Or, How I Snuck a Weapon Into La Moneda and Defeated the Carabineros.
This past Friday afternoon, our friend Zane managed to wrangle, at great trouble, a tour of La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, and the site of the 1973 coup that ended the presidency of Salvador Allende.
Visiting La Mondeda as a large group is not like visiting the White House, you don’t just show up and have your ticket punched and then get taken around. Instead, strings must be pulled, appointments made, and identification papers closely scrutinized. So, on Friday, after much arranging by Zane, our group of 30-some people showed up on the front step of La Moneda and begged an audience with the tour guide who had been arranged for us.
After some hawing and hemming, there appeared a female carabinero (or perhaps a “carabinera”, I don’t know) in full summer dress uniform — white tunic, pillbox hat, bright red lipstick, and hair pulled back so tight that it made her squint. She lined us up according to sex, men on the left, women on the right, and then gathered up our passports, exchanging them for visitors’ passes.
The Carabineros, who are a nearly omnipresent feature of Chilean life, are a species of gendarmerie, a military unit tasked with policing civilian populations, effectively a branch of the armed forces who function as federal police.
If you want to get really historical, then the idea of a gendarmerie probably has its origins in the middle ages, with the Spanish Santa Hermandades (Holy Brotherhoods), knights and townsmen who banded together to patrol the spaces in between cities in an effort to suppress highway robbery and protect merchants and pilgrims. In the 19th century, as policing, soldiering, and civil government all became better organized, most European nations formally adopted something like a national gendarmerie to take care of the rural spaces between cities. The Spanish Guardia Civil, the Italians Carabinieri, and the French Gendarmerie Nationale all formally date from this era, with rural policing as their original mission.
And yes, the Italian word carabinieri and the Spanish carabinero refer to the same thing: a mounted soldier armed with a carbine, a short-barreled rifle suitable for use by man on horseback
Formal gendarmerie forces never really took hold in most of the Anglo-Saxon world, with its ancient suspicion of centralized power. And for Americans, with their Posse Comitatus Act, the idea of soldiers policing citizens is more than distasteful. We prefer our police militarized, not our military policized. Although, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, those friendly characters in red tunics who like maple syrup, are known in Quebecois as Gendarmerie Royale du Canada. So, maybe it’s all in the marketing.
In any event, the Carabineros were in charge of security at La Mondeda, and they’re famously serious and famously capable. In fact, one reason that Chile is different from the rest of Latin America is that the Carabineros are not corrupt, nor particularly corruptible. Unlike, say, Argentina, where the average boarder cop, like the average bellhop, expects a small tip for performing his necessary service.
One more thing about the carabineros at La Moneda is that they were, like all ceremonial soldiers, hella tall, all of them at least 6’1″. Even the carabineras were at least 5’8″ in their sensible heels.
So there I was, standing in line with a group of students, eyeballing the imposing ceremonial guards and the muy serias chicas policias who were herding us through the front door, and up to a metal detector. And that’s when I remembered I had a folding knife in my pants pocket. I’m not a knife nut, just a country boy who believes carrying a pocketknife is a sensible act, not for self-defense, but because knives are useful. Although, at that moment, about the only thing I could think my knife was useful for was getting me arrested and deported from the country.
You’ll be pleased to know that I didn’t panic. Instead, I devised a clever plan, the cleverest of clever plans: play dumb.
I would play the gringo to great effect, the greatest effect, the gringoest of gringo effects. I would deliberately pretend to not speak Spanish, something made easy by the fact that my spoken Spanish remains barbaric, despite having lived a year in Spain, a year in Argentina, and despite being a recognized authority on Spanish history. (At this point, my abomidable Spanish is a point of pride, evidence that God loves me and protects me in foreign places.)
Sadly, my scheme was all for naught. I was not called upon to play dumber than usual.
Instead, when I got to the metal detector, I was simply instructed to empty my pockets: knife, cellphone, coins, and wallet, which I placed strategically on top of my knife. Walk through, por favor, and retrieve your items. And, in fifteen seconds, I entered La Moneda armed and dangerous; carrying a 3″ blade, suitable for cutting string or opening tuna fish cans. I felt giddy with accomplishment. Lex Luthor, that’s me.
Did I mention that group tours in La Moneda are accompanied by a tall, stern carabinero, armed, as far as I could tell, with only a bayonet?
Perhaps I should have challenged him to a duel. I’m sure I could have taken him.