Chilean government invokes anti-terrorism law after attack

Chileans on Tuesday were still coming to terms with the fallout from Monday’s bloody subway station attack with a heightened police presence on Santiago streets and increased congestion as commuters sought to avoid the metro.

The attack, which the government quickly condemned as a cowardly terrorist attack on innocent people, occurred when a bomb detonated in a bin near a food stall just outside Escuela Militar station.

There were no fatalities but more than a dozen people were injured, including 10 women.

While the government was quick to assure citizens that it would “take all measures to ensure that people can continue to live in tranquility and peace,” questions are now being asked about whether the incident should be treated as isolated or part of a more coordinated movement.

There have been more than 300 low-level attacks in Chile over the past nine years, with few causing more than minor structural damage to deserted buildings. Targets have included banks and police stations. On one occasion, the the person planting the bomb accidentally killed himself when the devise exploded in his bag, and another was severely injured when he prematurely detonated the device in his hands.

In July, a bomb was detonated in an empty train carriage late at night a few stations from Monday’s blast. No one was injured and minor structural damage was reported. And three weeks ago, a bomb scare caused a subway train to be evacuated in the middle of a tunnel. No one was harmed.

What stands out about Monday’s explosion is its location, in the crowded food area outside a subway station during lunch hour when hundreds were around.

Nick Levine, a Santiago political analyst, said the biggest change was in the apparent targeting of civilians.

“If you look back even to the times of the dictatorship, when resistance groups of different types were fighting against the dictatorship, I cannot think of any particular case when somebody placed a bomb in a public place with people in it,” Levine said.

He added that the timing, occurring three days before the 41st anniversary of the coup that saw the overthrow of Salvador Allende by General Augustus Pinochet was also significant.

“September is always the time for a little bit of additional unrest. The bomb exploded near the military school so I am sure that is part of the symbolic message that is being sent there,” he said.

Evelyn Pena, a 33-year-old veterinary physician in Santiago, agreed that the timing could be symbolic: “It might be related to Sept. 11, a difficult time for Chileans because it takes us back to the dictatorship. The absence of answers and justice to this day generates each year violent disturbances all over Chile.”

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

Chile is one of the most socially stratified countries in Latin America, with a large gap between the rich and poor.

In the past six months, a series of protests have seen groups ranging from students seeking greater access to university education to workers demanding higher pay, peacefully demonstrate against the state.

On Sunday, a mob of masked individuals clashed violently with police at an otherwise peaceful protest organized by the National Assembly for Human Rights to remember the 3,000 people that went “missing” during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

In April, police used water cannons in downtown Santiago to disperse a crowd celebrating a local football team in the city center. Masked individuals were seen hurling slabs of concrete, stones and fireworks into crowds.

Individuals or groups calling themselves anarchists have previously claimed responsibility for some of the low-level, non-lethal bomb attacks in Santiago but as yet there is no evidence to link yesterday’s attack to any particular group.

Juan Carlos Ortiz, a 52-year-old commercial director of a technology firm, said some in the country were frustrated with the government.

“We have some anti-establishment groups,” he said. “These are groups of young people who don’t believe in the system and who don’t want to be part of it.”

But Julio Torres, a 40-year-old forest engineer, said it was impossible to speculate about the identity of those responsible for the bombing. “There are many groups of people who are complaining about many different issues so it is very difficult to know which group would do this because we have in a situation where many people have issues with the government,” he said.

President Michelle Bachelet held an extraordinary meeting Monday with her security team to determine how best to respond.

“What has happened today is horrible, extremely reprehensible, but Chile is and will remain a safe country and we will work as a government and with all institutions to ensure that all who live in our country know that we are working to protect them,” Bachelet said.