“We must move towards real technical and political oversight that leads this process and focuses on civil preventative policing.”

The transformation -not a modernization- of Chile’s Carabineros police service must be a priority for the Chilean government. Carabineros de Chile has enjoyed recognition throughout the Americas but has been exhibiting problems similar to those experienced by other police forces in the region for several years. What is happening? The Justice Studies Center of the Americas (JSCA), a technical institution of the OAS that serves its 34 member states including Chile, has observed symptoms of progressive erosion.

There are well-known cases that point to this: the manufacture of false incriminating evidence against Mapuche leaders; misuse of public channels by high-ranking officials; repeated use of pellets that blinded or partially blinded hundreds of people during the social protests; the criminal investigation of events that the public prosecutor’s office has recognized, such as torture in a police station; the investigation of a police officer for pushing a teenager off of a bridge, which was deemed a case of attempted homicide by the prosecution service; and broad criticism of the results of efforts to prevent and address crime and the quality of the police subject to judicial oversight and evidentiary exclusion, which in many cases damage or prevent prosecution by the public prosecutor’s office.

The questioned events, procedures and results are actually the symptoms of a serious institutional imbalance within Carabineros de Chile that stands as an obstacle to carrying out its mission, goes against guarantees, stands in the way of criminal prosecution and undermines the due controls and balances of the democratic system. This is the very complex situation that JSCA is observing with concern.

Why not simply promote modernization? Modernization efforts would not have the scope or depth needed. Many such efforts have achieved their goals but have not addressed this imbalance. The institutional structure and culture of Carabineros has not been changed at its core, and this dilutes even the best efforts to implement structural changes.

Why a deep transformation? The military structure of Carabineros de Chile has not eliminated corruption, which is one of the supposed advantages of its design. Furthermore, this structure and culture tend to suppress dissenting voices that report crimes and improper and illegal procedures and propose institutional alternatives.  All of this would be very healthy in a public entity with its powers. Finally, the current structure and culture is highly resistant to change. There is a willingness to modernize, but it tends to be seen as the best response to crime and needs related to public order. As such, it acts -even inadvertently- in a manner that allows for formal changes without true structural or cultural adjustments.     

Is it possible to make that change? Yes, it is possible. Another Chilean police agency -Policía de Investigaciones- has already done so. During the first years following the return to democracy, it took steps to overcome serious institutional imbalances that steeped it in corruption, human rights violations and inefficient criminal investigation. It adopted a structure and culture that are oriented towards change, making it a more flexible and adaptable organization, though there is still room for improvement. For example, this design facilitated changes in protocols and the way in which criminal justice system standards work.

What should that transformation be oriented towards? First, it should move towards real technical and political oversight that leads this process and focuses on civil preventative The process should include several types of actions: updating profiles, organization structure, the recruitment process, training and work. It should first address overlaps in terms of its functions with the Policía de Investigaciones.

In the short-term, the discussions of the 2021 budget should at least consider the strategic objectives and schedule for this transformation. That process should feature milestones for the final year of this administration and the changes that must follow in order to bring this change to fruition. Political officials -the government and Congress- have a responsibility to the people. The public is expecting a swift, reasonable and effective response to its demands regarding guarantees, security, public order and justice, all of which are essential to democratic rule of law.