Residents of Santiago have become somewhat desensitized to the bomb attacks that have afflicted the city for the past decade. There have been about 200 attacks since the bombing campaigns started in 2005, most of them claimed by various anarchist groups, and yet not a single innocent civilian has died. The devices have always been small and have exploded at night, when the streets are empty. This series of IED (improvised explosive device) attacks has been regarded more as a nuisance than a serious security threat. At least until the most recent incident.
On September 8th, a bomb went off at midday in a busy fast food restaurant at the Escuela Militar metro station, injuring 14 people, three of whom seriously. The explosive device had been planted in a garbage bin, and no group has yet admitted to have carried out the bombing. The attack is the worst of its kind since democracy was restored to Chile in 1990. President Michelle Bachelet condemned it as a “terrorist act, one of the most cowardly we have seen” anddenounced the attack’s malicious intent, saying “it had as its objective to maim, spread fear and even kill innocent people.” Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said the government “would not rest until those responsible are behind bars” and has ordered the police to double their efforts in finding the culprits: they are looking for two suspects caught on CCTV cameras.
The attack shocked residents of what is ostensibly one of South America’s safest countries. Chile ranks second on the Global Peace Index, just behind Uruguay, and ahead of Argentina, long held to be Latin America’s model country, as well as the USA, the UK and France. Even the frequent bomb attacks had failed to break Chileans’ sense of security, at least until now. Before this attack, bombs usually exploded outside banks and other targets in the capital, such as police stations, army barracks, and headquarters of political parties. This is only the second time that the Chilean public has been deliberately targeted in attempt to create panic, and the first time it has succeeded. The first time was on July 15th, when an IED was planted on a metro cart. The police evacuated the area and Santiago’s veteran bomb squad defused the device before it went off. The incident points to a broadening of the list of potential targets and suggests the possibility that anarchist groups are abandoning their low casualty approach.
Chile has had a long history of anarchist activism, especially within the mass popular organizations that emerged after the fall of the military junta in 1990. Anarchists emerged from clandestinity to take the reins of social movements, becoming important figures in labour unions, student organizations and indigenous defense groups. Anarchist influence has manifested itself in leading the violent confrontations between police and the Mapuche indigenes over land rights and deforestation in southern Chile. Anarchists have even won student elections at the University of Chile, whose campus is located in Santiago. Around 80 anarchist groups have claimed responsibility for the bombings. Their causes are wildly eclectic—everything from denouncing American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to championing indigenous rights or advocating for abortion. One such group is called the “Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire”, another the “Friends of Gunpowder”.
Melissa Sepulveda, the president of the University of Chile student federation and a self-proclaimed anarchist, has consistently denied claims that students have been involved in the most recent bomb plots. However, based on previous experience, there is reason to doubt her claim. In 2009, 27-year old university student Mauricio Morales was killed when a bomb he was carrying in a backpack blew up. In 2011, 22-year old Luciano Pitronello lost one hand when a bomb he was carrying exploded outside a bank.
Finally, it is worth noting that the September 8th bombing also sparked criticism from certain Chilean anarchists, asserting that violence against the public at large is not the proper way to counter what they perceive as oppressive elements in the Chilean government and society. It remains to be seen whether the anarchist movement in Chile will continue with its flirtation with terrorism.