On September 8, Chile faced its worst bombing attack of the last three decades. An explosion went off in a restaurant at a metro station in the capital and injured fourteen innocent citizens. Moreover, on September 25, a homemade bomb exploded in Santiago, killing one man. These events are part of a series of persistent bombing attacks that have put normally stable and secure Chile on edge during the last couple of months. This year Santiago, the capital, has been the site of over 30 small-scale bomb attacks. Bombings regularly occur outside banks, police stations, churches, embassies, government buildings, and the headquarters of political parties. However, the vast majority of the devices have been small and timed to go off at night when the streets are generally empty. But the recent bombings have been different.
The first attack was claimed by several anarchist or antigovernment groups including the group “Cells of Fires Conspiracy,” who declared that the attack was meant to target “structures of power” rather than civilians. The group claimed to have called the police ten minutes prior to the blast so that people could be cleared out. Chilean authorities, however, denied those warnings. As of today, three alleged members of the anarchist group were arrested for the attack. As for the most recent bombing, authorities are continuing their investigation to determine whether the victim was linked to the three suspects that were arrested over the explosion at the metro station. They are also trying to determine whether the man was handling the bomb himself when it detonated or whether he was just a bystander. In the past, one suspected member of an anarchist group was killed and another injured trying to set off explosive devices, but no bystanders were hurt.
After the attacks, Chile’s current center left president, Michelle Bachelet, vowed to invoke the country’s controversial anti-terrorism law against the perpetrators. The legislation allows for the extended detention of suspects without charge, longer sentences for conviction, and the use of anonymous witnesses during trial. In the past the law has been criticized heavily in Chile, as the state showed little restraint when the law was called into action, specifically with the indigenous (Mapuche) groups involved in land conflicts. In fact, during the last electoral campaign, Bachelet acknowledged the law’s shortcomings and it was thought that her government would review its legitimacy. However, the severity and the increased frequency of the bombings have caused an unexpected problem for the government and in turn, their plans have shifted accordingly.
The anti-terrorism legislation is a holdover from Chile’s dark military dictatorship period (1973-1990) when around 40,000 people were targeted by General Pinochet’s policy of state-sponsored terrorism. Interestingly, the attack occurred just three days before the 41st anniversary of the 1973 military coup that outed socialist President Salvador Allende and began the dictatorship of General Pinochet. The events of the coup still deeply divide Chilean society, which cause the anniversary to be traditionally a time of social unrest and protests that often turn violent. In spite of the past controversy, most Chileans have been more accommodating of the anti-terrorism law, and the announcement of its revision by the government has not brought as much backlash as previously seen. The main objection to the legislation could be that the latest attack was not defined as a terrorist act, and no individuals or groups have claimed responsibility for it. This is in contrast to previous attacks, which were carried out by various anarchist or anti-government groups that were quick to admit that the bombings were part of their plans.
There is no doubt that the bombing on September 8 has been one of the most damaging attacks since the resurrection of democracy in Chile in 1990. President Bachelet referred to it as a “terrorist act, one of the most cowardly we have seen.” In response, several countries -including the United States- issued warnings to their citizens about visiting Chile’s capital. Nevertheless, that is not to say that terrorism has installed itself in Chile, nor that Santiago is no longer one of Latin America’s safest big cities. Many citizens are struggling to understand the reasoning behind these disturbing events and fear that the attacks will threaten the country’s long-held sense of security and image as the most stable country in Latin America. Meanwhile the bombings are only putting pressure on President Bachelet to respond at a time when her popularity is decreasing and her agenda is filled with reform plans to tackle inequality and a worsening economy. Even so, Bachelet assures that “Chile is still a safe and stable country,” and government officials and security forces are determined to solve the crimes.