The Pinochet Affair: Santiago police use tear gas to halt student riot

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The Independent Online
IT BEGAN peacefully enough, on Santiago's Plaza Italia, shortly before sunset. Thousands of students poured from the subway station and set up banners mocking detained former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

"Not even Viagra will get you out of this jam," said one poster, showing Pinochet chained to a hospital bed. It was when the demonstrators suddenly started marching down the city's main Libertador Avenue that the temperature rose.

Forty policemen, weighed down by body armour, riot shields and helmets tried to block their way.

The marchers, mostly students, but including socialist members of parliament, said they wanted to continue to the central Constitution Square, site of the historic La Moneda presidential palace, where Pinochet began his 1973 coup.

No way, said the officer in charge. The students began to taunt the police with their latest dance, jumping up and down on the spot as though at a rock concert.

"Whoever doesn't jump is for Pinochet!" they chanted. That was when the first water cannon appeared. Thinking I'd be beneath its line of fire, I had positioned myself close to the vehicle's side, but that's when the first rock came down out of nowhere. It began raining rocks and I realised what the students had been carrying.

I opted for a drenching and got hit by the first gush of water, as I vaulted the waist high iron fence that forms the avenue's central refuge. Two teenage girl students slithered past me on their backs. We were all recuperating when the first tear gas cannister landed.

The demonstrators dispersed into side streets as several mobile water cannon appeared, hosing both sides of the avenue, while the riot police fanned out down the pavements. Each time, the students would re-emerge a block or two farther down, shouting "onto the street!"

As cars and the city's yellow buses tried to forge on up the opposite lanes, a lone, elderly,Pinochet supporter stopped his brand new, green Grand Cherokee, stormed up to the railing and shouted "communist bastards!" at the students.

It was an act of bravado he was to regret. Perhaps 60 years old, bespectacled, something of a Pinochet lookalike, he was the first to throw a punch across the railing. But he hadn't thought through the consequences of leaving his vehicle unattended.

Within minutes, he lay bloodied but defiant on the road, his vehicle dented by rocks, all its windows gone.

"Who did they kill? Nobody! It's all a lie!" he yelled, referring to Pinochet's regime. When I asked him for his name, he replied: "You're no journalist. You're all communists!"

The students marched on, running here and there whenever the water cannon or tear gas appeared, chanting: "It's carnival, it's carnival, they locked him up, the general." It was close to the University of Chile's Law Department that the Molotov cocktails appeared.

One homemade firebomb scored a direct hit, going through the window of a police jeep. Three policemen fell out, one slightly on fire, another with blood pouring from his face. A third opened fire with what appeared to be an Uzi submachine gun, apparently over the heads of the demonstrators.

I took refuge in the Union Bar in an alleyway known as New York Street. Inside, scores of Pinochet look-alikes were sipping local Carepa red wine, as if nothing were going on.