Videos from a protest in Chile on Friday show a police officer pushing a 16-year-old over the side of a bridge onto a rocky riverbed. After falling at least 15 feet onto concrete, the boy lies motionless, face down in the dirty water of Santiago’s Mapocho River.
Photographer Mario Hans, who was taking pictures at the demonstration, said there was a heavy police presence. Moments after officers charged the crowd of around 100 protesters, and Hans was tossed to the ground, he heard cries of, “They killed him.”
Hans rushed to the railings and saw the boy – known as “A.A” – below the bridge, blood streaming from his head into the water. “I thought he was dead,” Hans told VICE News. “He was face down in the river, suffocating. He wasn’t moving.”
Hans said the police did nothing to help A.A, who was immediately dragged out of the river by volunteer medics and civilians. Police vehicles continued to blast water canons, he said, despite the crowd’s pleas to stop advancing.
The boy is said to now be in a stable condition at the Santa María Clinic in Chile’s capital.
Demonstrators have been taking to the streets of Santiago and other Chilean cities since October of last year, protesting against inequality and injustice in the country, and calling for the resignation of President Sebastian Piñera. The violent response to the protests from Chile’s national police, the Carabineros, has been widely condemned.
According to Chile’s public prosecutor, the Carabineros have been responsible for 8,575 alleged human rights violations while policing the protests, but only 16 officers have been stood down as a result of their actions.
One central demand of the protesters has been for a referendum to rewrite Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution. The vote was approved in December of 2019 by the country’s Congress and is scheduled to be held on the 25th of October.
A recent poll found that 82 percent of Chileans believe the country needs a new constitution, with critics saying the current framework fails to provide citizens with proper healthcare, education or participation in the political system.
As videos showing A.A being pushed off the bridge circulated on Friday night, the Carabineros released a statement claiming the accusations against them were “invented by witnesses on social media” and that the boy had lost his balance while being detained.
The police later confirmed that the officer caught on video, Sebastían Zamora Soto, had been suspended and demoted to carrying out administrative tasks. However, campaigners demanded that Zamora be arrested on charges of frustrated homicide, and secured a preliminary hearing on Sunday.
During the hearing, Zamora’s defence stated that the accused had acted according to protocol, blaming A.A for “an attack on authority” by resisting arrest and running away from police.
This was disputed by prosecutor Ximena Chong, who presented videos showing that the minor was pushed from the bridge. “[Zamora] lunges diagonally against the adolescent,” said Chong, “taking his arms and propelling him in such a way that he raises him over the railing, making him fall head first into the Mapocho River.”
Chong also condemned the police for allegedly “falsifying information”, revealing that officers told prosecutors the minor was arrested before the fall, while a separate document sent by police to Chile’s Interior Ministry appears to show that police finalised the detention at the hospital where A.A is being treated.
This version of events was challenged by hospital staff, who said the police never arrived there, nor claimed the minor was arrested.
The alleged manipulation of this information has resulted in a separate investigation into the officers accused of hindering the inquiry. Zamora has been placed under detention while a 120-day investigation continues.
The bridge attack has reignited calls for the resignation of Police Chief Mario Rozas, who has held the position since 2018. Under his watch, Carabineros have blinded record numbers of people, and have been accused of crimes including rape, murder and torture. Last year, Amnesty International, the UN Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch denounced the police’s handling of Chile’s protests.
Carlos Falcón, director of civilian police watchdog OPIP, says Chile’s police currently “have too much autonomy” and make decisions with little government oversight. “The institution needs a complete restructure,” he added, “or we are unfortunately likely to see cases like this happen again, just as we have seen in the past.”
UPDATE 10/05/20: This article has been updated to include quotes from Mario Hans and Carlos Falcón, and new information about the investigation into Sebastían Zamora Soto.