Chile invokes controversial antiterror law after Santiago bomb blast

A bomb exploded in downtown Santiago Monday, the largest of 30 bombings so far this year. Prosecutors are uncertain about who is carrying out the attacks.

Ivan Alvarado/Retuers
A police officer stands guard in front of the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Sept. 9, 2014. Chile's government said it would tighten security to avoid an escalation in violence and use the "full weight of the law" against those responsible for a bomb attack that wounded 14 on Sept. 8.

A bomb blast in downtown Santiago yesterday afternoon injured at least fourteen people, making it Chile's worst bomb attack in decades.

Monday’s bombing suspects were caught on video surveillance planting the homemade device, which detonated in a trash can in a small underground mall connected to a subway station. No one has claimed responsibility for the blast.

The government called it a “terrorist attack,” and vowed to boost security. The explosion occurred just days before the 41st anniversary of Chile’s 1973 military coup against socialist President Salvador Allende. 

“We're going to use the full force of justice, including invoking the anti-terrorist law," President Michelle Bachelet said. “What has happened is horrible, an abominable act, but Chile is, and will continue to be a safe country.”

Santiago is considered one of the safest capital cities in Latin America, but has been hit by almost 200 attacks or attempted bombings over the past decade and nearly 30 small-scale bombings so far this year, mostly at night. Common targets are police stations, public buildings, and banks.

Terrorism in Chile is “a phenomenon mainly composed of local anarchist groups carrying out small-scale bomb attacks,” according to a 2012 US State Department report.

According to the BBC, Chilean prosecutors are “baffled” as to who exactly has been carrying out these attacks:

Around 80 different groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks and prosecutors say they do not know if they are dealing with one group that continually changes its name or many separate cells.

One group calls itself "The friends of gunpowder". Others are named after long-dead anarchists from Europe and the United States.

A group named after Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who assassinated US President William McKinley in 1901, has claimed responsibility for at least five of the Santiago attacks.

Another group is named after Jean-Marc Rouillan, a jailed French left-wing militant.

In August 2010 police arrested 14 suspects, but during 2011 and 2012 the legal case against them collapsed.

A July opinion poll found that 70 percent of Chileans feel domestic attacks are getting worse, reports the BBC.

An editorial in the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio urged the government to use its power to the fullest extent, and to “provide concrete evidence that it’s capable of achieving results.” The editorial called the bombing “a turning point” for Chile.

The Chilean government's anti-terror legislation, passed during its 1973-90 dictatorship, is controversial. The law allows the government to hold suspects without charges and allows the use of phone taps and confidential witnesses in investigations, according to The Associated Press. 

The minimum sentence for terrorist activity is 10 years in prison, and if convicted on terrorism charges, Chileans “are barred for 15 years from holding public office, teaching, unionizing, starting businesses, or working as journalists,” according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Last year, the United Nations blasted Chile for its use of the anti-terrorist law against indigenous Mapuche, the largest group of Indians in South America. Chilean police are accused of implementing “a systematic use of excessive force” against the minority in long-running land disputes that have turned violent.

The law has yielded relatively few convictions. Two Chilean anarchists were tried and acquitted for a bombing in Santiago due to lack of evidence. Soon after, they were imprisoned in Spain for their involvement in a bomb attack at a basilica. Some anarchist groups have claimed responsibility for bombs in Santiago, demanding the two Chileans imprisoned in the Spanish case be freed.

“We won’t allow a small group of terrorists and cowards to affect the lives of the vast majority of men and women that want a safe, prosperous, and peaceful country,” Ms. Bachelet said, following a high-level security cabinet meeting today.

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