SANTIAGO, Chile - Fabiola Campillai was waiting at a bus stop on her way to work in Santiago when a tear gas canister smashed into her face.
“The tear gas was probably fired directly at Fabiola, breaking the required protocol to use the weapon,” says Roberto Morales of Amnesty International Chile, which has launched a campaign to support Campillai and her family.
Campillai survived, yet she lost her senses of vision, smell, and taste. Over the last 10 months, she has been subject to a series of surgeries that include putting implants in her eye sockets to prevent them from sinking in. In September, she was forced to return to hospital to insert a plate in her cranium to halt brain-fluid leakage. The severity of her injuries has made her case an emblematic example of police repression in Chile.
The 36-year-old mother of two was heading to work a night shift at a food production company when she got hit. Although the night was calm, Chile was in the grip of a protest movement that had erupted a month earlier over the rising cost of living and inequality between Chile’s poorer classes and its moneyed elite. Campillai wasn’t protesting, but a heavy police presence was patrolling her neighborhood the night she was injured.
That is when Captain Patricio Maturana fired a canister the size of a soda can in Campillai’s direction. It swept 51 meters through the air, reaching a temperature of over 100°C before smashing into her skull. According to law enforcement guidelines, tear gas canisters must be fired upwards and land in an empty space to avoid hitting anyone.
But Maturana’s bodycam shows the shot was directed at an unsafe angle towards Campillai. “It’s clear what happened” says Morales, “but there is no reason or justification for why it happened.”
Chile’s recent protests have been brutally repressed by police forces employed with non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets, batons, and tear gas canisters. The National Human Rights Institution (INDH) has registered some 2,000 complaints against police officers over the last nine months for offenses that include battery, sexual violence, and homicide. In September, a 14-year-old was left hospitalized after being hit with a tear gas canister.
The use and abuse of non-lethal weapons in Chile shows disturbing parallels in other countries engaged in protest movements. This year in the U.S, dozens of protesters were injured by tear gas canisters during the George Floyd protests, while rubber bullets have left people permanently blinded. Similar scenes have played out in the Hong Kong and Lebanon protests.
“There's so many of these injuries and yet no change to the law, “ says Dr. Anna Feigenbaum, author of the book “Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WW1 to the Streets of Today,” referring to cases in the U.S.
“The response [from governments] is, ‘would you rather us use live ammunition?’ But never in that set of options is ‘would you like me to not shoot you?’”
Similar to authorities in the U.S, Chile’s conservative government has defended the use of non-lethal weapons by pointing out they are safer alternatives to live rounds.
But Chilean activists and the political opposition are pushing for their prohibition. In September, a draft bill to ban the weapons was submitted for consideration to the government’s Security Commission.
“They must be prohibited to prevent the repetition of what happened to Fabiola and hundreds of others.” says Matías Vallejos, director of los Ojos de Chile (“Eyes of Chile”), a foundation that supports more than 460 victims who were shot in the eye by police projectiles during the country’s ongoing protest movement. That’s the highest ocular trauma count in the world, according to the Royal College of Ophthalmologists
“The weapons are paradoxical in nature, designed to be fired at a distance that is technically impossible in protest scenarios,” said Vallejos.
When contacted by VICE News, Chile’s police affirmed that non-lethal weapons are employed in accordance with current law, highlighting an amendment to their current protocol released in July 2020, which stipulates that the weapons can no longer be used for crowd control, but only in instances of self-defense and protection towards other civilians.
Yet human rights defenders claim said these rules will continue to be broken unless significant changes are made. “They always find ways to justify their breaches,” says Morales, who says Chilean police officers are rarely held accountable for their actions.
“40 people had already been blinded in Chile when Fabiola was shot. If they had taken those cases seriously, she would never have been hit.”