, it was not the first of its kind. The Escuela Militar bombing was one of at least 30 terrorist attacks in Santiago that year alone, and since 2004, over 200 bombings have rattled the city. In some ways, these incidents are relics of the 17 years of oppressive military rule under Pinochet following the 1973 coup. Under Pinochet’s regime of forced disappearances and political oppression, the country’s civil society structures — through which marginalized groups could voice their dissent and participate in governance — broke down.
The country’s legacy of political violence continues today, in large part due to Chile’s mishandling of violent threats and archaic antiterrorism laws. But the Chilean people are demanding drastic change, both through broad shifts in existing policy and, perhaps, the re-imagining of the country’s constitution. The Escuela Militar bombings and other attacks of its kind are a reminder of Chile’s checkered past, and if the nation is to fully move past this troubled history, the government must repeal and replace its antiterrorism laws and treat peaceful protest as a critical channel for political engagement.
By most measures, Chile has seen a great deal of success since its transition to democracy in 1990. The country boasts the highest GDP per capita in South America, a figure that has more than quadrupled in the last quarter-century. The nation’s political institutions also rate as some of the strongest in the region. In 2009, a paper from the Inter-American Development Bank characterized Chile as a country that has successfully embraced democratic institutions and dismissed protests as “sporadic and…[far less relevant] to the policymaking process in general.” Moreover, the Economist recently named Santiago the safest city in Latin America. Nevertheless, the last two Chilean presidents have failed to create the kind of programmatic reforms that citizens have demanded. The civil unrest and anarchist attacks that have plagued Santiago for the past 11 years challenge the popular perception of Chile as a thriving modern democracy and rising economic power.
The Chilean success story looks much less rosy just beneath the surface. The country is ranked one of the most unequal in the world, and 14.4 percent of its population lives in poverty. Support for Chile’s political establishment is also declining: A 2015 study by researchers from the Pontificia Universidad Católica argues that in Chile there is “a growing distance between political parties and the society, in parallel with an increased criticism of electoral processes and representative institutions.”
A proliferation of protest movements and incidents of civil unrest in recent years reflects a growing sense of alienation. Today, 71 percent of Chileans support drafting a new constitution, reflecting the growing hunger for change. In addition to the wave of anarchist attacks that have rocked Santiago since 2004, Chile has also grappled with a sometimes violent indigenous rights movement as well as widespread student demonstrations, beginning with the so-called “Chilean Winter” of 2011. These three movements, in the words of Brown University Professor Arnulf Becker Lorca, “are all connected by general discontent” with the Chilean government’s failure to adequately represent the will of its people.
Perhaps no group has felt that discontent longer than the Mapuche. With over 1.5 million members, the Mapuche are Chile’s largest ethnic minority and have long been politically marginalized. Beginning in 1852, the Chilean government systematically and unilaterally imposed its sovereignty over the Mapuche, who would go on to face a century and a half of political, economic, and social dispossession. Since the country’s return to democracy in 1990, Mapuche activists have sought more political autonomy at the local level. But the Chilean government has often seen the Mapuche’s indigenous rights movement as being at odds with the push for a developed, modern economy.
Beginning in the 1990s, Mapuche activists began protesting large development projects, such as the construction of hydroelectric dams, on land that is culturally significant to their people. The government has mostly ignored the demands of indigenous groups and has even gone so far as to arrest antidevelopment activists and protestors. According to Mapuche activist José Naín Curamil, more than 250 Mapuche have been detained by the government, including Naín himself. In addition to arresting activists, the Chilean government has also continued to plan and develop new hydroelectric projects, an agenda that one indigenous advocacy group calls “a true slap on the face of human rights and [the] interest of the region’s inhabitants.”
Compared to the Mapuche rights movement, the Chilean Winter is a much younger and more popular political protest. Since 2011, student protestors have taken to the streets in cities across the country to demand policy changes. The Chilean Winter first aimed to address high university tuition rates, which represent 2 percent of Chile’s GDP — the second-highest rate in the world — and other failures of the Chilean education system, such as the nation’s privatized schools and underperforming teachers. These efforts have since spurred mass protests against everything from metro fares to laws banning abortions.
In contrast to the anarchist bombings or the indigenous rights movement, the Chilean Winter protests have had a more significant impact. The BBC stated in a 2014 report that, aside from the Escuela Militar metro attack, anarchist bombings were a “nuisance for Chileans rather than a serious threat to public safety.” The student protests, however, have been impossible to ignore. One protest during former-President Sebastián Piñera’s administration brought 150,000 students, professors, and other demonstrators to the streets to demand education reforms.
As a result of Piñera’s reluctance to embrace the reforms demanded by protestors, his party was swept from power in 2013. Voters replaced Piñera with current President Michelle Bachelet, a progressive icon of the Chilean left. Bachelet had previously served as president from 2006 to 2010, and her return to power was aided by promising many of the reforms demanded by protestors on issues like women’s rights and education. While Bachelet initially succeeded in passing a major school reform, progress has slowed, as the president’s attention has been refocused on other issues, such as corruption and a major recession.
However, frustration hasn’t always been channeled into peaceful protest. While all three cases of protest began with the same grievances with the current state of political affairs, the violent Chilean anarchist campaign differs in key ways from the Mapuche rights movement and the Chilean Winter. Mapuche and university student protests have at times turned violent, but these movements have sought to distance themselves from the degree of violence used by anarchist terrorists in the Escuela Militar metro attack.
Historically, Chilean anarchists have tried to avoid civilian casualties. Bombs have typically been detonated in the dead of night, when bystanders are less likely to be caught in the ensuing blasts. The targeting of the underground shopping center last year represented an enormous break with precedent. Anarchist bombers have historically targeted banks, government buildings, and churches — structures that represent institutional systems opposed by anarchism. The symbolism of the Escuela Militar metro attack is murkier. The CCF, in claiming responsibility for the attack, denounced the metro’s shopping center as a symbol of “bourgeoisie commercialism.” Beyond this general commitment to terror tactics and the shared philosophy of anarchism, it’s unclear what holds the violent anarchist movement together. Unlike the Mapuche rights movement or the Chilean Winter, Chile’s anarchist terrorists in the CCF have not yet articulated programmatic policy objectives or an agenda. Instead, they push for broad and diffuse goals, such as an end to consumerism or political oppression. This organizational weakness has made it possible for other political actors to tie the violent anarchist attacks to almost any political or social agenda that suits their need. Following the Escuela Militar metro attack, a handful of left-wing politicians immediately speculated that the incident was a false flag operation on the part of right-wingers to discredit the Chilean left. On the other side of the political spectrum, the right-wing intendant of the Bío Bío region claimed in 2011 that the attacks and other forms of social unrest could be traced directly to mothers having children out of wedlock, saying: “Chile is a country without a family.”
While these explanations may work well as political talking points, they fail to adequately explain the reasons behind this 11-year-long string of bombings. Anarchists aren’t attacking banks, churches, and government buildings because of a right-wing conspiracy or a weakening of family values. Although they differ in their choice to use violent methods, anarchists are bombing the infrastructure of a political and economic system that they, like Mapuche and Chilean Winter activists, believe has failed the Chilean people.
Events like the Escuela Militar bombing will continue until the Chilean government can effectively prosecute bombers and put them behind bars. Thanks to half-measures and the state’s reluctance to address its legacy of political violence, terrorists have been allowed to walk away from attacks without facing serious consequences for their actions.
The case of Mónica Caballero and Francisco Solar is a good example. Between 2006 and 2010, Caballero and Solar took part in an extended campaign of anarchist terrorist attacks known as the “Casos Bombas,” which would ultimately include 30 bombings of churches, government agencies, banks, and other targets. They were arrested in the summer of 2010 following an especially high profile attack just blocks from then-President Sebastián Piñera’s house.
The government was initially thought to have a strong case against the attackers and chose to pursue charges of terrorist conspiracy against Caballero and Solar. However, the prosecution’s sloppy handling of the trial ultimately led to the case being dismissed two years later. The prosecutors and judicial officials responsible for the bungling of the trial faced fierce criticism at the time, with former Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick stating, “I believe that some of our courts of justice owe an explanation.” The state’s failures in the Casos Bombas would come back to haunt it just two years later when Caballero and Solar were connected to a terrorist attack, this time on the Basílica Pilar de Zaragoza in northwestern Spain.
The reluctance of the Chilean judiciary to try bombers as terrorists stems from Chile’s complicated history of terrorism. Until 2004, Chile had not experienced a major terrorist attack since the waning days of the Pinochet regime. The law used to prosecute terrorists today is the same antiterror law used by Pinochet to illegally detain political prisoners in the 1970s and the 1980s. During his 17 years in power, Pinochet oversaw the forced disappearances of over 3,000 Chileans and used this antiterrorism law to imprison 40,000 political dissenters. Not only is the law outdated and ineffective for addressing today’s terrorist threats, it is also widely unpopular in Chile due to its questionable history and extreme provisions. The law allows police to keep suspects in solitary confinement indefinitely without leveling charges against them and allows for the use of wire-tapping and secret witnesses in investigations. The Chilean public overwhelmingly opposes the law, making it very difficult to put accused bombers, like Caballero and Solar, on trial for terrorism charges.
In the ten years leading up to the Escuela Militar metro attack, the Chilean government jailed only one individual on terrorism charges. Others, such as Caballero and Solar in the Casos Bombas, had been brought to trial but ultimately had their charges dismissed or their cases thrown out. One accused bomber, Luciano Pitronello, was brought to trial in 2012 after he attempted to blow up a bank in Santiago. The explosive detonated in his hands, forcing him to seek medical attention and foiling his plan. After being brought to trial on terrorism charges, Pitronello was ultimately sentenced to six years of probation and had all charges carrying a prison term dropped, despite the fact that all of his actions had been caught on camera.
The Chilean government’s inability to prosecute anarchist terrorists under the Pinochet-era antiterror law raises the important question of why the law hasn’t been successfully changed or replaced with newer, less controversial legislation. In fact, ever since Chile’s return to democracy, there have been efforts to do precisely this. Piñera instituted some reforms to the law in 2010, but activists argued that these changes did little to alter the overall nature of the legislature. In both her 2005 and 2013 campaigns, Bachelet opted to distance herself from the law altogether, saying that Chile “does not need [an] antiterrorism law” and that, if elected, she would rely on other statutes to prosecute terrorist crimes.
Both Piñera and Bachelet kept the law on the books, however, and used it — albeit largely unsuccessfully — against accused terrorists. The Piñera administration used the law in its prosecutions of Caballero, Solar, and Pitronello. Ultimately, the administration failed in its efforts because of fierce opposition from the Chilean judiciary system — not because of any unwillingness to charge suspected criminals using the controversial law. Bachelet broke her campaign promise not to use the law during both of her terms, invoking it against Mapuche activists as well as against the Escuela Militar metro bombers.
In the immediate aftermath of the Escuela Militar metro attack, the Chilean government failed to provide the full-throated denunciation of the attacks that many had hoped for. President Bachelet at first claimed that, even after the bombing, “it can not be said that there is terrorism in Chile,” despite the fact that the bombing was a clearcut example of an organization inciting terror by attacking civilians and infrastructure. After a cabinet meeting later that day, however, a Bachelet administration spokesman decried the attack as “an act of terrorism” and announced that the government would work to bring the attackers to justice using the controversial antiterrorism law.
Sure enough, the Chilean government followed through, arresting three suspects — Natalie Casanova Muñoz, Juan Flores Riquelme, and Guillermo Durán Méndez — within two weeks of the attack. Following the arrests, the government kept up its tough-on-crime rhetoric and appeared to be close to the verdict that it needed to regain order and silence its critics. But as time has gone on, the Chilean government seems to have fallen back into its old habits. There has been no new effort to prosecute terrorists, and no verdict has been handed down for Casanova, Flores Riquelme, and Durán. Fourteen months after their arrest, the three are still being detained without trial under the antiterrorism law.
In September 2014, student protest leader turned politician, Francisco Figueroa, summarized the root causes of civil unrest in Chile, saying, “it isn’t just a problem of Sebastián Piñera’s government, this is actually an institutional problem.” The continued use of the deeply unpopular antiterrorism law by both Piñera’s right-wing government and Bachelet’s left-wing government speaks to this institutional problem itself. Despite a population clamoring for reform, Chile’s leaders have continued to use the law. For many Chileans, every instance of its usage evokes the repression of the Pinochet era and thus undermines the country’s democratic progress.
The Escuela Militar metro attack presents a crossroads for Chile. In the face of a devastating terrorist attack born of a general sense of dissatisfaction with Chile’s supposed success as a developing democracy, the Chilean government must answer a clarion call to reform the way that the country tackles both political violence and responds to political protest. If the Bachelet government fails to answer this call to action, it risks losing the confidence and support of the Chilean people. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than with the University of Chile Student Federation (fECH), the leading organization in the Chilean Winter student protests. In 2013, the fECH elected Melissa Sepúlveda to the organization’s presidency. Sepúlveda, an avowed anarchist, represents a radical turn for an organization at the heart of Chile’s political future. In a radio interview shortly after the 2013 elections, Sepúlveda made clear that the fECH expected little reform from the government, declaring, “the possibility for change is not in Congress.”
Nonetheless, there is some reason for optimism. Bachelet recently announced a major reform that could give even a critic as hardened as Sepúlveda a reason to hope for change. In October 2015, Bachelet declared that her government would begin the process of replacing Chile’s constitution, a document that dates from the Pinochet dictatorship. In doing so, Bachelet is creating an opportunity for Chileans who feel excluded from the political process to weave their voices and their concerns into the very fabric of how the government operates. It offers the Chilean government an opportunity to rewrite its outmoded antiterrorism law and replace it with something that better represents the model of democratic progress Chile strives to be.