Chile’s capital city responded with a mass pot-banging protest when a local clinic revealed that Gustavo Gatica, 21, had permanently lost his two eyes after being hospitalized for 17 days. On November 8, the psychology student was taking pictures of the demonstrations at Plaza Italia, downtown Santiago de Chile, when his two eyes were wounded by pellets fired by the Carabineros riot police, as it is usually doing these days to disperse demonstrators.
His case has been closely followed by Chileans and became a symbol of systematic police abuse in the country during the last six weeks, since social unrest stirred up with a million people march on October 18.
“People had to take him themselves out of the square using shields because the Carabineros continued shooting. Gustavo is not the only one affected. We have physicians, human rights observers, students, many people injured by the police,” said Enrique Gatica, his older brother. “Carabineros’ protocol is shoot to the ground. My brother is not very tall. We think it’s impossible it was a rebound or a mistake but we also know there is a policy to intimidate demonstrators through terror,” he added.
Gustavo Gatica, son and brother of school teachers, is in his third year in psychology at Santiago’s University of Christian Humanism, he is an animal rights activist and, until the attack, he was part of a community work program with children. That day, he was trying to meet up with a college friend he had missed in Plaza Italia, the most crowded place during Santiago’s mobilizations –now renamed by demonstrators as Plaza Dignidad or Dignity Square. He had purchased a photographic camera a month before and he was portraying the marches that are still filling the different neighborhoods of the city. There was no a provocation on his behalf.
His story, together with almost 300 people suffering from eye trauma today amidst the protests, is key testimony contradicting the Government’s version about police abuse as isolated events.
This was confirmed last week by Amnesty International, which denounced the security forces’ intention “to injure demonstrators in order to discourage protest, even to the extent of using torture and sexual violence against protesters.” Human Rights Watch did the same this week, denouncing “serious human rights violations” and advising the Government to reform the Carabineros institution.
During the last weeks, demonstrators started to go to Santiago streets with blindfolds over one of their eyes in solidarity with the victims who lost their eyes in these protests. According to the Chilean Society of Ophthalmology, 294 cases have been reported so far of people suffering severe eye trauma, many of them with total loss in one of their eyes. This is an unprecedented health emergency in Chile, implying that police forces are failing to meet their protocols by shooting pellets and tear gas bombs directly to the demonstrators’ face. Riot police pellets were suspended last week following a review by the University of Chile which confirmed that they are not made up of rubber but a mixture of hard metals including lead. Regardless of this measure, at least 10 new cases have been reported since then. It is impossible that these wounds to the eyes are circumstantial and random rather they reflect a deeply cruel and sinister orientation of the Pinochet founded Carabineros. It is clear that their orientation was to fire at the face to terrorize and intimidate the demonstrators.
“We’ve expressed to Gustavo people’s support and solidarity every day. Something that is helping him to overcome this moment is his awareness of the importance of fighting for fair causes,” Enrique Gatica said hours before Gustavo was released from from hospital. Physicians were able to remove pellets in his eyes only in a second surgery but they assure it will not be the last one.
During those 17 days Gatica was hospitalized, the doors of the clinic were covered with posters, flowers and pictures to support him. “As a family, we are going to seek justice and those responsible for this. We are going to find the one who fired at him but also the corresponding political responsibilities. We are clearly not talking about an officer who felt entitled to do this. Figures and the amount of injured citizens confirm this has been a systematic practice,” said his older brother. The family’s lawyer, ex-attorney Carlos Gajardo, filed a complaint demanding Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel and Carabineros General Director Mario Rozas to testify about very serious physical injury.
During his first evening at the hospital, Gustavo Gatica –who is protected by his relatives and is not talking to the media– sent a message through his mother that touched Chileans. It rapidly went viral in the social media, in streets and it was even used as the name of a pop song written by a local musician. The message, however, it seems deeply unfair: “I Gave Away My Eyes So That People Can Wake Up.”