Last November, memory and human rights organisations in Chile, as well as relatives of dictatorship victims endured yet another blow in the Chilean courts’ decision to acquit 60 former DINA agents of their roles in the kidnapping, torture, murder and disappearance of 16 Revolutionary Left Militants (MIR), between 1974 and 1975. Operation Colombo, or the Case of the 119, as it is also known, was a dictatorship clandestine operation which sought to track down and eliminate the socialist forces opposing Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed dictatorship. The coverup utilised by the dictatorship included right-wing media, which blamed their disappearance on infighting between the militants themselves.
Among the acquitted agents is Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko – a notorious name among torture survivors who, witnesses say, even refused to hide his identity during torture, and a hero figure among the right-wing Pinochet supporters who have idolised Krassnoff’s image and erroneously painted him as a prisoner “for serving Chile”.
Decades after Operation Colombo, Chile’s courts still have issues with penalising the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Lawyer Nelson Caucoto Pereira described the Chilean court’s sentence as “violating the principles of proportionality” with regard to international human rights law and further questioned how the Chilean state can guarantee that the same crimes would not be repeated.
The protests which were triggered by an increase in bus fares in October 2019 and which quickly swept across Chile, with the nation calling for an end to the dictatorship constitution and for Chilean President Sebastian Pinera to step down, have illustrated Chile’s concept of state violence and how this emulates dictatorship tactics. Imposing a military curfew, ostensibly to protect civilians, even as the state allowed for its actors, notably the police and the military, to unleash violence upon Chileans, many of whom have been permanently maimed with rubber bullets shot directly at the eyes.
On Monday, Pinera announced he will not be pardoning Chileans who were arrested by the police due to their participation in the demonstrations.
As international scrutiny over Chile intensified in the early days of the protests, Pinera attempted the rewriting of the protests’ narrative by claiming that a state of emergency was necessary to re-establish order in the country. Later, as Chileans likened the state’s measures to the dictatorship era and footage of rampant state violence became accessible on social media, Pinera briefly sought to distance the government from the military, stating disagreement with the tactics used but failing to protect civilians or provide the basics of recourse for the detained. human rights violations, including sexual abuse, killings and forced disappearances were documented by human rights organisations.
Pinera’s recent statement was made following new demonstrations by Chileans near the presidential palace La Moneda, clamouring for reforms in the pension funds, which the Chilean government is adamantly opposing, despite growing inequalities within society.
Lawmakers who proposed the bill to pardon demonstrators have juxtaposed Pinera’s willingness to pardon DINA agents accused of crimes against humanity, while refusing to pardon demonstrators calling for social and political reform.
Meanwhile, Chile’s Human Rights Commission has filed a complaint, accompanied by evidence, of the Chilean police’s brutality, including the use of chemicals, during protests. Earlier this month, Chile’s Former Military Police Director testified in court over 36 claims of human rights violations, including the pushing of a Chilean teenager off a bridge into the Mapocho River in Santiago, which happened under his command.
In light of the ongoing violations, the Chilean people’s vote to end the Pinochet constitution will run into considerable pitfalls. So far, since the transition to democracy, Pinochet’s legacy has served the democratically elected governments well, in particular the anti-terror laws which have been used to criminalise resistance, particularly among the Mapuche communities. With the courts and the government clearly seeking impunity for the perpetrators, including state actors, it remains to be seen how the new constitution will ultimately safeguard the rights of those who need protection the most, from the same entities entrusted with a new legislation for the country.