In Chile, a Murderous Police Claim to Be “Just Following Orders”

The massive protests that rocked Chile last October insisted that we don’t have to obey an unending austerity regime. The government response was a wave of police repression, killing at least 36 civilians — the bloody expression of the dogma that “there is no alternative.”

Riot police officers (Carabineros) stand guard in Santiago, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images)

Journalist Omar Jimenez was broadcasting live on CNN, covering protests over the murder of George Floyd, when he was arrested by police. The journalist, already far from the cameras, asked the policeman why he was being detained; the officer replied: “I don’t know, man, I’m just following orders.”

Chile’s military police were also just following orders when they killed Camilo Catrillanca, a young Mapuche man, in November 2018. So, too, were the officials of Latin America’s military dictatorships and Nazi bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann, as they killed millions. But we don’t have to accept the excuses.

In his play Dirty Hands, Jean-Paul Sartre tells the story of Hugo Barine, a communist militant ordered by his party to kill Hoederer, another cadre the party leadership has secretly accused of treason. Hugo fulfills his mission, but explains that he, alone, killed Hoederer. What Sartre forces us to acknowledge is that there is no excuse; in his terms, that we have not only the option, but the responsibility to be free — the obligation to take responsibility for our actions.

The killing of George Floyd is yet another shameful episode of responsibility denied. We have police that claim only to be following orders, policemen that systematically violate the rights of citizens they are supposedly defending — and then deny that they acted freely at all. The claim to be defending the rule of law gives way to the defense of the status quo and the general right to use force — and thus clearing the way for law enforcement agencies to act without responsibility for their actions.

This is not just a US phenomenon — indeed, we see this in Chile, even after the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. At the end of socialist Ricardo Lagos’s presidency from 2000 to 2006, the democratic coalition known as the Concertación claimed that he had rebuilt solid institutions and a healthy relationship between civil society, law enforcement, and the military. Yet fast forward to the protests that began in October 2019, and these same forces of order mutilated the bodies of their compatriots when faced with citizens’ demand for basic justice and human dignity.

This repressive order has economic roots. As one journalist put it, Chile is the North Korea of capitalism — its export model with little added value is based on copper, salmon, and wood. This has generated systematically low average wages across the working class.

Under Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, state repression could nonetheless be used to impose a state of “savings” and “fiscal discipline.” For wealthier Chileans, there was access to overseas goods and consumption as a result of the country’s neoliberal economic “opening” — though this also meant, for instance, access to the most expensive public universities in the world relative to GDP.

The dictator’s advisers were not just following orders — they were convinced by the economists called the Chicago boys. But since 1990, the leaders of post-dictatorship Chile have claimed to have had no margin of action — no democratic freedom to correct the previous economic path of mass privatization and the sharing out of the state among a few families aligned with the 1973 coup. Chile’s new governors were not following orders from a dictator. But they did not build new rules that would allow us to completely emancipate ourselves from rules imposed by that dictator.

This dynamic of submission was smashed open in October 2019 when a group of young people marched against the increase in the price of public transport fares. The solidarity protests expanded rapidly, and 80 percent of Chileans declared themselves in favor of the movement. The protests paralyzed the country for months, pushing the limits of the Chilean system — the most unequal in the whole continent.

But what followed was a wave of repression unseen since the darkest days of the Pinochet dictatorship: at least thirty-six people were killed at the hands of the Chilean state security forces. The brutality of the Chilean state in clashes at Santiago’s metro stations on October 15  — where students were shot, beaten, and bleeding — ignited a powder keg of social revolt that had been building up since the mass protests of the early 2010s, and even before.

These protests combined with those in countries including Ecuador, Haiti, and Bolivia, where attempts were made to challenge the limits of representative democracy and unfair economic rules. Today, a few months before the first constituent assembly in Chile’s history, we will see the expansion of participatory democracy — and perhaps the opportunity to break our submission to supposedly unchangeable rules.

What can be learned from what happened in Chile in the October 2019 protests? The courage of some young people who changed the country’s common sense is perhaps the greatest surprise of the new Chilean democracy. Today, no one doubts that Chile is much poorer than had previously been recognized, with neither industry nor prospects for future growth.

Yet, in last year’s protests we also saw that the divorce between the social majority who marched and protested, and the political minority, does not itself produce change. As Simón Bolívar insisted, only social and political unity transforms societies; only when the social majority is able to unite with a political leadership can change be made. If not, we will repeat what happened in France in May 1968 and in Spain with the Indignados Movement of the early 2010s, as the Right in power blocked the demands coming from below.

Perhaps the challenge for Chilean society, amidst the pandemic, is to make sense of the social revolution that last year’s protests portended. This calm force for change requires a political leadership that can interpret the will of the social majority. But this also means an active choice to be free, and to create the conditions in which we can make decisions for ourselves — the opposite of the neoliberal spirit of “just following orders.”