A police officer shot Ronald Barrales directly in the face. It was less than 10 meters. According to his account, the pellet arrived from the passenger seat of a police vehicle a few weeks ago, in one of the most tense days of the protests against government policies in Chile. "I felt the impact on my face, I fell to the ground, I got up and observed that blood was falling from the eye, a lot of blood," he says. Also wounded in the thorax and abdomen, Barrales has undergone three operations on his left eye, of which he lost his vision completely and forever. "The price I have had to pay is very high, but at least Chile has awakened," consoles Maite Castillo, 23, who has also lost the vision in her right eye.
Broken looks like those of these two people have become the unfortunate symbol of the social upheavals in Chile that exploded two months ago. Since October 18, when protests began over unequal access to basic services such as health or education, 359 civilians have been registered with eye injuries, according to the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH). Two people have been completely blind and 17 have lost total vision in one of their eyes. The Chilean Society of Ophthalmology and the Medical College described this situation from the beginning as "a visual health emergency never seen before in the country" and asked to suspend the use of pellets. The authorities reported that the pellets were made of rubber, but a study by the University of Chile determined that they only contained 20% rubber. On November 19, the police suspended the use of pellets pending further analysis of their composition, the results of which are not yet publicly known.
Meanwhile, the Government of Sebastián Piñera tries to redirect the situation and promotes a process to change the current Constitution that, according to the protesters, contributes to consolidating inequalities in the country and, although it has undergone modifications during these years, has been inherited from the regime of Augusto Pinochet.
But the political change will not restore sight to the Chileans who received one of those controversial pellets. EL PAÍS has collected the testimonies of five of these victims:
Maite Castillo, 23 years old
Since her student days, she attended marches demanding social rights, but on the afternoon of October 20, she did not participate in any protest: she passed on a motorcycle with her boyfriend along Gran Avenida – an important road in her commune.–, where a supermarket was looted. It was not possible to travel, because the vehicles came and went in all directions. “We parked out front, at a gas station, and stared. I got off the motorcycle, took off my helmet and observed that two policemen were coming. Since they were carrying shotguns, I insulted them. We made eye contact, he stared at me, loaded his gun and shot me head-on. "
The pellet hit him squarely in the orbit of his right eye: "I lost my vision, I see absolutely nothing through that eye," he says. Since then, she has been operated on twice, the last time on Friday for bleeding that did not heal. Meanwhile, he spends his days at home resting: “This will be a different Christmas. Sad for what happened to me, no doubt, but people in this country for the first time are not focused on consumption, but on other fundamental issues, with greater empathy towards the rest ”. Last year, Castillo earned a degree in dental assistant and in 2020 he wanted to start his dental studies. "But I have gone from being a healthy person to depending on others," says this Chilean who lives with her father in the municipality of El Bosque, in the southern part of the capital, Santiago de Chile.
Ronald Barrales, 36 years old
Father of an eight-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy, this self-employed worker dedicated to the manufacture of cleaning products participated in the protests in Plaza Italia, ground zero of the mobilizations in Santiago de Chile, since the beginning of the social outbreak October 18. He says that he always did it peacefully, accompanied by family members, "to express discontent at the way politicians have run the country in recent decades." He points, for example, to the problems in education: due to lack of money, he had to leave the engineering career and his first-born in 2020 will study his last year at the National Institute, the emblematic public high school of excellence in Chile that the authorities of different political sign have left to die.
On November 11, Barrales went out to protest as usual, when he was left without company in the middle of a kind of carabineros lockdown, unable to run or escape. A short distance away, squarely in the left eye, an object struck him: "I turned around and the only thing I could do was run to the Red Cross field hospital, without allowing anyone to help me," he says at home. from the municipality of Quinta Normal, in the north-central area of the capital, where he lives with his mother. In one of the operations they extracted "a pellet that was not made of rubber and that lodged in the bottom of the eyeball, which speaks of the power of the impact." Unable to work and emotionally affected, he slowly tries to learn to live with his new physical condition. In spite of everything, however, he does not regret having participated in the protest: "I was simply raising my voice for the rights of my children and the rest of the people."
Carlos Puebla, 47 years old
After leaving work, he decided to stop by the Plaza Italia protests. He is not a member of any organization or party and it was the first time he had attended the demonstrations. He says it was a peaceful concentration, where there were children and the elderly, but that clashes with the police soon began, "who began to attack excessively and without respecting anything." It was when a policeman, he says, shot him with the riot shotgun from about 15 meters away aiming at his face. "I felt something cold on my body, I tried to run, I fell to the ground and they transferred me to the Red Cross," the man recalls. He received a pellet in the thigh, another in the head and a third in the right eye, whose vision he completely lost, he was informed 48 hours later.
Carlos Puebla is the youngest son of a woman who had to take care of her five children alone. Due to lack of money, he could not finish his school studies. Puebla has three children — 25, 14 and 13 years old.– and, until last October 24, he worked as a construction worker in exchange for the minimum wage (about 360 euros a month). But the day he attended the protest will mark the life of Puebla, who lives in Renca, a municipality in the north of Santiago de Chile. "Salaries are low and not enough, health and education are precarious, pensions are a shame."
Now he's waiting for a prosthesis to be fitted. “Life will never be the same, but I still have two young children who need me. I have to move on, ”he reflects. He knows that he will probably not be able to continue with the same job and, suffering from severe headaches and dizziness, he is often filled with sadness: "I suddenly go into depression."
Eliacer Flores, 30 years old
When the second day of curfew had been declared in Santiago, last October 20, he decided that he would leave his home in Quinta Normal, in the central-north Chilean capital, to protest the state of emergency. The father of two boys aged 13 years and 10 months, he went after lunch to Plaza Italia, where he encountered a clash between protesters and the police. Eliacer joined the civilian side, while protecting himself with a metal plate: "But I looked out and the pellet hit my right eye," he says.
“I felt the greatest physical pain I have ever felt in my life, an intense cold all over my body, a ringing in my ears and I wanted to pass out. Horrible. But the adrenaline rush and the fear that the police would catch me, made me run and ask for help, ”says Flores.
He has had two operations, but he completely lost vision in one eye. You will probably need to wear a prosthesis. He tried to return to work, but his physical condition prevented it and the doctors extended a new leave. In these two months he has gone through different states of mind: “Anger, fear, sadness, rage. This country needs a complete restructuring of the system, starting from corrupt politics, health, education and pensions that allow a decent future for our old people, ”says Flores. “In honor of the dead, the wounded and the violent, we must continue fighting. What we have lost and what we have given cannot be left to nothing ".
Natalia Aravena, 25 years old
When you try to drink water, you cannot calculate the depth correctly and the liquid spills out of the glass. If the terrain you are walking on is not completely smooth and flat, you are at risk of tripping. This 25-year-old nurse, who barely reached a year of working life, tries with the days to get used to her new physical condition: last October 28, a tear gas bomb hit her in the right eye and she lost both her sight and her globe. ocular. That Monday he was going to meet a friend in front of the Government Palace, La Moneda, where a rally had been called. He relates that everything happened very quickly: he had only been in the street for a few minutes when the police began to disperse the protesters, even before the demonstration began. She was alone and saw a police vehicle and the officers a few meters away. "I turned around and the tear gas bomb hit me in the eye," he says at his home in Peñalolén, in eastern Santiago de Chile, where he lives with his parents.
“Fortunately, the right half of my face fell asleep because I didn't feel pain. From the forehead to the upper lip. The impact did not make me lose consciousness, it did not destroy the rest of my face or throw me to the ground, but I was stunned ”. She has undergone two surgeries and has not been able to return to work. The young Chilean believes that "the Government is very afraid of losing power" and criticizes the statements of the president, Sebastián Piñera, who pointed out at the beginning of the revolt that Chile was "at war" against a powerful enemy: "The powerful enemy Is it me, that they mutilated me, that I am a nurse, that I am an ordinary person, without weapons? ”, he wonders. "They want to make believe that we want to destabilize the country, but Chile has been destabilized for a long time by the immense inequality that they do not want to see."
Two people have been left blind: Gustavo Gatica, 22, a psychology student who received pellets in both eyes, and Fabiola Campillay, a 36-year-old Chilean with three children who was wounded by a tear gas canister to the face while on her way to His workplace.
"The first two weeks were the critical moments: we had a massive turnout of patients with serious ocular trauma," says doctor Sergio Morales, chief coordinator of the Ocular Treatment Unit (UTO) of Hospital El Salvador, a national reference for this type of injuries, where the vast majority of the injured arrived.
The maimed try to rebuild their lives. Eduardo Gatica, older brother of the Psychology student, points out that the twenty-year-old "does not want to let himself be dejected." Gustavo plans to resume his university studies in March 2020, he has managed to play something of one of his favorite instruments (the drums), while the family does not lose hope: “We have the expectation of achieving some minimal improvement, although we know that it is unlikely ”. Last Friday, the Coordinator of Ocular Trauma Victims protested again in front of La Moneda. Songs like this were heard: “Trauma, trauma, eye trauma. The pacos (police) shoot us just to wake up ”.
In its report on Chile, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was categorical: “There are good reasons to believe that the less lethal weapons they have been used in an inappropriate and indiscriminate manner, in contravention of international principles to minimize the risk of injury ”. OHCHR denounced that since the start of the protests – at least since October 22– Various organizations had alerted the authorities about the injuries caused in the sight of some protesters due to the use of pellets by the police.
Earlier, in its report on Chile, Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced Chilean police officers for “serious” human rights violations and made special mention of the use of lead-containing pellets. HRW indicates that according to the protocol, shotgun pellets should be used at a minimum distance of 30 meters and aimed at the area between the knee and the ankle, to avoid affecting vital areas of the upper body. However, “the number of injured with ocular trauma is beyond any rational use of force by the police. There must be a thorough investigation that is able to determine individual responsibilities and those of the commanders, ”says Carlos Gajardo, lawyer for Gustavo Gatica, the victim with the greatest symbolism.
“The police do not get up in the morning wanting to do harm. Every time we have received a complaint, it is collected and sent to the Prosecutor's Office ”, said the general director of the Carabineros, Mario Rozas.
In the framework of the protests, two police officers have also suffered the total loss of vision in one eye, according to the institution: Second Lieutenant Javier Garrido, 23, who lost his right eye due to a stone thrown with a sling in the city of La Serena, in the north of the country, and Captain Leonel Sánchez, 36, who lost his left eye due to a stone, in the southern region of Araucanía.
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