'They smashed me in the head': anger at Piñera as Chile's bloodied protesters allege brutality

Jonathan Franklin in Santiago
Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

As helicopters clattered overhead and army truck convoys rumbled through the city, armed men in masks prowled the streets of Santiago on Monday night, firing at protesters defying a fourth night of curfew under martial law.

By Tuesday morning, the official death toll stood at 15. The Chilean government claimed all the casualties were looters, but there were widespread allegations of brutality by the military, following the declaration by president, Sebastián Piñera that his country was “at war”.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet – a former president of Chile – has called for independent investigations into the deaths in weekend protests, saying there had been “disturbing allegations” of excessive use of force by security forces.

“I was coming home and the military patrol stopped me,” said one bruised and bloodied man as he stumbled home in the early hours of Tuesday morning. “They put me in the truck and – ‘Bang! bang! bang!’ – they smashed me in the head with the butt of a gun. I begged them to stop but they kept on kicking me – and they took my friend away.”

A man holds a Chilean flag in front of a barricade on La Alameda, the main avenue running through Santiago, on Monday evening. Photograph: Pedro Ugarte/AFP via Getty Images

The worst unrest Chile has faced since the dying days of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship three decades ago began early last week as a youth revolt against a 3% increase in metro fares that the government was subsequently forced to scrap.

By Friday the protests had spilled out into widespread streets protests and an outburst of vandalism and violence – fuelled, analysts say, by deep-rooted disillusionment at how millions of citizens have been frozen out of Chile’s economic rise.

Piñera’s conservative government declared a state of emergency on Friday night, granting the government additional powers to restrict citizens’ freedom of movement and their right to assembly. Soldiers have returned to the streets for the first time since an earthquake devastated parts of the country in 2010.

Self-defence groups wearing yellow vests have set up citizen militias to defend petrol stations and small businesses from further looting – and to remain in the streets protesting peacefully.

Riot police fire a water cannon to disperse demonstrators on La Alameda in central Santiago on Monday. Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty

“The treatment by the military is not dignified,” said Carlos, a 21-year-old street vendor. “If they want to arrest me then do it, but this is inhumane. An arrest is normal. I am doing what I have to do … but to beat people to their limit, that is torture.”

A 22-year-old student who did not want to give his name said: “I’m not in favour of violence [on the part of the protesters] at all. In fact, I have never liked it. But I think it is the only way that they [the government] will listen to us. We had many peaceful marches, and they ignored us.

“I want to live peacefully. I live on my own, pay my bills. [But] If I have an accident and can’t work for a month I can’t pay for food and have to drop out of university.”

In response to Piñera’s declaration of war, he added: “The people clanking pots and holding up their hands are not military, they are not armed. Even us, erecting barricades, what do we have? Sticks and stones … these aren’t weapons. What war? Who are they fighting against?”

Demonstrators clash with riot police for a fourth straight day on Monday. Photograph: Claudio Reyes/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout Monday, protesters defied the emergency decree and confronted police in Chile’s capital, continuing the violent clashes, arson and looting.

Only one of the city’s six underground lines was operating because rioters had burned or damaged many of the stations, and officials said it could take weeks or months to fully restore service.

Police used teargas and water cannon to break up a march on one of Santiago’s main roads, but demonstrators repeatedly dispersed then re-gathered elsewhere. Some protesters held up blank ammunition cartridge allegedly fired by police.

A protester shows a blank ammunition at a protest in Santiago on Monday. Photograph: Anadolu agency/Getty

Long past the 8pm order to be off the streets, thousands of people stayed out, dancing, playing music and organising football games.

In Plaza Ñuñoa, a square in the middle-class district of Ñuñoa, families banged on pots and pans in the traditional Latin American cacerolazo of defiance, and held up handwritten placards calling on Piñera to quit.

Along Ñuñoa’s Avenida Grecia, a small group of masked people hid behind trees as a military convoy crashed through their rickety barricades and out the other side. At 11.45pm, nearly four hours after the nightly curfew, they were still protesting.

Soldiers patrol the presidential government palace during curfew in Santiago on Monday night. Photograph: Pedro Ugarte/AFP via Getty Images

“This is not just about the metro. It is about a cumulation of situations and the crisis of the economic model since we returned to democracy,” said a 31-year-old woman.

“They have privatised healthcare. Pensions for the elderly are miserable. We have conflicts in every part of our day-to-day life. Day-to-day, we suffer.

“The dictatorship is over. Our generation is not afraid. But now the military are using the same strategy that they used during the dictatorship, they are shooting.

“We have to keep fighting until this is resolved for all, not just for a sector of the society. Not for the privileged. Not for the businessmen,” she added.

She had barely finished speaking when a car swerved past the barricade and someone inside it opened fired.

People ran for cover as eight shots rang out, tearing splinters from the trunk of a tree. No one was hit. The car made a U-turn, loosing a final fusillade before driving into the night.