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The Cop-Fighting, Acid-Slinging Vandals of Chile's Protest Movement

At every student protest in Chile, a bunch of "encapuchados" stands ready to burn stuff and throw things at rio-cops' heads.

by Sam Edwards
03 June 2015, 1:05pm

A bus stop is set on fire at a demonstration (All photos author's own)

May was an unusually bloody month for the long-running student protests that have dominated Chilean politics since erupting in 2011. Two protesters were killed in an altercation with a neighbour during a 14th of May march in the city of Valparaíso, only a week before a young man was left in a critical condition after sustaining injuries caused by police water cannon at a further demonstration. In response, 100,000 marched against excessive police force in the capital Santiago, where, following the largely peaceful march itself, masked figures reportedly looted several shops, firebombed a bank and injured several police officers, one of whom received burns in an acid attack.

Rather than isolated incidents, these latest casualties are only extreme examples of the regular violence that frequently hijacks peaceful protests of all stripes in Chile. Far from being confined to the student protests, the recent conflict is part of a long tradition of radical protesters clashing with the country's heavily armed riot police whenever the opportunity arises.

Trouble at protests follows a regular script in Chile, obvious to anyone who has endured the police's prodigious use of tear gas and stayed to watch the violence that all too often follows demonstrations of all stripes.

The disturbances usually begin within minutes of tens-of-thousands strong columns of demonstrators – and the scores of media chaperones who follow their every move – arriving at the end of the designated march route. While the vast majority of the crowd mills around the main stage listening to speeches from protest leaders, a small, but immediately identifiable minority will congregate nearby. Busy putting on masks or wrapping t-shirts around their heads, they prepare for their regular clash with their hated nemesis: the Special Forces Riot Police, clad in thick body armour and militaristic olive green fatigues.

Taking the man to task. In this case the green man of a traffic light

Known as "encapuchados" – literally "hooded ones" in Spanish, but in Chile synonymous with masked vandals – they come prepared with backpacks full of broken concrete, hammers and, in many cases, the crude and volatile materials for Molotov cocktails.

Over the following hours, the encapuchados will play a cat and mouse game with the bulky, flint-eyed police officers. The protest ninjas will set fire to bus stops, destroy street signs, and reduce kiosks to dust until the police charge forward in military formation under the cover of water cannon and tear gas.

In turn, the encapuchados will try to inflict as much damage as possible on the ungainly police officers, aiming large chunks of concrete at heads, Molotov cocktails at the engines of police motorbikes, and, in some cases, even throwing acid over those who venture too close. Journalists are a further target, those who photograph the violence sometimes inadvertently becoming the target of the encapuchados' rage themselves. Detested equally by the police they attempt to maim and many Chileans fed up of seeing their streets transformed into a war-zone every few weeks, these young radicals are social pariahs to mainstream society. Politicians frequently promise to end the hostility, but the clashes continue.

Activists battle with riot-cops

According to Igor Goicovic Donoso, historian at the University of Santiago de Chile and expert on social violence, there are, broadly speaking, two distinct components of the modern gangs of encapuchados. The first, familiar to the international audience and recognisable from recent street violence in countries including Greece, are young people identifying with radical anarchism. Also in this bracket are also those influenced by other far-left groups such as the various Marxist guerrilla organisations that maintained an armed resistance against the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship which ran from 1973 to 1990.

"The majority of the encapuchados, however, are young people from the poorest neighbourhoods and have no identifiable political or ideological affiliation," Goicovic told me. "Instead they express a deep anger at the lack of economic opportunities and social exclusion they suffer."

Goicovic said it was important to realise that these young people were not the only groups responsible for street violence in the country, pointing to the frequency with which all manner of demonstrations end in protesters having a tear up with the police. But what separates the encapuchados from, say, striking port workers is the "spontaneous" nature of their violence.

"Notably, even the anarchists or similar groups wield no effective control over the targets at which they direct their violence," Goicovic said. "Many of which are senseless and lack any form of justification. For example, the looting of a school in a poor neighbourhood, robbing a local store or vandalising a nursery."

While much of this violence has no overt political target, the phenomenon of the modern encapuchado is considered by many experts as the latest symptom of the huge disparity of wealth that has blighted Chilean urban society for more than a century.

"This is not a new phenomenon," historian at the University of Chile Sergio Grez Toso said. "Street violence has a long history in Chile, and its root has always been in profound inequality and the social discontent of the poorest sectors of society."

Following massive immigration to the capital from rural areas in the late 19th century, Santiago's population skyrocketed with many of the new arrivals living in abject poverty in peripheral slums. A litany of bloody encounters between security forces and protesters followed in the subsequent decades.

Since then, Chile has undergone massive change and reduced poverty dramatically, but extreme social segregation remains a problem, and some claim that the country's much-publicised "economic miracle" has left many behind.

A demonstrator is doused with a police water-cannon

For Grez, long-standing frustrations with politics and the economic difficulties facing the poorest communities are two of many factors behind the formation of a class of marginalised, angry young men.

While this latter group may not actively identify with the demands of whichever protest they hijack, these events provide an opportunity for marginalised, frustrated youth to vent their anger, said Goicovic.

Student leaders frequently charge that the riot police themselves are guilty of provoking violence. Their aggressive tactics and excessive force is well reported: the alleged 2013 kidnap and torture of a teenager, several protesters being blinded by police armed with paintball guns in the same year and reports of a pattern of sexual abuse towards female suspects in custody, to name a few.

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"The police also contribute to this social and political violence through their frequently brutal and heavy handed approach to dealing with [the demonstrations organised by] the social movements. In many cases the police have appeared more concerned with provoking protesters than maintaining public order," Grez said. "Between 2011 and 2014, there have been various well-documented cases of police infiltrators, some of them dressed as encapuchados who incited students to attack property and even the riot police themselves."

Goicovic suggests the organisation of the Chilean police force provides a further twist: many of the officers in the Carabineros – uniformed police – hail from a similar socio-economic background to the demonstrators on the other side of street barricades.

"[The specialist riot police] are on one hand from the same social class as the protesters, but they have been shaped ideologically, politically, psychologically to carry out repressive action against those from these same groups," he said. "The presence, then, of the riot police, seeking to suppress the actions of protests becomes perhaps the most common argument justifying violence on the part of the encapuchados."

Following the eventual failure of a bill first proposed in 2011 which would have introduced tougher sentences for those guilty of protest violence and made covering one's face at a demonstration a criminal offence, politicians and police have experimented with other means of tackling the encapuchados, but most observers agree there has been no respite in protest violence so far.

For Grez, though, it's important to place this violence in perspective. "Social and political violence has never been far from the history of the Chilean Republic," he said. "The violence we see today is very mild if we put it in context [of Chile's social conflicts over the last 200 years], throughout which the government and the dominant classes have always employed the greatest share of force."

The more immediate context is Chile's ongoing social struggle for educational reform, and the street based protests that have formed a major part of that. So long as they continue, it seems likely that the encapuchados won't be far away, ready to cause chaos at every opportunity.

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