Front-line activists 'Primera Linea' protect Chile's protesters, but some criticize their methods

La Primera Linea protests on Plaza Italia in Santiago. (Photo: @Chile_Despert0)
La Primera Linea protests on Plaza Italia in Santiago. (Photo: @Chile_Despert0)

People have been talking about the Primera Linea since the very start of the popular uprising in Chile back in October. The young people who make up this group regularly clash with police during protests, often dressed up as superheroes from the Marvel universe. They say their aim is to protect the protesters, but some say their methods are too violent.

The Primera Linea are easy to identify amongst Chile’s protesters with their protective helmets, coloured scarves and handmade shields. They appear in many photos taken in Santiago’s Plaza Italia, which the protesters rebaptized Plaza de la Dignidad (Dignity Square).

The group doesn't have a leader and has come together throughout the course of the protests. Members of Primera Linea call themselves "revolutionary" and say their aim is to protect the protesters from police violence and allow them to exercise their right to protest safely. This is a real concern. More than 2,000 people have been injured by police since the start of the protests. Indeed, two weeks after the demonstrations began, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared that his country was "at war against a powerful, relentless enemy that doesn’t respect anyone or anything."

Videos of clashes between the Chilean police, nicknamed les carabineros, and Primera Linea have circulated online.

"Epic! Primera Linea rush to the aid of one of their members. He sure gives him a kick haha"

"Long live Primera Linea! Long live Chile!"

As the name, which means "front line" indicates, members of Primera Linea construct barricades out of rocks, pieces of sheet metal and tyres to prevent the police from reaching the protesters. Both men and women participate; the young men often go shirtless.

During confrontations with the police, they arm themselves with slingshots and batons and rip up bits of tarmac to throw. Sometimes they lob homemade molotov cocktails at the police. Some members, paradoxically known as "bombers", are tasked with defusing the tear gas canisters thrown the carabineros with a mixture of water and baking soda.

"When you thought there were no more heroes in Chile. The criminals in suits get away with whatever they want. They’d steal everything, right down to the water we drink. They managed to place one of their own in La Moneda [Editor’s note: The presidential palace]. But there are still heroes. They appear just when we need them most. Heroes are always on the front line."


Other photos show members of Primera Linea with green lasers, trying to temporarily blind members of the security forces  a technique borrowed from Hong Kong protesters.

"I can’t stop myself from playing this song when I see videos like this showing the light sabres carried by the jedis who are members of Primera Linea."

On social media, some people refer to Primera Linea as superheroes, a concept reinforced by the tendency of group members to wear clothing or symbols referencing Captain America, Iron Man or Spider Man. On December 24, a video game featuring Primera Linea was launched.

"Drink your coffee in honour of these guys!"

"When I grow up, I’ll be a member of Primera Linea," this poster reads.

"They allow us to protest safely"

Leo Vieyra, age 43, regularly takes part in protests. His says that Primera Linea knew what to do to get people’s support:

At first, people were very influenced by the image of Primera Linea in traditional media outlets, which often have close ties to the government. So they thought they were all hooligans. But when they participated in protests, people started to realise that Primera Linea helped everyone else protest safely. They block the police from advancing and protect us from repression.

From what I observed during the protests, they showed immense courage and were very organized. Sadly, many of these young people are among those who were injured, some severely.

Since the start of the protests, severe human rights violations have occurred in Chile, according to reports by several organisations. For example, a total of 347 people have sustained serious eye injuries with some losing vision permanently, according to the most recent report, published on December 23 by the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH).

A report by the United Nations has denounced the "indiscriminate and inappropriate" use of pellet guns during protests that are, for the most part, peaceful. The UN report said that lead pellets were fired in numerous cases in the immediate vicinity of protesters.

"This reminds many people of repression under the military dictatorship of Pinochet"

María Fernanda Barrera Rodríguez, who is originally from Chile, is a researcher in sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She says that many people appreciate the Primera Linea because the memory of life under the military dictatorship is still fresh in their minds.

The accounts that people have given of being tortured and the violation of human rights that is ongoing reminds many people of the repression under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). The memories of this era still haunt Chileans and they came flooding back when a curfew was imposed at the start of the movement and the army was deployed. In Chile, those are very symbolic gestures.

This isn’t the first time in Chilean history that a group has tried to protect protesters, though they have never before worn superhero costumes. Ale Bórquez Bravo used to lead student protests. He took part in a series of protests at Chilean universities in 2015 and has also been a part of the most recent wave of protests. He says that the popularity of Primera Linea is a direct result of the increase in police violence.

There’s always been a kind of front line that protects protesters in Chile. It was necessary because, over the past few years, all of the protest movements have been repressed in an attempt to uphold an illusion of democracy. Faced with that reality, there have always been people on the front lines who come face to face wth the security forces and do their best to keep the protests peaceful. Without them, we wouldn’t have achieved any gains in the past and we wouldn’t have been able to mobilise such large numbers of people. Institutional brutality didn’t just appear over the past few months, it was just less visible before. These days, there are more of us in the streets so the violence has become more widespread.

"We are talking about bullets on one side and wooden spoons on the other"

However, not everyone agrees with what Primera Linea is doing. Some supporters of the current regime as well as people who consider themselves non-partisan criticise the group virulently on social media. They say Primera Linea's methods are too aggressive and call them hooligans. They accuse them of being behind looting that occurred right at the beginning of the movement.

"These men are the real front line. The others are just a caricature of a third-world show"

Magdalena Ortega, the director of training and public service for IdeaPaís research centre,is not a fan of the Primera Linea. She has been calling for an end to what she says is a "normalisation of violence". She advocates for working within the system.

We need to put a stop to these romantic notions that Primera Linea are heroes that fight for the people. In reality, these young people are victims of the violence that has become normalised in Chile. I think that there are other solutions. The police need reforms and we should do that by working through the appropriate channels.

IdeaPaís researcher Marí­a Fernanda Barrera Rodríguez says that it is impossible to compare police violence with the actions of Primera Linea.

I think it is a mistake to compare police violence with the actions carried out by Primera Linea. The police are supposedly armed with non-lethal weapons but they have mutilated more than 300 people and killed protesters. We are talking about bullets on one side and wooden spoons and pots on the other. I think it is more important to question why people are willing to lose their eyes or even their lives by protesting.

According to the Chilean prosecutor’s office, 26 protesters were killed on November 20 and, in a least four cases, officers of the law were directly implicated in the deaths.

During a protest held on December 27, a member of Primera Linea died after falling and being electrocuted. The circumstances surrounding the death are still unknown. As for the police, 94 officers were injured that same day.

"Members of Primera Linea gather where one of their members fell the night before"

In another case, legal proceedings were launched on December 21 against a police officer who was driving and hit a 20-year-old protester. There are photos of the incident below.

The people protesting in Chile are frustrated by the inequalities in this country, where 1% posses a third of the country’s wealth. They want better access to education and healthcare and are angry about the increased cost of living in the country. The movement was sparked by the increase in metro tickets in Santiago.

Article by Syrine Attia (@Syrine_Attia)