It is eight in the morning on Wednesday, April 12, and the 895 students of the Carabineros Training School, in the southwest of Santiago, line up from smallest to largest to listen to the order of the day. To the right are the first-years, dressed in dresses fatigueless formal, and to the left those of second, contained barracks. 70% are women and 30% men. All heads turn in the direction of a captain reading a story published in the newspaper The Mercury about the policeman who shot down a 19-year-old boy after he tried to run over an agent to flee from an inspection in the port city of San Antonio. The uniformed man is in custody and as a defendant. “Today all police procedures are dangerous,” the captain warns the next generation of policemen who will take to the streets at the end of this year and 2024.
The first week of April, the third murder of a policeman in acts of duty in 23 days occurred, a string of events that has shocked Chilean society, concerned about the deep public security crisis they are facing. As fear grows, support for the police grows. Trust in the institution collapsed in 2017, when the Prosecutor’s Office discovered a corruption scheme within the body. This rejection was exacerbated by the human rights violations perpetrated by agents during the social outbreak of 2019. Now, however, the scenario is of a different color. The uniformed have the greatest citizen support since 2015 and the Government of Gabriel Boric -very hard on police action before arriving at La Moneda- constantly emphasizes his support for the institution.
In the five years before the riots, some 16,000 people applied annually. In the two hardest years of the pandemic, they reached less than 3,000, but in 2022 they climbed to 5,000, according to the Carabineros Communications Department. The drop also responds to the fact that fewer applicants were accepted in schools during the pandemic due to health protocols. The profile, according to the institution itself, is young people between the ages of 18 and 25, middle class ($650-750 family income), mainly from the south-central zone of the country. Many of them arrive after having worked in mining or as security guards.
EL PAÍS visited the Alguacil Mayor Juan Gómez de Almagro school this week, the main school in the country, to talk with the students. The higher-ups selected six of them – three men, three women – for the interview. None of them participated in the 2019 demonstrations, they define themselves as apolitical and do not read the newspapers or watch the news. “Sometimes a brushstroke while we have lunch,” says one. The six were sent over the summer to support communities affected by the deadly wave of fires in the central south of the country.
Ignacio Burgos, 23, a native of Osorno (920 kilometers south of Santiago), was studying nursing as a technician, but after the social unrest he decided to apply to the police school. “Sometimes the bad is shown, but not the good. There were people whose businesses were looted or burned, and there were the police officers, guarding, protecting. That motivated me,” he explains. “There is the issue of human rights … that influences so that we do not make the mistakes that were made,” he adds.
In the social protests, the police used pellets, which were suspended after leaving nearly a thousand injured, including 222 people with eye problems, according to data published in November 2019 by the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH). On the third anniversary of the protests, the institute reported that of the 2,987 Carabineros denounced, 179 have been formalized and there have been 14 convictions. The interviewees agree that the actions of some “cannot harm the entire institution.”
Aracely Durán, 19, from the city of Talca, in the south-central part of the country, states that as a result of “those mistakes” there have been improvements. “We are the reform, there have been changes in our education on human rights, on our actions”, he affirms. Since 2021, the new carabinieri aspirants study four semesters and not two. They added two internships to the curriculum in the second year of training: the first consists of two weeks in a police station as an observer and the second in two months in a police unit, with an internship regime, where they work under surveillance. Camila Contreras, 26, a legal technician, points out that the police officers did not previously have a link with the police stations during their training: “We are going to leave much more prepared due to having prior contact.”
Two of the interviewees attended the funeral of Senior Petty Officer Daniel Palma, 33 years old. Military reserve Julio Caerols, 22, says that after the murders by the police he feels much more supported. “Unfortunately it’s not the way we should have gotten that support,” he says. Julio Figueroa, 24, the son of a retired police non-commissioned officer, highlights the importance of vocation. “Before the uniform we are people, we have feelings and it hurts. But at the same time one has an oath for the homeland and the flag: to give one’s life if necessary. I believe that not every professional does that ”, he maintains. “This has made us stronger, more united,” adds Karla Castillo, 26, also the daughter of a retired noncommissioned officer.
Castillo assures that his parents are proud that he is part of the institution. “However, there will always be fear. The three martyrs… it could be me later, but they support me because it is what I like”. “The fear of families is always there. More now with what has happened in recent times. But they support me and tell me to take care of myself. The fact of spending two years in training has made us feel more prepared for what is coming to us to fight crime, ”he adds.
One of the debates that has been opened with the death of the three policemen is whether the level of training that the students are receiving is in accordance with the current scenario. In a school office, Major Ángel Oscar Parada defends that the program was made to “assume a risk condition in any scenario” and that they have the necessary equipment: ballistic helmet, bulletproof vest, weapons, among others.
If the training and equipment is correct, what is happening that there are fatal outcomes? “The agent is already taught to know how to proceed. The tools given to students are no different than before. The rules for the use of force and the 2015 intervention manual have not changed,” Parada points out. What has changed is the type of crime, increasingly violent, with greater use of weapons. Last year Chile reached a rate of 4.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, 67.8% more than a decade ago. The Boric government entered Congress this week a bill that seeks to update the rules for the use of force by the police.
Lieutenant Miguel Rubio, who teaches classes on human rights, affirms that the students’ concern is “how, when and where” to use force. The mesh has reinforced the teaching of police procedures, legal regulations, legal area, human rights and weapons and shooting. Why those? “Because they are the issues in which as an institution we have been questioned. The way to improve is for them to come out better prepared”, replies the lieutenant. If before they only studied two semesters, which according to Major Parada was actually 10 months, only 25% of the time was devoted to practical exercises. Today they dedicate a whole year only to recreating situations that comply with current laws: how to get into a vehicle, assist in a robbery with intimidation, how to enter a house with an armed person, among others.
Of the nearly 1,100 students who entered last year and this year, almost 20% have withdrawn. Major Parada explains that in 2009 the casualties were around 5%. The main reasons today for abandoning the degree are free university, economic problems (students live for free in the facilities and receive 53,000 pesos a month, 66 dollars) or the lack of adaptation to the system. Of the nine training centers in the country, only four are mixed – which explains why three quarters of the students at the Alguacil Mayor Juan Gómez de Almagro school are women. Senior officials state that they are adapting the other units to transform them into mixed ones. They say society is changing. And that they too.
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