Chile: Deliberate policy to injure protesters points to responsibility of those in command

The security forces under the command of President Sebastián Piñera – mainly the army and Carabineros (the national police) – are carrying out widespread attacks using unnecessary and excessive force with the intention of injuring and punishing protesters. These attacks have so far resulted in the deaths of five people and the torture, ill-treatment and serious injury of thousands of others, said Amnesty International today at the end of research mission in the country.

“The intention of the Chilean security forces is clear: to injure demonstrators in order to discourage protest, even to the extent of using torture and sexual violence against protesters. Instead of taking measures to curb the very grave human rights crisis, the authorities, under the command of President Sebastián Piñera, have pursued a policy of punishment for over a month, adding yet more people to the staggering number of victims, which is continuing to rise to this day,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

The intention of the Chilean security forces is clear: to injure demonstrators in order to discourage protest, even to the extent of using torture and sexual violence against protesters. Instead of taking measures to curb the very grave human rights crisis, the authorities, under the command of President Sebastián Piñera, have pursued a policy of punishment for over a month, adding yet more people to the staggering number of victims, which is continuing to rise to this day
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

“Individual criminal responsibility for these events does not stop at the prosecution of the person who pulled the trigger. Guaranteeing justice and non-repetition of these incidents, must involve sanctions against those superiors who, in the full knowledge of the crimes committed by officials under their command, have ordered or tolerated them day after day.” 

According to the National Human Rights Institute (NHRI), at least five people have died at the hands of the security forces and more than 2,300 have been injured; more than 1,400 of those injured sustained gunshot wounds and 220 severe eye trauma. In addition, the Public Prosecutor's Office has registered more than 1,100 complaints of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as more than 70 crimes of a sexual nature committed by public officials. According to the national police, none of its officials has died, but some 1,600 have been injured, 105 of them seriously.

The demonstrations in Chile began in mid-October in response to a fare increase on public transport. In the context of the extreme levels of inequality in the country, the protests have since expanded to include demands for a more just society in which the state guarantees rights such as the rights to health, water, quality education and social security.

Amnesty International believes that human rights violations and crimes under international law committed by members of the security forces are not isolated or sporadic incidents, but reveal a consistent pattern of violations throughout the country, indicating the modus operandi of the security forces, above all by the national police. Given the degree of coordination required to continue such violent repression of protests for more than a month, it is not unreasonable to surmise that those in command at the highest level bear responsibility, either because they ordered or tolerated the repression. Such a far-reaching presumption can, of course, only be clarified by an independent and impartial judicial authority.

President Piñera's decision to deploy the army onto the streets after imposing a state of emergency has had catastrophic consequences. Both those in command who decided to deploy the army using lethal weapons for policing operations during demonstrations, as well as the officers who shot protesters resulting deaths or serious injuries must be investigated and, if where there is sufficient evidence, brought to justice before independent and impartial courts.

During and after the state of emergency, those in command of the national police, as well as a succession of superior officers, far from exercising effective control in order to prevent or repress violence by their subordinates, allowed them to continue acting in the same way, resulting in a constant high volume of complaints by protesters of ill-treatment, torture and irreparable eye damage. Their failure to prevent such acts, when it is their duty to do so, means that they bear personal criminal responsibility under international law.

So far, Amnesty International has documented 23 cases of human rights violations in the regions of Valparaíso, Tarapacá, Bío-Bío, Antofagasta, Coquimbo, Maule and Araucanía, as well as in 11 communes in the Santiago Metropolitan Region between 19 October and 11 November. In addition, Amnesty International has obtained more than 130 pieces of audiovisual and photographic evidence – all of which have been verified by its Digital Verification Corps and weapons and ammunition expert – of unnecessary and excessive use of force. 

Crimes under international law and grave human rights violations – intentional and widespread nature of violations

  1. USE OF LETHAL FORCE

Amnesty International has documented five deaths caused by the actions of members of the security forces during the state of emergency declared by President Piñera on 19 October: four at the hands of army officers and one by a member of the national police. Two were the result of the use of military grade weaponry.

By analysing images, the organization was able to confirm that the army used lethal weapons indiscriminately against unarmed protesters in at least four situations. The use of GALIL ACE and FAMAE SG 540 semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic handguns firing live ammunition was identified. Although more sporadic, the organization was able to verify that members of the Chilean Investigation Police (PDI) and the national police also fired live ammunition. International standards prohibit the use of such weapons to disperse protests.

Romario Veloz, a 26-year-old Ecuadorian national, died after he was shot in the neck by a soldier as he was taking part in a small march in the city of La Serena. When they arrived at a local park, soldiers opened fire indiscriminately on the protesters assembled there. Videos of shooting show Romario walking along calmly with his hands in his pockets.

At that same event, Rolando Robledo, aged 41, was shot by a soldier and wounded in the chest. He spent several days in a coma in a critical condition. According to witnesses, officials did not help either of the men and the army fired again on protesters who were trying to help the wounded.

In Curicó, José Miguel Uribe was shot in the chest by a soldier and died. Minutes earlier, 25-year-old José Miguel had been at an improvised roadblock erected by young people in the area to stop traffic and put pressure on the authorities.  The military arrived and, without warning, opened fire on those present. According to witnesses, no uniformed official tried to help José Miguel even though they saw him collapse.

  1. Torture and ill-treatment

One of the most common ways of inflicting injuries on protesters has been through ill-treatment and, to a lesser extent, torture – a crime under international law. In addition to a case of death resulting from police ill-treatment, Amnesty International has documented three cases of torture, including torture using sexual violence.

Alex Núñez, aged 39, died as a result of a vicious beating by police officers. Alex was crossing a demonstration in order to make a delivery in Maipú, Santiago Metropolitan Region, when he was stopped by three police officers. They threw him to the ground and started kicking him violently about the head and chest. He died the next day as a result of his head injuries.

To date, the Chilean Public Prosecutor's Office has recorded a total of 16 complaints of rape or sexual abuse by security forces, including the case of Josué Maureira, who was raped with a baton while in police custody. In addition, several members of the national police inflicted injuries on his buttocks with a sharp object, beat him, kicked him and insulted him because of his sexual orientation.

In an emblematic case of torture and ill-treatment, police officers severely beat a person (whose identity has been withheld), causing irreversible loss of vision in one eye, fracturing his nose, dislocating his shoulder and breaking three ribs, resulting in a punctured lung. Twelve officials attacked him while he was demonstrating peacefully carrying a pan and a spoon in Ñuñoa Square in Santiago.

Another case occurred in the Isla de Maipo district of the Santiago Metropolitan Region, where national police officials beat Cristóbal Alexis “Flen”, aged 30, from the time of his arrest until his release several hours later. When the injuries were first recorded, a police officer was present and prevented the doctor from making a thorough record of all his injuries. Amnesty International received repeated reports of such practices, which constitute attempts to conceal a crime. When Amnesty International interviewed "Flen" 19 days later, both his eyes were still bleeding and he had bruises on various parts of his body.

The organization has also documented nine instances when the police and army ran over or tried to run over protesters while they are walking in the street in the cities of Colina, Quilpué, Santiago, Viña del Mar and Valparaíso. For example, Manuel Rebolledo, aged 23, was run over by a soldier and killed in the city of Talcahuano.

In addition to the documented cases, Amnesty International verified more than 30 pieces of audiovisual evidence showing how the police and the military have inflicted cruel treatment on members of the public without justification and for no apparent reason. This violence to disperse peaceful protests was directed against people who had been detained, those who had been restrained and against children and adolescents in vulnerable situations, in the cities of Valparaíso, Santiago, Viña del Mar, Antofagasta and Concepción.

  1. Serious injuries and potentially lethal weapons

Although international law requires that firearms using potentially lethal ammunition (such as rubber pellets) be used only in exceptional circumstances when a person's life or physical integrity is in danger and in a way that causes as little harm as possible, Amnesty International has documented the constant and inappropriate use of firearms by officials during the protests.

In addition to one death linked to the use of pellets, the organization has documented, through the use of image verification, 14 cases of harm to physical integrity, seven of them involving irreversible eye damage, and has confirmed almost 20 police operations of this kind. Analysis of the images shows that police officers (and to a lesser extent soldiers) have used Benelli M3 and Escort AimGuard shotguns firing potentially lethal ammunition in an unjustified, widespread and indiscriminate manner and in many cases aiming at people’s heads. 

According to a medical report, Kevin Gómez, aged 24, died of a "thoracic lung injury caused by multiple projectiles" on 21 October in the city of Coquimbo. According to witnesses, a solider opened fire on Kevin with a shotgun, without warning and at close range, despite the fact that the young man was unarmed.

In one case, a 15-year-old girl at a peaceful gathering in the Cerrillos neighbourhood of the Santiago Metropolitan Region was hit by multiple pellets fired by a police officer from a moving police car. The pellets hit her in the left eye, forehead, shoulder and neck. 

In another incident, a 24-year-old youth was walking down a street in the capital city recording the police's actions when he was hit 18 times by pellets fired by a police officer. In that same video he can be heard remonstrating with police officers for assaulting his friend and one officer then responds by shooting him, at point blank range and aiming at the upper body, resulting in injuries to both his legs, arms, chest, nose and eye, causing severe trauma to the eye.

The misuse of tear gas in alarming quantities on at least 11 occasions has been identified, including in hospitals, universities, homes and even schools, seriously affecting children, adolescents and others requiring special care. Tear gas has been fired directly at people and at close range using Penn Arms L137-3 grenade launchers, causing serious injuries, including eye damage.

A police officer fired a tear gas canister at 24-year-old Natalia Aravena as she was demonstrating peacefully hitting her in the right eye; he had given no prior warning.  Natalia is one of dozens of people who have sustained severe eye damage from the impact of tear gas canisters and water cannon during demonstrations.

The use of smoke grenades has also been identified. These can be extremely toxic and are designed for use in armed conflicts and their use in the context of policing demonstrations is inappropriate. This is reported to have happened on 14 November in Temuc, when medical and rescue workers were attacked with water cannon and a smoke grenade as they were trying to help the injured.

Restriction on the work of human rights defenders

During the month-long crisis in Chile, countless human rights movements and organizations have been caring for the injured, ensuring respect for detainees and following up cases through the justice system.

However, on several occasions the authorities have hindered the work of lawyers, human rights defenders and medical personnel, preventing them from accessing police stations, hospitals and medical centres. For example, between 21 and 22 October, NHRI officials were prevented from entering the public accident and emergency hospital "Posta Central" where dozens of people injured by state officials were being treated. Amnesty International has also learned of cases of people being beaten or shot with pellets and injured while they were providing first aid, as well as activists and defenders being threatened for carrying out their work.

For example, on 29 October, Jorge Ortiz, an NHRI official, was hit by six pellets while acting as an observer during a demonstration in a square in Santiago along with other members of his team. Although all were wearing the clearly identifiable yellow NHRI uniform and could be seen by the police, one of the officers shot Jorge for no reason and officers failed to provide any assistance after he was hit.

“The situation in Chile cannot go on like this. The authorities must ensure that human rights defenders and civil society organizations can continue to do their work freely, without any form of pressure, threat or retaliation,” said Ana Piquer, executive director of Amnesty International Chile.

“Unfortunately, the violations that occurred during this crisis are not new; they have been repeatedly highlighted by Amnesty International and the rest of Chilean civil society in recent years. This tragic page in Chile's history must serve once and for all to ensure that the institutional and structural reforms demanded by society, such as reforming the police and guaranteeing social rights, are carried out.”

Based on this research, Amnesty International makes the following preliminary recommendations:

  1. The authorities must end the repression as a matter of urgency, giving specific orders to the security forces to exercise maximum restraint in the use of force, which should only be used in a progressive, proportionate and differentiated manner, in line with relevant international standards. The authorities must also ensure clearly and emphatically that the use of lethal and potentially lethal weapons are never used as a deterrent, but resorted to only in exceptional circumstances to address a clear and present threat to the life or physical integrity of protesters or law enforcement officials.  
  2. The justice agencies must investigate the responsibility of those in command for the human rights violations and crimes under international law committed in the context of this crisis by members of the army and police, in accordance with the Chilean legal system and international standards.
  3. The authorities must ensure that the legitimate demands of the population are met. The necessary legislative and public policy reforms must be applied urgently to effectively guarantee economic, social, cultural and environmental rights for all people, without discrimination and with particular attention paid to those at greater risk. The authorities must also ensure that the process to devise a new constitution that protects and promotes all human rights is participatory and inclusive.
  4. The authorities must undertake a serious and thoroughgoing reform of the police force. This should include reviewing its regulatory framework, with a view to transforming the institution in order to ensure that all its actions adhere to human rights standards, and putting rigorous control and accountability mechanisms in place.  

For more information or to arrange an interview, please call: 

Carlos Mendoza (Amnesty International Americas): +52 1 55 4145 7003, carlos.mendoza@amnesty.org

Ilsen Jara: (Amnesty International Chile): +56 9 6427 8411, ilsen.jara@amnistia.cl