Santiago, Chile – Just blocks from Santiago’s busy Avenida Matta, dozens of people gathered silently outside the 4th police precinct this past weekend, lighting candles in tribute to Corporal Daniel Palma.
Shot in the head last week while conducting a check on a suspicious vehicle, Palma was the third police officer to be killed in Chile in the past month, stunning a country already grappling with an uptick in violent crime.
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Zuli Peraza, who moved from Venezuela to Chile a year and a half ago, attended the vigil with her husband and their teenage daughter. The killing occurred just blocks from their home.
“I’m worried for my daughter, my husband, and my home,” Peraza told Al Jazeera. “Violence has increased in this country.”
The spate of killings spurred lawmakers to swiftly pass new legislation giving police greater protections. The government said that $1.5bn in additional security spending, along with new laws to combat organised crime and drug trafficking, which were signed last Thursday, will aid the fight against the rising violence.
But human rights groups have said one of the laws, which gives police more leeway to use force when their lives are under threat, could increase police abuses and put more people at risk. Critics have dubbed it the “quick trigger” law.
“We need to change the police so they respect human rights, but we also need to create better conditions to confront crime,” Rodrigo Bustos, executive director of Amnesty International’s Chile branch, told Al Jazeera.
He expressed concerns over how quickly the new legislation was passed: “The police need to modernise, need better training, better technology – but none of this has been discussed.”
Human rights violations
Chilean police have for years faced accusations of systematic human rights violations.
During 2019 protests against high living costs and inequality, approximately 30 people were killed, and hundreds more were shot in the eyes with rubber-coated bullets. The violence prompted major global rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN, to call for police reforms.
Speaking at Palma’s funeral on Saturday, police chief Ricardo Yanez said he was “bothered” by insinuations that police “do not understand the enormous responsibility of having the power to use legitimate force”. The Chilean police force did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Although one of President Gabriel Boric’s campaign pledges was to reform policing in the country, critics have said he has done little since taking office a year ago.
“The government has not advanced on the issue,” Bustos said, calling the new police protection laws an “erratic” U-turn in policy. “They’ve held very changeable positions and given wrong signals to both Congress and citizens.”
Independent Senator Fabiola Campillai is among the law’s most vocal opponents. While on her way to work during the 2019 uprising, she was shot in the face at close range by a tear gas canister fired by a police officer. The canister crushed her skull, leaving her permanently blinded.
“Apparently, it is not enough for this Senate to have a colleague who was shot in the face by a police officer,” she told the Senate last week, warning that the law “gives impunity to the police, because it allows them to open fire”.
Spate of homicides
According to the investigative organisation InSight Crime, homicides in Chile grew by more than 32 percent in 2022 over the previous year, marking one of the country’s “deadliest ever” years. Despite this jump, Chile’s homicide rate of 4.6 people per 100,000 still puts it among the least violent nations in Latin America.
Lawyer Cristian Cruz, who specialises in human rights, said violent crime against police has historically been a rare occurrence in Chile, noting that the uptick in this phenomenon has relied upon “imported techniques” from foreign criminal gangs. In the past 10 years, 26 police officers in Chile have been killed by criminal actions.
While he said police should have better training and equipment, Cruz was worried about the implications of the new legislation.
“Seeing what has happened in Chile, especially in 2019 and in periods of unrest, [this legislation] will be dangerous,” he told Al Jazeera. “There is a need for greater [police] protection, but one cannot be protected to the detriment of others.”
For Peraza, the killing of Palma just outside her doorstep is worrying. Motioning to the precinct behind her, illuminated by candles brought by neighbours in mourning, she said police have provided a vital service to the community.
“We respect this country and the police,” Peraza said. “They protect the community, the people.”