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The Crisis in Chile Is Extending to a Crackdown on Gays

Chile

“As soon as we got to the police station, the homophobic slurs began,” an unnamed young man, just shy of 22, recounts in a video testimonial.

“They stripped off my clothes.” He pauses briefly between each statement, letting every detail sink in. “They hit me in front of the other detainees and they forced me to sign documents, refusing to let me read them.” He depicts a shocking denial of basic rights, adding that the police prohibited him from alerting his family to his whereabouts. 

Another young man around the same age described a similar experience: “In front of 10 other officers, the police started to hit me constantly, and that is when they forced me to scream. They said, ‘But admit it,’ and they started to hit me on the head until I replied, ‘Yes, I’m a faggot!’” 

These chilling accounts from two gay men, recently detained under questionable circumstances by the Carabineros — Chile’s national police force — are among many similar and harrowing testimonies of torture and abuse carried out by state forces in recent weeks in the South American country. The number of cases reported to Chile’s Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Institute of Human Rights) has skyrocketed since the wave of massive protests — which have rattled the social fabric and paralyzed the country — began in late October.

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While Chile has been considered an example of economic growth and political stability in Latin America, the country’s impressive development indicators have masked stark levels of inequality and wealth disparity (the richest 1 percent holds about 33 percent of the country’s wealth). A recent fare increase for public transport in Santiago, the country’s capital, by 30 pesos (approximately US$0.04, its fourth rise in 24 months) sparked a series of student-led protests, characterized by evading the subway fare en masse. The government’s reaction — to station riot police at metro stations and threaten to revoke student transportation discounts — only fueled the unrest. In a matter of days, protests expanded immensely across Santiago and dozens of other cities as a response to the rising cost of living and the country’s enormous social and economic inequality. What started as a student demonstration evolved into a collective reaction against decades of social and economic injustice. 

The fare increase was simply the tip of the iceberg. In the following weeks, millions of people filled the streets across the country, demanding a series of social and economic changes, particularly modifications to the unjust and fully privatized pension system (average pensions are approximately US$285 per month and more than half of senior citizens have a pension of under US$190 per month), lower salaries among the political elite (members of Chile’s Congress currently earn 33 times the minimum wage), access to affordable medication and health care services, an increase in the minimum wage (which is currently around US$382 per month), lower transportation, water, and electricity costs (a family living on minimum wage in Chile may spend almost 20 percent of their income on public transportation alone) and a rewrite of the country’s constitution, which was designed and implemented by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet in 1980. Chile is one of only two countries in Latin America with a constitution still in place that was written under dictatorial rule. For years, Chile’s constitution has been scrutinized by activists and left-wing scholars because it contains articles that impede structural reform, maintain the status quo, and keep power and wealth among the few. As people have said on the street and as Chilean-French rapper Ana Tijoux famously declared in her protest-inspired anthem “Cacerolazo,” it’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years of abuse and injustice. 

While the streets have filled with massive, energetic, diverse, and creative protests across all regions of the country, looting and wreckage of public infrastructure and personal property have also occurred, especially during the initial days of demonstrations. In the first week alone, several metro stations were vandalized or destroyed, and a garment factory on the outskirts of Santiago was burned, killing five. Currently, the Chilean Chamber of Construction estimates that fixing and reconstructing public infrastructure will cost over US$4 billion. However, hundreds of thousands of nonviolent protesters have continued to flood the streets supporting the social demands of the people, making noise by banging pots and pans with wooden spoons as their instruments of choice, a famous form of protest in Chile called cacerolazo.

As a response to the protests, Chile’s president, Sebastian Piñera, deployed over 10,000 military agents and police officers all around the country. The government imposed a curfew in Santiago and various cities prohibiting civilians from being in public spaces after dark. 

On October 20, three days into the protests, and as a way to devitalize the uprising, Piñera addressed the nation in a televised speech. “We are at war,” he said, “with a powerful enemy who is willing to use violence without any limits,” voicing his absolute support for the military and police forces on the streets. Contrary to the government’s expectations, protests intensified. On October 25, over 1.2 million people filled the streets of downtown Santiago during the largest public demonstration in the country’s history. The protesters called for greater social and economic justice and demanded the demilitarization of public spaces and an end to the curfew. 

Chile

In the following days and weeks, Piñera offered a series of lukewarm reforms and policy proposals, lifted the curfew, and put an end to martial law. This, however, did little to curb public anger. He then shuffled some pieces on the board, replacing a few cabinet members with new blood, one of whom has been an outspoken opponent of the LGBTQ+ community. Again, these changes did very little to quell the protests. The largest game-changer did not come until November 15, in which major political parties, both from Piñera’s right-wing coalition and the opposition, announced a multipartisan agreement to carry out a referendum for a new constitution, to be held in April. 

While the possibility of a new constitution, written through democratic mechanisms, has offered a glimmer of hope, protests have not ceased. People on the streets continue to express their disapproval at the absence of a government response to human rights abuses at the hands of state agents, Piñera’s weak policy proposals, and growing skepticism surrounding the constitutional agreement. When tens of thousands of people gathered in Santiago’s main square November 15, Abel Acuña, a 29-year old man, died after suffering cardiac arrest in the crowd. Emergency personnel trying to reach Acuña were attacked with police water cannons and rubber bullets. Police forces have continued to use tear gas and rubber bullets as strategies to disperse predominantly peaceful protests and marches. The latest report from the INDH, released November 18, identified more than 2,300 injured civilians, 21 casualties, and 365 formal accusations of violence carried out by state agents since the beginning of the conflict, both on the streets and at police stations. Among the latter, 66 cases report sexual abuse or sexual assault, and 273 have specifically denounced torture. These numbers continue to grow.

One of the more shocking displays of state violence has been the use of rubber bullets by military and police forces, resulting in an unprecedented number of civilians with permanent ocular damage. Over 200 people have suffered ocular trauma or some form of irreversible eye injury, including partial or total blindness. Last week, after the first case of a 21-year old man losing sight in both of his eyes due to the use of rubber bullets, the president of Chile’s Medical College referred to these injuries as a national health crisis and called for a ban on the use of this kind of weapon by state agents. Representatives from other major national and international organizations followed suit, including the president of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and field investigators from Amnesty International, urging the Chilean government to relinquish the use of rubber bullets. 

For weeks, the government has repeatedly shown itself to be out of touch with the public, exemplifying its inability to address legitimate social demands. Piñera’s policy and legislative offerings to date have left the general population unsatisfied. Furthermore, he has announced a set of initiatives to strengthen police forces and criminalize demonstrations in many ways, which have further aggravated protesters. By prioritizing issues of “public order” and often dismissing the multiple human rights abuses perpetrated by government agents, Piñera has shown a complete lack of empathy and a weak notion of leadership. His approval rating has dipped into the single digits, and his response to the crisis has prompted criticism from both Amnesty International and the United Nations, condemning his actions in perpetuating violence toward the people of Chile. On November 16, Gonzalo Blumel, Piñera’s minister of Interior, said in an interview with a major local newspaper that he believed that Carabineros “had a strong conviction when it comes to protecting human rights.” His remarks were met with criticism from opposition leaders and protesters who are weary of the government’s failure to recognize patterns of violence perpetrated by the national police force.  

Two cases of abuse by Chile’s Carabineros toward queer men, whether peacefully protesting or caught in the crossfire, have caught the eye of the public.

When 23-year-old Josué Maureira and his cousin left their house around 2 in the morning on October 22, the curfew had been in effect for some hours. Concerned about what was happening at a local supermarket that had been looted and caught fire, Maureira, a fourth-year medical student, decided to head in that direction to offer assistance to anyone in need. As they neared the store, Maureira could hear someone calling for help inside. “Help! He’s going to die!” they screamed. 

“I didn’t find that person,” he said in a video testimony. As soon as Maureira entered the supermarket someone else shouted, “The Carabineros are coming!” and so he hid. Having been spotted, he decided to hand himself over, with his hands in the air, “to show that I did not have anything,” he explained. A police officer approached him and started beating him with his baton. Maureira panicked and pulled out his cell phone in an attempt to record what was happening, but the officer took it from him. It wasn’t long before other cops arrived, encircling a defenseless Maureira and beating him to unconsciousness. 

Maureira came to in the police van, while various officers in the vehicle continued to kick him and beat him with their batons, knocking him in and out of states of consciousness. He was completely defenseless. Even after he arrived at the police station, the beating continued. “Outside of the bathrooms at the station, they kept beating me,” Maureira recounts. “There was a camera there,” he mentions, but he was situated perfectly in a blind spot. “The entire time they kept shouting ‘faggot’ because I had my nails painted red.” In the video testimony he holds up his hands, showing the tips painted a bright crimson.   

“What happens if I turn the camera off and I kill you?” an officer asked him. “Kill me,” Maureira replied. “I dare you. You’ll lose your job. You’ll lose everything.” The officers continued to hit him. “What are you going to do?” they asked him. “What are you going to do, you fucking faggot?” The beating continued as the officers demanded that he admit he was a faggot. They weren’t satisfied until he shouted it in reply, “Yes, I am a faggot.”

It was a nightmare that wouldn’t end. As two officers held Maureira, another pulled down his pants and then his underwear, leaving him completely exposed as one more officer forced a baton into his anal cavity. 

Even though Maureira was beaten, kicked, and sexually abused, and suffered a fractured nose, police officials reported he only had “light” injuries. Later, in a haphazard trial, Maureira was charged with looting the pharmacy in the supermarket where he was found, participating in a mob, and injuring a police officer, the latter showing her knuckles covered with abrasions as evidence. “Obviously,” Maureira explained, “she got those injuries from hitting me so much.” He was declared a danger to society. 

Maureira’s case was denounced by Chile’s INDH as well as the judicial department at Universidad Católica, where he is a student. His case garnered national as well as international attention. On October 27, the minister of Justice and Human Rights, Hernán Larraín, released a short statement expressing his department’s concern for Maureira’s case but offering very little beyond that.

Twenty-one-year-old Alberto Alexandro Faúndez Pino went to buy bread with his boyfriend and his cousin, well before the onset of the evening curfew. Outside the supermarket, Faúndez was detained by police and accused of stealing alcohol. He was arrested and thrown into a police van. “Inside the van, they began insulting me,” Faúndez said in a video testimony published by Chilean LGBT advocacy group Movilh. “Fucking thief! This is what you were stealing,” they shouted as they poured alcohol all over him. 

When his boyfriend found the station where Faúndez was being held, “that’s when the homophobic insults began,” the young man explained. Upon realizing that Faúndez was gay, the police began to spew homophobic slurs. “There’s a faggot in here!” they shouted. They stripped him naked and began to beat him in front of the other detainees. 

Faúndez was not allowed to report an official review of his injuries at the time of his detention (a legal process in Chile called constatar lesiones) and was therefore unable to leave medical records of the police’s abusive treatment. Even though he had no criminal record and there was no evidence for the charges against him, Faúndez remained imprisoned for two weeks.

In both Maureira and Faúndez’s cases, the police responded violently upon realizing the young men in their charge were gay. 

The recent outbreak of chaos in Chile has not only further exposed the unregulated and unrestricted violence that state agents are capable of perpetrating but also reveals an additional layer of intolerance prevalent among state officers themselves. The surge in reports of human rights violations committed by Chilean police is a sign of a much wider problem within these institutions. They shed light on the discriminatory and abusive forms that nonheterosexual individuals experience when detained by police. In other words, the alarming tales of Maureira and Faúndez show not only the police force’s brutality but also its well-entrenched homophobia. 

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The Carabineros have been the subject of numerous controversies regarding their institution’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people. Earlier this year, a prison officer was denounced for physically abusing five queer-identified individuals at a Santiago penitentiary because of their sexual orientation. In June, after a gay couple had been physically assaulted by a coworker, police officers refused to help, with one officer stating “Imagine what disease you’re carrying” upon realizing that one of the men was bleeding. Last year, 19-year-old Fernando Pino was detained by police and was subjected to various homophobic slurs by them. “They laughed at me for being gay,” the Puerto Natales native explained. “They told me I was a faggot and that men didn't cry.” 

If state agents are not to be trusted to protect the LGBTQ+ community from potential violence, who is?

The ones that bear the brunt of any crisis are the poor and the marginalized. The weeks of militarization seem to have created a disgusting free-for-all vacuum for police to release pent-up animosity toward marginalized groups in Chile, not just the LGBTQ+ community but also women, immigrants, and other individuals from lower class populaces. The cases of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, many of which have come to light during these revolutionary and chaotic days in Chile, also pose the question of how many times LGBTQ+ individuals face homophobic and discriminatory reactions from state agents on a daily basis. 

To date, the INDH reports only six cases that have specifically targeted members of the LGBTQ+ community; it can be easily speculated that there are likely many more that rest silently. While the INDH reported only 16 cases of sexual torture by Carabineros between 2010 and early 2019, it denounced 58 during the past four weeks alone. It does not seem a far stretch to suggest that the horrors experienced by Maureira and Faúndez, and the common threads between their cases (forced signing of documents, difficulties in reporting injuries, discriminatory slurs, torture, and physical and verbal abuse), have been suffered by countless others. A collective report recently published by a group of trans and lesbian activist organizations details 14 other previously unreported cases against LGBTQ+ people during the weeks of protests in Chile; most of the victims have opted not to file official complaints for fear they will experience backlash from state authorities. Some of these cases are also included, briefly and anonymously, in INDH summaries available online.

While the Chilean government makes advancements that further protect and extend equal and fair treatment to LGBTQ+ people like Maureira and Faúndez, the national police do not seem to be on the same page. 

Even though antisodomy laws were in place until as recently as 1999, Chile has actually made enormous strides in regard to LGBTQ+ rights and visibility in recent years. In 2012, Chile’s Congress passed the country’s first antidiscrimination bill, Ley Zamudio, named in honor of Daniel Zamudio, a 24-year-old gay man who was brutally murdered in Santiago earlier that year. A civil partnership law, which permits same-sex couples to access social protections and rights similar to those of marriage, was passed in 2015. And just last year, Chile’s Congress approved the country’s first gender identity bill, which ensures transgender individuals' right to legally and permanently change their name and gender. These significant advancements in legislation favoring inclusion have also been accompanied by a shift in popular opinion toward the LGBTQ+ community among the general population as well as greater media representation. 

Laws such as these intend to condemn crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and strengthen the rights of queer individuals. But how can these laws be effective when the very institutions in charge of upholding them are, in practice, perpetuating discriminatory practices? As we are learning through the current social crisis, there seems to be no culture or protocol for Chile’s Carabineros to protect the LGBTQ+ community. Major organizations in Chile that advocate for LGBTQ+ rights have released statements in support of the movement, calling for structural reform, condemning state abuse, and offering their support to LGBTQ+ individuals affected by the crisis. On November 18, a representative from Fundación Iguales, one of the leading LGBTQ+ organizations in Chile, was included in a group of civil society representatives to testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding the recent wave of human rights abuses in the country. 

The last several weeks of unrest have shown the darkest side of the Chilean police force as a militaristic, outdated, and intolerant institution. Unfortunately, change does not seem to be coming any time soon. Despite the wave of accusations, countless testimonies, and mounting evidence demonstrating violent and outrageous police abuse in Chile, especially in recent weeks — and despite Mario Rozas, the general director of Chile’s Carabineros, expressing direct knowledge of Maureira’s testimony — a leaked audio from Rozas on November 13 indicates he has little interest in taking action. While addressing police officials, Rozas made statements that suggest he believes the state police force sits above the law. 

“You have the full support and are fully backed by this general director,” Rozas can be heard saying, “How do I show it? I will not discharge any person because of actions carried out during police procedures. Not a single person. Even if they force me to, I will not do it.” His words were met with rounds of applause. 

Tully Satre is a U.S. artist living and working in Santiago, Chile. You can see his work at www.tullysatre.com and follow him on Instagram @tullysatreCristian Valenzuela is a Chilean-American social researcher currently based in Washington, D.C. His main work focuses on gender, sexuality, and health. You can find him on Instagram @c_valenzu.

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