Terrorism in Chile

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 16, 2014


The bomb blast in a busy subway station in the city of Santiago on September 8 brought the threat of terrorism to the top of the political agenda in Chile. Precisely because Santiago is one of safest capitals in Latin America, the bomb explosion brought back troubling memories of the past authoritarian experience. Though most open societies have to deal with the potential threat of terrorism, Chileans just had a rude awakening. Because of how existing anti-terrorism legislation came about and how it was applied under the Pinochet dictatorship, the centre-left Nueva Mayoría government finds itself between a rock and a hard place as it tries to bring tranquility to a worried population.


A week after a bomb explosion hurt 14 bystanders, there is a lot of speculation about who was responsible for the terrorist attack. Though the leading suspects are anarchists, other alternatives cannot be ruled out. Some leftist politicians have implied that rightwing extremists seeking to weaken the Bachelet administration could be behind the attacks. Others have warned that, since Bachelet ruled out using the anti-terrorist law to deal with the Mapuche conflict in southern Chile, those responsible for the attack will claim to advance the Mapuche cause to avoid being tried under the harsh anti-terrorist legislation.


However, the fact that there have recently been several other smaller attacks in public areas — including one small-magnitude bomb blast in the subway late on a Sunday night a few weeks ago — the anarchist movement is the leading suspect. For the past several years, the anarchists have placed small-magnitude bombs in public places. In 2009, one anarchist died when the bomb he was carrying accidentally exploded.

Under the previous rightwing administration of Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), the Attorney General’s office actively prosecuted some anarchist groups. However, the suspects were declared innocent based on procedural mistakes made by the prosecutor. At the time, the centre-left opposition criticized the government for its heavy-handed approach against the anti-systemic groups. If it turns out that the same group of anarchists is behind the recent attacks, the centre-left government will find it difficult to justify its past criticisms.


For the Bachelet administration, the attack comes at the worst possible moment. The Chilean economy is slowing down quickly — in part due to what happens elsewhere in emerging nations, but also because of a tax reform championed by Bachelet that increased taxes on companies and wealthy Chileans. If Chileans were already increasingly concerned with not losing their jobs, they are now also worried about their safety in public places.


Normally, left-wing governments are seen as weaker on combating crime. As a candidate, Bachelet ruled out using the anti-terrorism law in situations associated with social movements. She was referring to the Mapuche conflict in the south, where activists in favour of indigenous demands for land rights have conducted violent attacks against landowners who received land taken from the Mapuches in the 19th century. Since those attacks resulted in the deaths of some landowners, there is debate as to whether they constitute terrorism.


Yet, her position is now under fire by the opposition that claims her government has sent the wrong signals to terrorist groups.


Since the anti-terrorism legislation dates back to the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet — and was used to repress democracy advocates during the 1980s — left-wing politicians question its legitimacy. Though the law has been amended several times since democracy was restored, discrepancies between the left and right over what constitutes a terrorist attack has prevented changes to key aspects of the legislation. After the Inter-American Human Rights Court ruled against Chile for the use of the anti-terrorism law in a case against Mapuche activists, the Bachelet administration announced that it would amend the legislation. The attack happened before the government acted on its promise.


The Bachelet administration has declared that Santiago remains a safe city. Though it does have lower crime levels when compared to the rest of Latin America, fear has increased drastically in Chile over the past few days. This past week, there have been almost daily bomb threats that have turned out to be false alarms in the mass transportation system and commercial centres.


As Chileans prepare for a long Independence-Day weekend, the government is making every effort to prevent another terrorist attack. Though the Bachelet administration has rightly criticized the right-wing opposition for feeding on the perception of insecurity to make political gains, the bomb blast last week had unquestionable negative effects on the perception of security in Chile.


Regardless of its authoritarian origin and independent of campaign promises made by Bachelet, Chileans want decisive government action. Adopting a zero-tolerance policy for terrorism might make Bachelet uncomfortable because of the implication it might have on the way the government will respond to social movements who use protests and civil disobedience to advance their causes. Yet, since she has a mandate to protect democracy, Bachelet has no other alternative but to take a firm stand against terrorism — regardless of the legitimacy of the claims made by those who use violence to advance their cause.