The police have often used tear gas to dispel student protests in Santiago, Chile, where the government has declared zero tolerance for school occupations.
By PASCALE BONNEFOY
SANTIAGO, Chile — They appear at the student demonstrations that are once again filling the streets and occupying the schools of Santiago, and at the hospitals and police stations where the fallout lands afterward: small troops of observers in blue or white helmets, armed with notebooks, cameras, voice recorders and gas masks.
They are not there to join the protests or interfere, only to monitor and record what happens when the police crack down on the protests — as they have done with increased violence this year — and to help anyone who is injured or abused. This month, they are busier than ever.
The volunteer observers, known as “helmets,” are ordinary citizens of all ages and walks of life, professionals and blue-collar workers, university students and retirees, some well into their 70s, who see their work as crucial.
“We have to register the evidence of what we’re seeing,” said Marta Cisterna, 45, the spokeswoman for one of the helmet groups, Human Rights Observers. “No one else is monitoring police actions.”
When students mobilized last year to demand an overhaul of the country’s higher education system and a commitment to free, equal and high-quality public education, the official response was more restrained. This year the government has declared zero tolerance for school occupations, and has called in special police forces to clear the buildings. Hours or days later, the same schools are taken over again, and the police return, a cat-and-mouse pattern that often leads to violent clashes and hundreds of arrests. Meanwhile, small groups of radicalized students set up barricades, throw rocks and damage public and private property.
Protest marches usually erupt in street battles with the police, who use tear gas and chemical-laced water cannons to disperse the crowds and wield their batons to arrest demonstrators. Some students have suffered head injuries, broken noses, convulsions and breathing problems; some have been trampled by police officers on horseback. Increasingly, the observer groups say, detainees are reporting acts of sexual humiliation by the police.
That is why the helmets are there.
Before each protest, they call one another to to distribute tasks and locations. On the streets, they wear hard hats marked DDHH — short for derechos humanos, human rights in Spanish — as well as large credential cards around their necks to make their role as clear as possible. They get training in the legal basics, and have strict rules to follow: no interfering in events, no cursing at the police, always work in pairs.
“The first thing we do is approach the officer in charge,” said Ms. Cisterna, a speech therapist. “We tell him we are there to observe police procedures. We don’t intervene, we don’t try to take detainees away from them, but we do let them know when they’re doing something illegal or irregular, that they can’t beat people up, and that we are watching and have their names and ranks. They pay attention.”
Her group was among the first to field observers in white helmets. Members of Sutra, a labor union, also wear them and monitor the police at labor strikes and community protests as well as student actions. A third group created earlier this year, Observers and Defenders of Human Rights, wears blue helmets similar to those of United Nations peacekeepers. A fourth observer group founded last month by law students also provides legal assistance to detainees.
August has kept them all busy. Students occupied more than 25 high schools in Santiago and other cities, and took over the University of Chile’s main building and are striking at least eight other universities. Last week a group of high school students went on a hunger strike, and others chained themselves to government buildings and occupied Unesco’s offices in Santiago. Last Thursday 10,000 students marched from 14 different points in the capital, and nearly 140 were arrested.
Police officials declined to comment on the work of the observer groups.
The groups coordinate loosely with one another to cover more ground and alert one another to unwatched hot spots. Combined, the groups’ observers number a few dozen.
Protest organizers now have the habit of calling the helmets beforehand. “They feel more protected if we are there, although they understand that there are limits to what we can do,” said Germán Chau, 66, an adult education monitor with Human Rights Observers.
Despite those limits, the helmets are sometimes detained themselves. Matías Sotelo, a 23-year-old former nursing student and Red Cross volunteer, was arrested on June 20 while assisting a student suffering respiratory arrest at a march. Mr. Sotelo says he was beaten and shoved into a police bus with a dozen demonstrators, then held in isolation for eight hours. His arrest and the distinctive red cross on his blue helmet, meant to signal first aid, led to his expulsion from the Chilean Red Cross, he said.
The helmets photograph what they see, and record oral accounts from protesters and witnesses. They jot down the license plates of police vehicles and the names of commanding officers, and keep track of everyone who is detained. Much of that information is immediately posted online in Twitter messages. They continue their work until the last detainee is released by the police.
“Sometimes we stay up all night — we don’t sleep or eat much, and we spend our own money, but we have to be there,” said Luis Parra, 56, a volunteer lawyer with Human Rights Observers.
The groups draft reports after each protest and send them to a congressional human rights commission. Human Rights Observers compiles them for submission to the National Institute for Human Rights, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Chile and international human rights organizations.
Perhaps more important, Ms. Cisterna said, their material may be used in court. A lawyer for a student who said he and several others were tortured in a police station in February submitted the observers’ records last month as evidence in the case.
“We were able to enter the police station and see the conditions they were in, and take their testimony,” Ms. Cisterna said of the students. “We’re talking about torture: they reported having their heads forced into the toilet, guns pointed against their heads, being beaten unconscious, and a police officer pulling down his pants to show them his genitals. These students were practically kidnapped, detained in a police bus for up to eight hours, and the police did not acknowledge their arrest. That’s when we had to learn to use Twitter, to keep evidence of the exact time of the arrests.”
It all began a year ago, when a network of human rights organizations, concerned about police tactics, sent two members to observe a pot-banging protest in a plaza, wearing credentials with the logos of each organization.
“Something happened that day,” Ms. Cisterna said. “People were curious and came up to us, looked at our credentials, asked what we were doing. We distributed fliers about the rights of detainees.”
Encouraged, the groups then sent a dozen observers to a national strike march, this time in white safety helmets from a hardware store, and the idea gained visibility and attracted more volunteers.
“It’s rewarding,” Mr. Parra said. “The kids appreciate our work because no one else is doing it.”