Life

Gustavo Gatica Was Blinded By Chile's Riot Police While Protesting for Equality

The 21-year-old needs your help bringing those responsible to justice.
November 20, 2020, 10:15am
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Gustavo Gatica, 22, a Chilean student blinded in both eyes by police rubber bullets in a protest last year. Santiago, Chile, February, 2020. Photo: REUTERS / Edgard Garrido

This article was created in partnership with Amnesty International. Click here to take part in Amnesty's Write for Rights campaign, or here if you live in Canada. Your simple action could change somebody's life.

On the 8th of November, 2019, the streets of downtown Santiago were teeming with protesters. On a small side road off Avenida Vicuña Mackenna, one of the main thoroughfares running through the Chilean capital, a group had gathered. They were chanting slogans against the Carabineros, the country’s police force, while some of them allegedly threw stones at tactical vehicles parked in the road.

According to the state prosecutor, Claudio Crespo Guzmán, a police officer and tactical commander, secreted himself against a wall, out of view of the crowd. As they got closer, he lifted the shotgun he was holding and fired directly into the upper part of 21-year-old Gustavo Gatica’s body. Two of the 12 pieces of ammunition contained within the shotgun cartridge entered Gatica’s eyes, permanently blinding him.

The protests had started on the 18th of October, as a reaction to a 30 peso rise in the metro fee, but grew to become a broad anti-government movement.

“I and thousands of people were protesting against the neoliberal model that was imposed in Chile during the civil-military dictatorship of Pinochet,” says Gatica. According to the 21-year-old, “It is a model that has privatized all essential services for the wellbeing of people, such as health, education, even water and other natural resources.”

In the first days of unrest that rippled through Chile, violence and protest led to much of the mass transit network in Santiago being shut down. Widespread rioting and demonstrations followed. In response, the Carabineros cracked down on demonstrators, as the government declared a national emergency and implemented a curfew. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets, resulting in 36 deaths (as of February, 2020), 11,564 injuries and around 28,000 detentions. Hundreds of people have experienced eye injuries from police weaponry, with two, Gustavo Gatica and Fabiola Campillai, left permanently blinded.

Fabiola is a working class woman who left her home to work a night shift at a factory. According to Fabiola, a disturbance in the street resulted in a police officer firing a gas bomb directly into her face, causing her to lose three of her five senses.

“Police in Chile have historically violently repressed even peaceful demonstrations,” says Ana Piquer, Executive Director of Amnesty International Chile. “Even after Pinochet’s regime ended, the police continued to act aggressively in protests, with a history of impunity regarding the human rights violations committed as a result of their actions. Human rights violations by the police are also common against indigenous people in southern Chile [Mapuche people].

“With the social outburst that started on the the 18th of October, 2019, those violations extended to the entire population that took to the streets demanding equality and dignity, creating the worst human rights crisis we have seen since the military regime ended. Amnesty International has concluded there were generalised violations to the right to personal integrity, and that chain-of-command responsibility, up to the highest level, must be investigated.”

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Gustavo Gatica before he was blinded. Photo courtesy of Gustavo Gatica.

In the year since the protests erupted, both Chile and the rest of world have changed irrevocably. As momentum built behind the demonstrations, key demands emerged, including the need to rewrite the country’s Constitution. Critics argue that the document, framed and implemented under the country’s former head of state, General Augusto Pinochet, enshrined in law much of the structural inequality that led to the demonstrations.

“The Chilean Constitution provides that the Armed Forces and Carabineros in Chile have the monopoly of the use of force in the country,” says Piquer. “Carabineros is a militarised institution, and has not been subject to any reform in their structure after the return of democracy to the country. The history of impunity concerning their actions has allowed for the generalised human rights violations we have unfortunately witnessed from October of last year until this day.” 

Those human rights violations once again drew worldwide attention in the latter half of this year, when a video that appears to show a police officer pushing a 16-year-old protester off a bridge in Santiago made headlines. The teenager, who landed face-down in the riverbed below, was ignored by Carabineros and sustained head trauma and a fractured wrist.

For Gustavo, the injuries inflicted upon him have changed his life. “On a physical level, total blindness from the moment of impact has even led to me having to re-learn to walk, to develop other senses, and on a psychological level learning to feel differently,” he explains.

The furore surrounding Gustavo’s injuries has hurled him into the spotlight, making him a poster child for the movement – something that doesn’t come naturally.

“For my part, I greatly admire the people who continued to fight in all these months, which have been quite exhausting,” he says. “A year has passed and people are still in the streets, despite the fact that the police and the military have shot, they have killed people. They have run over, they have thrown people into the river, there are more than 400 ocular traumas, they have burned people, they have raped and they have tortured. I assume that this is the feeling generated by what has happened to me and many other people – a lot of anger.”

That anger translated into a referendum on the Constitution on the 25th of October this year, which saw the people of Chile vote overwhelmingly in favour of revoking the Pinochet era document and forging a new path forward for the country.

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Despite the victory, for Gustavo and the thousands of others killed or injured in the protests, justice is yet to be served. While Crespo Guzmán is due to be prosecuted for blinding Gustavo, human rights organisations are calling for all those responsible for issuing the orders to also be brought to justice.

“We believe Gustavo Gatica’s case could spearhead more investigations into chain of command responsibility in Chile, setting a precedent that paves the way for hundreds of cases demanding and achieving justice for human rights violations in the 2019 protests,” says Ana Piquer. “From the Write for Rights campaign we expect to ensure that police officers, commanders and other superiors suspected of criminal responsibility are investigated and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecuted in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts.

“There is already public attention on human rights violations caused by police brutality in Chile, as well as some international media coverage, and more attention would therefore likely serve to put pressure on the action of the National Prosecutor, Courts of Justice and Carabineros regarding their internal investigation.”

For Gustavo, the support is crucial – not only for him, but for thousands in Chile searching for justice.

“The Chilean State has always been more concerned about what is said from outside about Chile than about the people's own feelings, so I think it is super necessary to put pressure on the government,” he explains. “For this reason, we wanted to present the case: it is necessary that justice be done, not only in my case, but also to the thousands of human rights violations that have occurred since the 18th of October.”

Click here to take part in Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign, or here if you live in Canada. Your action could help bring those suspected to be responsible for Gustavo’s injuries to justice.