Chile: National Police commanders must be criminally investigated for human rights violations

The National Public Prosecutor's Office must ensure that a number of individuals in command of Chile’s National Police, the Carabineros de Chile, including the Director General, Deputy Director General and Director of Public Order and Security, as well as certain operational commanders within the Metropolitan Zone, are investigated for their possible responsibility for human rights violations committed during last year’s social demonstrations, Amnesty International today said in a new report issued on the first anniversary of the mass protests.

In All Eyes on Chile: Police violence and command responsibility during the social protests, the organization analyses the actions of national police officers between 18 October and 30 November 2019 and concludes that serious human rights violations, including that of the demonstrators’ right to physical integrity, were committed on a widespread basis because those in strategic command did not take all the necessary measures to prevent them.

Although this cut-off date was used for methodological reasons, cases of excessive use of police force continued to be recorded until mid-March 2020 – when demonstrations temporarily ceased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, and following a number of demonstrations in Santiago, new episodes of police violence have been recorded, such as the case of a 16-year-old youth who fell from a bridge after being pushed by a police officer, who is now being charged with attempted murder.

“Those in strategic command of the national police allowed acts of torture and ill-treatment to be committed against demonstrators because they considered them to be a necessary evil in order to disperse the crowds at all costs. Through tacit orders or deliberate omissions, they encouraged cases as serious as that of Gustavo Gatica or Fabiola Campillai, among many others,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

“The chain of omissions that Amnesty International identified, along the institutional channels by which those in strategic command of the police force could have put an end to the human rights violations, shows that, far from being isolated acts committed by officials acting on their own initiative, acts of violence are likely to have been committed because of a policy whose ultimate aim was to discourage social protest.”

The excessive use of force, abusive behaviour and impunity for human rights violations committed by the national police are not exclusive to the events that took place since October 2019 but are part of a constant and historical pattern that highlights the need for a thorough structural reform of the Chilean National Police, including effective and independent mechanisms for control and accountability.

Strategic or managerial command

Amnesty International carried out in-depth investigations into violations of the right to life and physical integrity of 12 people, through investigative files, court records, interviews with victims, human rights defenders and authorities, including prosecutors in charge of the investigations. In addition, the organization analysed more than 200 video clips and made 14 formal requests for information from different ministries, including the Ministry of the Interior.

The chain of omissions that Amnesty International identified, along the institutional channels by which those in strategic command of the police force could have put an end to the human rights violations, shows that, far from being isolated acts committed by officials acting on their own initiative, acts of violence are likely to have been committed because of a policy whose ultimate aim was to discourage social protest
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

The report shows that there is reason to believe that the Director General, the Deputy Director General and the Director of Public Order and Security of the national police, at the very least, would have known of the human rights violations through public and official information. Internal reports, for example, noted repeated and serious injuries caused every day by munitions fired from shotguns and the use of tear gas launchers, including eye injuries, totalling 347 cases as of 30 November. As of March 2020, according to the National Human Rights Institute, this figure stood at 460.

It took those in strategic command, analysed in the report, a month to restrict the use of this ammunition and they never banned it, despite an internal report showing how dangerous it was and that there had been more than 250 eye injuries. Although a “National Master Plan” was established to advise the Director General, the strategy and planning of operations management remained virtually unchanged despite this disaster. Protocols remained vague and unamended, and general orders were issued that were almost identical to the previous, with no specific instructions on minimizing the harm done.

During the period under review by Amnesty International, virtually no disciplinary sanctions were handed down despite more than 4,000 complaints made to the Public Prosecutor's Office about the Chilean National Police. Of the 170 sanctions announced by the police institution in July 2020, only 16 involved removal from office. In two of the cases that received such administrative sanctions, those of Fabiola Campillai and Gustavo Gatica, the conduct being punished was not related to the use of force. In others, despite the fact that National Police officers had accepted responsibility for serious injuries, they were not sanctioned. This allowed officials involved in human rights violations to remain in their posts, operating on a daily basis, and only encouraged a repetition of violations given the prevailing impunity within the institution.

“National Police officers suppressed the protests by firing highly damaging, widely dispersed ammunition, contrary to international standards on the use of force. Far from banning these rubber and metal bullets as anti-riot munitions, as should have been the case, they were fired in an uncontrolled manner, sometimes with the intention of harming the protesters, or in the knowledge that this was likely to happen,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

“In the month of October alone, national police officers fired over 104,000 rounds of such bullets. Disregard for the demonstrators’ physical safety caused more people to be seriously injured every day, regardless of the fact that such behaviour could, on many occasions, have constituted a criminal offence. A strategy of impunity was fostered by the lack of traceability of the ammunition used given that there were no traces left on the weapons from which they were fired.”

Operative or tactical command

Some of those in strategic command in the Metropolitan Region, such as the Chief of the Metropolitan Zone (STGO1) or the Chief of the Public Order, Control and Intervention Zone (STGO4), also failed to exercise due control over their subordinates, as was their duty, and directed and coordinated operations such as that of 8 November in the Plaza Italia, where Special Forces operatives fired their weapons indiscriminately and into highly lethal areas of the body.

In that intervention alone, which was ordered by the Prefect of the Special Forces (G-1) and his sub-prefects (G-2 and G-3) and in which Gustavo Gatica was blinded, more than 2,000 rounds containing 12 pellets each were fired. Operations such as this were not the exception but the rule. Amnesty International identified that this modus operandi was repeated during the month and a half under analysis, and that these operations in the Metropolitan Region were carried out by the same officers, who fired unjustified and uncontrolled shots day after day, and sometimes through offensive strategies against demonstrators. Among the officers repeatedly identified were G-2 and G-3 – the latter was recently charged as a possible perpetrator of the injuries to Gustavo Gatica.

“The fact that those in strategic command in the Metropolitan Region directed and coordinated operations and were directly involved in human rights violations would have encouraged the rest of their subordinates to operate in the same way against the protesters,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

Executive responsibility

Amnesty International believes that the policy implemented by those in command of the national police would not have occurred if President Sebastián Piñera’s administration had exercised adequate control. The executive branch's attempts to do so were insufficient and the discourse in support of the work of the National Police favoured a continuity of this strategy.

If this crisis has shown us anything, it’s that the Chilean National Police as an institution is obsolete and needs to adapt to the needs of the population, submitting itself fully to civilian power and exercising its functions with absolute respect for human rights, transparency and accountability
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

“All political, administrative and even criminal responsibility, up to the highest level, must be established with regard to all those who, in their position as guarantors, knew or should have known of the magnitude of human rights violations and did not prevent them, even though they had the capacity and the duty to do so,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

To ensure that events such as those considered in the report are not repeated, not only is it necessary to bring all those responsible to justice, at the highest level possible, but also to reform the institution of the National Police Force.

“If this crisis has shown us anything, it’s that the Chilean National Police as an institution is obsolete and needs to adapt to the needs of the population, submitting itself fully to civilian power and exercising its functions with absolute respect for human rights, transparency and accountability,” Erika Guevara-Rosas added.

The demands of the population that triggered the social demonstrations in Chile in the first place must also be heard. In this sense, Amnesty International considers that the process for adopting a new Constitution is a historic opportunity in which the economic and social rights demanded by the population must be guaranteed for everyone in Chile, without discrimination.

Although not the subject of this report, Amnesty International also documented cases of human rights violations committed by members of the armed forces, who President Sebastián Piñera deployed to some regions of Chile between 18 and 28 October during a constitutional state of emergency, despite the fact that their role is not one of controlling public order during demonstrations. Army officers were accused of numerous acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and of using lethal ammunition against demonstrators on several occasions, and of killing three people in the context of protests. Criminal responsibility for these deaths and injuries must be immediately, impartially and thoroughly clarified.

“The National Public Prosecutor's Office and the Judiciary have a mammoth task ahead of them but one that is crucial to the country's well-being: to end the tradition of impunity for human rights violations committed by the national police force. Justice, truth and reparation for victims is the best remedy for a wounded country,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Duncan Tucker: duncan.tucker@amnesty.org