Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Citizen Arrests Increasing in Chile

The place : the central business district in Santiago, the Chilean capital (known by the locals as "El Centro").
The time : 11:30 a.m on March 28, 2007.
A young woman takes her wallet out to buy in a shop. This is noticed by one of the many hit and run robbers (known as Lanzas) that have made "El Centro" their favorite operational area. The "lanza" tries to snatch the woman's wallet from her hands but fails due to her resistance causing the lanza to run away as fast as possible.

But the robber is blocked by a group of passerbys that begin to subdue him violently, punching and kicking the lanza in the middle of the street. The young woman approaches the lanza and also begins to beat him.

Thankfully the lanza does not try to resist and this calms down the crowd that begins to shout "Call the police!". However the crowd begins to get anxious since incredibly no police officers have arrived after 10 minutes, quite surprising since this is the area with most security in the city. Some people in the crowd begin to shout "Let´s kill him then!" and the robber is beaten yet again by some men.

Luckily for the robber three police officers arrive on the scene and arrest the offender.

Episodes such as this have become quite common in recent years, even after the introduction of Chile´s "Penal Process Reform" five years ago. The aim of this process was to modernize the Chilean justice system, that had become obsolete and which involved lengthy and bureaucratic trials that caused many victims to avoid pressing charges against criminals. The new system introduced a "guarantee" procedure, whereby the victims and accused may receive swifter justice and higher sentences, due to faster oral trials. Now both parts have state paid lawyers but this has meant that offenders get better counseling and often go free on bail. Gonzalo Fuenzalida was a first hand witness of this situation. On May 19, 2006, Gonzalo was at home with his family when a gang of four armed robbers invaded it. Gonzalo and his wife were tied up and one of the robbers pointed a gun at their eight-month-old daughter, demanding money and other valuable objects. Also their housemaid was sexually abused by the youths that searched the house for some hours before escaping. Police arrested some months later two of the gang after they had committed another robbery in the same area where Gonzalo lived.
Ironically Gonzalo is a lawyer, so he was confident that the robbers would get their due punishment in court. However, Gonzalo just could not believe what had happened as the judge allowed the two men to go free on bail! Gonzalo appealed to the decision, but the trial was held several months later, enough time for the gang to send associates to threaten Gonzalo and his family in their own home. Finally the original sentence was revoked by the Appeals Court, but two of the robbers remain at large and have not been found by the police.

Since then Gonzalo Fuenzalida has formed an organization called "Victims of Crime" that at present has 5000 members and whose website gets approximately 50,000 hits a month.
"Our justice system is full of judges that give far too many alternative sentences that are causing an unbalance in the system since they grant an excessive number of bails," said Fuenzalida in the website.

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