Police Abuse of Gays Continues in Chile

MOVILH President Wants Police To Undergo Human Rights Training.  A pair of incidents involving members of the Carabineros [Chilean Police] has brought renewed attention to an age-old problem in Chile: police abuse of the country’s gay population.

Considered illegal in Chile until 1998, homosexuality has a long history of official condemnation in the socially conservative country. Although never confirmed, legend has it that in the 1930s, then President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (1877-1960) sanctioned years of systematic witch-hunts – and forced disappearances – of gays, some of whom are believed to have been tossed alive into the ocean from ships. Famous Chilean dramatist Andrés Pérez (1951 – 2002) covered the subject in a play he penned called “La Huida” (the Flight). Persecution against gays continued under the military dictatorship of the recently deceased Augusto Pinochet (1915 – 2006), who made no secret of his personal dislike of homosexuals.

Even after the Pinochet regime ended, both official and unofficial persecution of homosexuals continued. In 1993, a famous Valparaíso (Region V) gay nightclub called Divine burned to the ground. Sixteen people died in the blaze. Originally considered an “accident,” the fire is now widely believed to have been set intentionally. A gay Santiago club was also torched in 2001.

In recent years, conditions have certainly improved for Chilean homosexuals. Santiago now boasts a thriving and increasingly visible gay neighborhood. And the country’s heterosexual majority – according to a number of polls and surveys – is becoming more accepting of homosexuality.

“There are a series of signs and statistics that indicate a positive change,” according to Rolando Jimenez, president of the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Freedom (MOVILH). “This change hasn’t come easily. But certainly, if you think that for the first time in this country, a president – in this case I’m talking about Michelle Bachelet – refers specifically in her speeches to sexual minorities, speaking out against discrimination… There a real social, political and cultural change.”

Still, as two recent events show, old prejudices are often slow to die. Last Wednesday, 33-year-old journalist and novelist Rodrigo Muñoz Opazo had first-hand experience with homophobic violence involving the Carabineros.

In the wee hours of the morning, Muñoz and a male friend left a house party and, hand-in-hand and happy to be enjoying a summer’s night in each other’s company, took a comfortable stroll through downtown Santiago. Near the corner of Huerfanos and Mac Iver the two found a bench and sat. There they talked and flirted, hugging and kissing.

About half-a-block away, a pair of Carabineros – Muñoz guesses there were two, though he can’t say for sure – sat in a parked police van, observing the two gay men. After a few minutes, one of the police officers rolled down his window and yelled in the direction of the bench.

“Ok guys, it’s time for you two be to moving along,” said the police officer. Muñoz was quick to question the Carabinero why he should have to leave.

“And that’s when they started to insult us,” the young writer said. “Come on, run along faggots. Get out of here. The neighbors called and they want you out of here. Degenerates, motherfuckers, queers…”

Muñoz was indignant. He walked up to the police van and confronted the officers, warning them that they’d tangled with the wrong man. “I’m a journalist,” he told them. “I know the head of police. I have contacts with President Bachelet.” At that point the police took off – rapidly, too quickly in fact for Muñoz to note their van’s license plate number.

“I’m 33 years old. The majority of friends in other words are of the 30-something generation. They stay quiet about things. Things weren’t open when we were young. So they say, ‘come on, keep it to yourself. Stay quiet,'” he said.

“But the truth is that I have a different stance. Since publishing my novel on the Internet last September – also last September I participated in the gay march as a journalist, working for the first time as a journalist for a gay institution, and being gay – I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to stay quiet about anything. Never again am I just going to shut up.’ Whatever problem I might have, I won’t stay quiet about it. Because my family knows (I’m gay), they know at my job. I’ve come out of all the closets. Being gay, one comes out of various closets.”

Muñoz wasted no time in making sure as many people as possible – including the police themselves – found out about the incident. He contacted a number of homosexual rights organizations. He also marched into the First Commissary headquarters, the very police station from which the abusive officers were dispatched, and spoke with an attending official. Muñoz happens to live next door.

“What I’m hoping from either the government or the Carabineros is a letter of apology,” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping. And not a form letter, something standardized where the public relations person inserts your name. I want a formal letter of apology.”

“I’m also going to support MOVILH in its interest in training the Carabineros. Because something good has to come out of this,” Muñoz added.

Founded some 15 years ago, MOVILH has pushed hard to carve a safe space for the country’s sexual minorities out of Chile‘s rigid social structure. Over the years the movement has worked closely with government officials in pushing for legislation that protects and promotes gay rights, an effort that in 2005 won the admiration of a complimentary United Nations. MOVILH is also the first place many people who have been harassed or victimized like Muñoz turn to for help.

“The case that affected Rodrigo (Muñoz) is more common than people think,” said Jiménez. “The majority of the people [who] come to the organization [due to harassment] don’t want to file a formal complaint for fear of drawing attention to themselves as homosexuals.”

That was the initial reaction of two men – M.A.M.O., aged 32, and J.M.M., 30 – who this past December were subject to a series of brutal beatings by police from Santiago’s 19th Commissary.

On Dec.22, according to MOVILH, the two men were partying in a nightclub called Fausto. Staff there called the police to complain that J.M.M. was overly intoxicated. When the Carabineros arrived they located the two men and began beating the pair in the street. The attack left M.A.M.O. unconscious.

“You are the scum of society,” said one of the police officers during the attack. “You two weren’t born, your mothers shit you out.”

The two men were then taken into police custody, separated in different cells. The following morning, when M.A.M.O regained consciousness, he asked police to return his house keys, about US$25 in cash, a silver chain and his US$200 cell phone. The request prompted another beating.

“I had my hands against the wall and he started hitting me again,” M.A.M.O. is quoted as saying in a MOVILH press release. “He tried to strip me and to insert a baton in my anus. As they weren’t able to get my clothes off, they beat me with my clothes on. They were able, on the other hand, to strip my friend J.M., although they ended up releasing him before they released me.”

Originally the two men chose not to take formal legal action against the Carabineros, for fear of police reprisals. Last week, however, M.A.M.O. changed his mind after police came to his home and presented him with a citation accusing him of assault. On a recommendation, M.A.M.O. contacted MOVILH. He is now prepared to go public with his story and take all necessary legal actions to pursue his attackers. J.M.M., who is also in close contact with MOVILH, has chosen to deal with the situation more privately.

 “This is brutal, this is grotesque,” said Jiménez. “It’s one of the most serious cases we’ve seen.” According to Jiménez, there is only one way to really get at the heart of the problem: reeducation.

About eight years ago, the then head of Chile‘s other public security force – the Investigations Police – implemented mandatory human rights training for all officers.

Since then, according to Jiménez, MOVILH has not received a single complaint involving Investigations officers. However, that has not been the case with the Carabineros.

“Despite good intentions and positive declarations on the part of the high command, the officers in the street, the ones on patrol…continue to attack the homosexual community, they continue violating their rights, just like what happened with Rodrigo (Muñoz),” said the MOVILH head.

“The officers who patrol the streets of this country are fixated on the idea that public displays of affection between gays and lesbians are criminal,” he added. “And that’s not the case. Chilean society has changed profoundly in these areas.”

Following the example set by the Investigations Police, Jiménez has proposed to help the Carabineros set up some type of human rights training on numerous occasions. So far, the police have ignored his overtures.

“What bothers me is that the (police) don’t understand that dialogue with minority groups, like us, or with the Mapuches, or with immigrants, is necessary and can qualitatively improve the relationship between the civilian population and the police. It’s frustrating that they don’t understand why that’s the way to go.”

This past Monday, Jiménez accompanied Muñoz to a meeting with Carabineros Commander Marcelo Cáceres, the prefect of the Santiago Metropolitian Region. During the meeting Muñoz filed a formal complaint about the police treatment he received last week. Also during the encounter, Cáceres made it clear that he – as a Carabinero – sees nothing wrong with homosexual couples demonstrating public displays of affection.

Muñoz, nevertheless, agrees with Jiménez that the Carabineros need some type of mandatory sensitivity training. And, as a journalist and victim of police harassment, he’s prepared to help.

“I’d expect (that type of harassment) from maybe any old common person, from a homophobe, but not from the police,” he said, “maybe when I first came out, back in ’94, when I was 20. Back then there was a lot of repression. In ’93 there was the fire in the Divine nightclub. Maybe in that era I would have stood for it; I would have understood.”

“But not now,” he continued. “That just can’t be. I think we’ve advanced too much in terms of our government, in terms of Chile‘s democracy, to stand for these kinds of things. And as a minority, we can’t just stay quiet.”

By Benjamin Witte (benwitte@hotmail.com)

Photo Credit: Benjamin Witte

Benjamin Witte is a U.S.-Canadian freelancer currently living and working in Santiago, Chile. A former editor of the Santiago Times, he has also worked in Costa Rica with The Tico Times.