International Criminal Mastermind

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.

Carabineras Chilenas
La Mona Lisa de Los Carabineros

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.

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Earthquake! Viva Chile!

So, this happened on Thursday night, late…


I had just climbed into bed, when the closet door banged shut, the bed shook for a few minutes, and it was over. Except for the gentle swaying of the apartment building, which continued for the next several minutes. We’re on the 17th floor, so the movement of the building’s earthquake dampening system takes a while to settle down.

A few seconds after the initial shock, I woke my wife and asked her if she’d felt it. She spoke sharply to me, told me that the bed always shakes when I fall into it at two in the morning, and then rolled over and went back to sleep. And I forgot about the earthquake until someone mentioned it the next day.

This is my second Chilean quake. The last time I was here, six years ago, we had just checked into a fun little hotel in Copiapo when a 5.0 struck. Amusing and not even scary. Sort of a conversation starter, rather than a moment of terror.

Chile has remarkably stringent and far-sighted building codes, which is good, given that earthquakes are a constant threat. And doubly good because Chile gets the “Big One” about every five or six years. In fact, when Chileans talk about the BIG ONE, they really mean something like this: the 1960 Valdivia Earthquake, a terrifying 9.5 monster that shook for ten minutes, left one quarter of population of Chile homeless, and launched a tsunami that killed 61 people in Hawaii and 160+ in Japan. The quake was so large that it caused volcanic eruptions, massive landslides, 80-foot high waves, and at least one human sacrifice.

How big is 9.5? The 1906 San Francisco quake was a 7.9. Because the Richter scale is logarithmic, rather than linear, a 9.5 is 39,810 times bigger than a 7.9, and releases 250,000 times more energy.

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Santiago, Again

Santiago again.

I was last here almost exactly six years ago. It was a month long stay in Chile that included a trip up north to La Serena, Pisco Elqui, and Copiapo, and a couple of weeks staying in a boutique aparthotel in Barrio Lastarria.

This time, we’re here for three months, staying in Providencia and working at a university downtown. Already, I can tell you that it’s great to be back in South America, especially as it’s summer here and the dollar is hitting highs against the Chilean peso. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the city is more vibrant and lively than the last time we were here, with some serious evidence of progress, and a decent economy.

Although, the appearance of a Dunkin Donuts and a Popeye’s Chicken just down the block is depressing, the transformation of Lastarria into the hippest spot in town is cool, especially the conversion of a formerly vacant courtyard into a super-trendy plaza, with good restaurants and affluent-looking people, is gratifying.

Now, if the smog would only dissipate…