Flying rocks and teargas marked the 22nd annual Young Combatants' Day, which commemorates the slaying of brothers Eduardo and Rafael Vergara Toledo by Augusto Pinochet's military forces in 1985.
The Vergara brothers, active members of the often violent "Movement of the Revolutionary Left" (MIR), were peppered with bullets by military police during an anti-Pinochet protest in the low-income Villa Francia district. Eduardo died instantly; Rafael was dragged into a police van, cuffed, beaten and finally shot in the head. Their bodies were left in the street. MIR leaders decided to designate March 29 as Young Combatants' Day (Dia del Joven Combatiente), so that the Vergara brothers and other youth who rose up to fight military repression in the 80's would not be forgotten. As the years have gone by, commemorative acts on the anniversary have turned more and more widespread, and often include street violence. In 2005 a journalist and a police officer were shot during a demonstration; last year demonstrators in Villa Francia attacked police forces with fire arms. The Young Combatants' Day this year coincided with great public unrest related to the government's so far disastrous effort to improve Santiago's mass transit system. Now concluding its second month, the so-called "Transantiago system" seeks to integrate the bus and metro systems to provide more streamlined, less costly and less polluting public transit for the six million residents of the nation's capital city. But abysmal planning by the government and foot-dragging by a bus company controlling 38 percent of the bus routes have created a mass transit nightmare. With her poll numbers dropping sharply, President Michelle Bachelet earlier this week apologized to the nation for her government's inept performance and replaced her transportation minister and other cabinet members in an effort to repair the damage. Anticipating massive unrest, police Thursday evening stationed more than 4,000 officers in traditionally "problematic" districts and public areas around Santiago. The officers also took charge of ensuring the protection of Transantiago buses. Many Transantiago bus drivers hoped to finish their shift early to avoid possible violence later at night. Protests over the Transantiago system have increased in the days leading up to the Young Combatants' anniversary. Commemorative acts and small protests began last Sunday with events Villa Francia. The Macul campuses of the University of Chile, the Metropolitan Technical University (UTEM) and the Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences (UMCE) along Avenue Jose Pedro Alessandri also had peaceful protests on that day. Violent demonstrations started on Monday. A UTEM science laboratory was destroyed. Two private university students were arrested Tuesday for the crime and for carrying incendiary bombs. They face three to ten years in prison, but if prior experience is any guide, they won't be prosecuted because the government prefers not to alienate the student radicals who belong communist-anarchist fringe parties that support the ruling Concertación party. All the universities listed above remained closed Thursday, along with the Academy of Christian Humanism and the University of Santiago, in an effort to thwart campus violence. Several of the universities will also be closed today, Friday. On Tuesday, four low-grade bombs were set off in different districts of the capital by unknown delinquents. In Providencia, a bomb exploded at the foot of a luxury car dealership, shattering glass. Leaflets decrying demanding "punishment of Transantiago banks" were left at the scene. Another bomb exploded in Maipu across from a McDonald's; in Quinta Normal the entire faÃÃ‚Â§ade of a bank building was destroyed. On Wednesday morning a bomb threat was announced on Zenteno Street near the Armed Forces building. The Special Operations Group (GOPE) exploded a suspicious package, which turned out to be a box of UTEM publicity material. The papers contained nothing of a political or social nature. Marches taking place Thursday were planned by the "Coordination for Popular Protest," an organization of ultra-leftist groups that includes the Committee for Revolutionary Unity (CUR), the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR), the Movement for People's Assembly (MAP) and Radio Villa Francia, among others. The MIR did not take part in events organized by the collective. Protests began early Thursday morning with over 300 high school students marching through downtown Santiago to protest the implementation of Transantiago as well as the reform of the Constitutional Organic Learning Law (LOCE), which will be sent to parliament shortly. The students vandalized public structures and threw rocks at the police. Some Molotov cocktails were launched, but there were not many of these. The police tried to break up the demonstrators by launching tear gas, spraying demonstrators with water cannons, and arresting the presumed leaders. Over 150 arrests had been made by mid-day. Most of the disturbances took place along Alameda between the Plaza Italia and the metro station Universidad de Chile, and near the Fine Arts Museum. Four metro stationsÃÂ¢€"Baquedano, Santa Lucia, La Universidad Catolica and Universidad de Chile, momentarily closed down amidst the unrest. The Metropolitan Region prosecuting attorneys asserted that the demonstrations were led by students affiliated with the FMPR, as shown by flags and leaflets associated with the group. Yet eye witnesses recounted no principal group or sign of coordinated organization amongst the turmoil. Business owners along Alameda and nearby streets in the downtown area closed their shops and boarded the windows with plywood. Many seemed annoyed at the events. One shop owner watched events unfold, saying, "What is this for? They don't have any reason to be doing this. No one knows why they're here. Are they protesting Transantiago? Demonstrating about Young Combatant's Day? They're not doing anything." Another woman, who grew up with the Vergara brothers in Villa Francia, expressed concern about how the meaning of the day has changed over the years: "For one thing everyone forgets about what really happened, who they were, why what happened did so in the first placeÃÂ¢€Ã‚Â¦. They were militants, they were involved with militant activities, armed activities. They were dangerous people, but you have to put it in context, they were young. Militants have two facetsÃÂ¢€"one human and persona and one militant and public. Those two sides can't be brought together. Their party declared today's date Young Combatants' Day, which makes you forget about their personal life, you only think about the 'hooded ones' (ecapuchados) and breaking things." For many youth, however, especially those identified with ultra-leftist and leftist politics, going out on the street to "protest" is a symbolic act that links them to the kind of anti-military, pro-human rights protests that occurred throughout the 1980's, during the height of repression by Pinochet's military regime. Throwing rocks at police cars, in addition to providing an escape for their young, angst-ridden energy, makes these youth feel like they're taking an active part in changing, or a least combating, what they see as a corrupt social-political environment. The high school students on the streets today were surely trying to continue the immensely powerful and result-producing demonstrations over educational reform that their classmates led last fall. Demonstration organizers such as the Coordination for Popular Protest, which appeared to be absent from the action taking place along Alameda in the morning, said that public demonstrations on symbolic days such as Thursday raise awareness about social conditions and provide a means to change reality. Their press release read as follows: "Our organizations have seen that popular demands will not be answered within the system, and therefore we imbue our struggles with a political meaning of transforming reality and doing so not only by petitioning the StateÃÂ¢€Ã‚Â¦. In spite of the enormous gains of the Chilean economy in recent years, the State and its leaders have failed to guarantee Chilean families quality homes, health and education, dignified salaries and protection against abusive charges for basic services. "These are the true reasons for why protests have increased in recent yearsÃÂ¢€Ã‚Â¦. For those in power, the most definitive solution has been the criminalization of social protest and increased repression. "Because of all of this, on the 29th of March we're gathering all the Transantiago users, shantytown dwellers, students and workers, in order to organize, throughout the whole country, a popular protest." For Manuel Vergara and Luisa Toledo, parents of Eduardo and Rafael, the demonstrations and the excuse the date has provided to protest Transantiago have diluted the meaning of what happened more than 20 years ago. "The most important thing we have is life," they said. "And their life was taken from them. We would like everyone's lives to be respected." Mr. and Mrs. Vergara Toledo have been demanding justice for the death of their sons for the last twenty-two years. Two of the three police officers involved have already retired, the other remains in active duty. The officers were accused of homicide on July 21, 2006, and later charged with the same crime by the Santiago Court of Appeals. The prosecutor's office has argued that the officers' actions before and after the event prove that the homicides were motivated by the brothers' politics. The defense lawyer maintains that the officers were under attack by the brothers and acted in self-defense. A date for the initial hearings has yet to be established. By Shannon Garland The Santiago Times