Chilean troops today resumed mass sweeps of working class neighborhoods, seeking members of armed opposition groups.
Truckloads of combat troops with their faces blackened and backed up by armored cars, sealed off the Santa Julia and O'Higgins districts at dawn. Secret police agents went house to house, herding all men onto sports fields for questioning under the pouring winter rain.
The crackdown was combined with a relaxation of President Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian rule when the government announced that the first opposition daily newspaper since the 1973 military coup will be allowed to circulate next year. The decision followed a two-year legal battle. The first issue of La Epoca, owned by center-right Christian Democrats, is to go on the streets March 11.
No one was allowed in or out of the raided neighborhoods, but by midafternoon it was reported that about 600 people had been rounded up. The leader of a local ecumenical religious center, Osvaldo Ulloa, reported that detainees were driven away in covered trucks.
The current series of raids began in late April, after shootouts in which a policeman and an alleged leftist guerrilla died. In two weeks, more than 15,000 people were rounded up in sweeps, according to the Chilean Human Rights Commission. Only five detainees were accused of subversive offenses after an arms cache said to belong to the Communist-linked armed group, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, was reportedly uncovered in a house garden.
The raids caused tensions between the Army and the police since each service resented the other's being used for such purposes. According to well placed sources, such disagreements reached into the ruling military junta.
The archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno, condemned the sweeps, which he said were "an offense to human dignity" and "spread fear and insecurity." Human rights leaders accused the armed services of "absurd inefficiency," and said the government's real purpose was to intimidate the population at a time the opposition was planning mass demonstrations.
By mid-May, the sweeps seemed to have ended, although government spokesmen said they would resume whenever necessary. There appears to be no immediate reason for this new sweep, but Pinochet has not hesitated to deploy troops in the face of any threatened opposition action.
Twice in May, troops placed central Santiago under virtual siege, cutting traffic and deploying armored cars. The first such deployment was to prevent a May 1 labor union rally and the second was in response to a march May 21 at which the main labor federation called on workers to walk down the main avenue with white flags to protest the neighborhood raids.
Troops with blackened faces have been used to clear campuses of demonstrating students and have opened fire above the heads of schoolchildren protesting government plans to turn state education over to local municipalities. At the end of May, a 20-year-old university student, Ronald Wood, died after being shot twice in the head by an unidentified soldier, witnesses said.
The protests by students and teachers over the educational changes are seen as the first salvos in a growing campaign of civil disobedience. The National Civic Assembly, a grouping of the country's main labor, white collar and community organizations, has said the protests will lead to a national general strike July 2 and 3.
More than 1,500 people, mostly teachers and uniformed secondary school students have been detained in street marches in the past three weeks. They have have been protesting plans to turn over about 800 state schools, now run by the national Education Ministry, to localities. They accuse the government of wanting to increase political control through local mayors appointed by Pinochet and of planning eventually to sell the schools to the private sector.
A recent poll of state teachers by their union showed a 97 percent majority against the plan. The church's education spokesman, Bishop Javier Prado, has also called for the reform plan to be dropped.
The decision to allow La Epoca to be published will be seen as a victory for moderates within the government led by Interior Minister Ricardo Garcia. They reportedly wish to see concessions to the center and center right of the opposition, and have committed the government to passing laws legalizing political parties and setting out rules for the running of a parliament by early next year. They have also proposed taking steps to open an electoral register by the end of the year. Pinochet and a military junta have governed without elections since the 1973 coup.
The register would be used first for a plebiscite in early 1989 when voters would approve or reject a candidate nominated by armed forces chief for the presidential term ending in 1997.
Last Saturday, Pinochet came the closest he has to confirming his long-rumored desire to run for president in 1989.
"The government has set out the importance of projecting the principles and style of this regime beyond 1989," he said.
"Winning that plebiscite is a challenge for authentic democrats."