Chile’s Political Prisoners to face another Christmas in jail

By Carole Concha Bell

Last week Sebastian Pinera caused outrage when he claimed, “In Chile there are no political prisoners.” Despite the upbeat narrative surrounding the constitutional plebiscite results in which Chileans overwhelmingly voted for the rewriting of the constitution enacted by the Pinochet regime, those who fought for social change are being harshly punished.

Currently, there are over 2,500 people in Chile’s prisons, detained in the context of Chile’s social uprising – “el estallido social”. Many of them are minors and the vast majority have no criminal background, yet the state is seeking maximum penalties. According to Chile’s penal ombudsman, 4,080 minors were arrested in the final months of 2019. 186 of those were remanded in preventative prison.

Chile’s authoritarian government reacted to social unrest and demands for a new constitution by declaring, “We are at war”, then invoking Pinochet era laws to punish those voicing dissent. Between October and December of 2019, more than 20 people were killed at the hands of carabineros, thousands have been tortured, and hundreds more injured by projectiles.

 Five international bodies including the Institute of Human Rights Chile, Amnesty International, the UN, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and HRW have filed reports citing the repression in Chile as the “worst since the military dictatorship” and pressed for immediate reform of the police force. To date, none of their recommendations have been implemented. Instead Pinera has cited public order as an excuse to push though even more draconian law. On Thursday November 7th 2019, at the peak of the protests, Piñera announced a new series of security measures meant to criminalise public protests. The laws include bans on barricades, blockades, looting, violence, and increased surveillance.

A key law at the centre of this wave of imprisonments for this new generation of the ‘enemy within’ is the Law for the Internal Security of the State (LES) implemented by the Pinochet regime in 1984. It penalises with prison those who “destroy or disable” means of transportation, alongside anyone who is seen to “incite or induce subversion of public order or revolt,” punishing those who “meet, arrange or facilitate meetings” that conspire against the stability of the government, and those who propagate “in word or in writing” doctrines that “tend to destroy or alter the social order through violence.”

The most draconian article within the LES penalises people who are deemed to “destroy, disable or prevent free access to bridges, streets, roads or other similar public use goods.” That law is being widely applied to various forms of public incursion, from students who incite evasion of the subway fare to protesters who mobilise peacefully every day on the streets, blocking traffic.

The Senate’s Public Security Commission has also approved a bill, incorporating the crime of “public disorder” into the Criminal Code, imposing penalties of up to three years in prison for those who, “using a demonstration or public meeting,” paralyse or interrupt a public service of prime necessity, such as the subway, or throw stones, build barricades, or occupy private or public property.

One year on, 2,500 people are still detained, forcing friends and families to adopt increasingly drastic measures. These include the initiation of a hunger strike headed up by Chilean organisations la Agrupación de Familiares de Prisioneros Políticos de La Granja, la Agrupación de Familiares y Amigos de Prisioneros Políticos Guacoldas y la Organización de Familiares y Amigxs de Prisionerxs Políticxs.

Maria Vasquez Aguilar from the UK-based Chile Solidarity Network comments: “The situation of the political prisoners in Chile is exasperating, as illustrated by the recent hunger strikes. The Chilean government denies that ‘political prisoners’ exist; however, what else do you call people who are being imprisoned, and punished, for exercising their human right to demonstrate? The international community needs to denounce the repressive actions of the Chilean state and call for the release of all prisoners from the unrest, alongside those from the Mapuche nation.”

There will be a solidarity event for the political prisoners and their families, hosted by Chile Solidarity Network and Bordando Collective, on Thursday 10th December as part of an international campaign to raise awareness.

For more information, please visit

To participate in ‘Sew for Solidarity’ please register on

Carole Concha Bell is a Cambridge-based journalist and writer, a founding member of the Chile Solidarity Network and Press Coordinator for Mapuche International Link.

Image: Protests in Santiago, Chile, 2019. Author: Carlos Figueroa, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts