By Gustavo Gatica*
My life changed completely on Nov. 8 last year.
That day, Carabinero officers—members of the Chilean National Police—shot me in both eyes, leaving me completely blind.
Why did they shoot me? For exercising my right to protest.
Before that day, I was an ordinary student from Santiago, studying psychology, playing basketball, riding my bike and playing the bass.
That day, I was participating in a mass social demonstration, part of a wave of protests that began on Oct. 18 2019 to change a system that is based on inequality. The protests started due to an increase in the price of public transport, but that was just the trigger after decades of injustice. We took to the streets to change that, to demand more equal access to health and education, and better pensions.
But in Chile, demanding your rights always involves a certain level of risk. There’s no guarantee that you will return home safely. When you go out to protest, you go prepared with a helmet and a facemask to protect against tear gas. But there’s no way to protect yourself from the guns fired by the Carabineros.
According to the National Human Rights Institute, at least four people died at the hands of security forces during the first six weeks of the social outcry, and more than 12,500 were injured. Amnesty International has documented how in many cases, officers deliberately fired pellets and tear gas canisters at people’s heads. They report at least 460 cases of severe eye trauma injuries by the end of the mass protests in March.
The authorities’ intention was clear—to hurt us as punishment for daring to protest.
It has been hard for me to get used to losing my sight. During the first few days it was difficult for me to hold a fork to eat. I’ve had to learn all these processes all over again, but with time I’m developing the abilities that I need to continue with my life. Now I can do things like cooking—maybe badly, but I can do it—and I’m even learning to play the drums and the piano.
The most difficult thing has been going outside and using a walking stick. It’s stressful because of the noise and the surroundings. But in March I went out to protest again in the same plaza where I was shot. That was very important to me and it was moving to feel people’s affection. A lot of people thanked me; it felt strange but nice. Many people have offered me help and we’ve built a giant network of people. This support and solidarity gives me the strength to go on.
I’ve always believed in the importance of the search for justice, truth and reparations for the victims of human rights violations during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile from 1973-1990. These support networks need to be developed to fight for justice once again.
The authorities have been updating me on the progress of the investigation into my injuries. There were a lot of delays, but in August, after nine months, they arrested Claudio Crespo, a Carabinero lieutenant colonel, as the alleged perpetrator. I’m glad progress has been made and am now waiting for the justice system to do its job and also charge those who allowed the Carabineros to come out and shoot us day after day.
It seems that the government is more concerned about public opinion and pressure from abroad than from its own people. The support of international bodies is crucial because it shines a spotlight on what is happening in Chile.
I’ve spent the last few months in lockdown with my family because of the pandemic. We’ve gone out as little as possible to avoid putting ourselves at risk, but unfortunately the repression in Chile has not stopped. The armed forces are in the streets, allegedly to help stop the spread of coronavirus, but they’re armed with their rifles and shotguns. It still doesn’t make sense: what is the point of having soldiers with firearms in the street during a health crisis?
The armed forces show up at the protests, but they’re not trained to maintain public order; on the contrary, they’re trained for war. In fact, several months ago, they shot a man and damaged his eye too. These things are still happening during the pandemic. The government continues to commit human rights violations.
What gives me hope for the future of the country is the upcoming referendum to draft a new constitution. It will not change things overnight, but I think it will be a big step forward. If successful, the new constitution must be based on respect for and guarantee of human rights. We also need a total restructuring of the Carabineros. We can’t allow them to keep hurting us.
This tragedy that we’ve experienced should never have happened. All that’s left is for us to keep demanding justice and reparation in all cases of human rights violations. We need to stay alert and follow the legal proceedings so that the perpetrators and the politicians who are responsible face justice.
The repression that we’ve experienced in Chile over the last year must never be repeated.
*Gustavo Gatica Villarroel studies psychology at the Academy of Christian Humanism University. He remains an active participant in the social demonstrations that have rocked Chile over the past year. This blog was first published in TIME Ideas here
Write a letter to demand justice for Gustavo Gatica.
His case is featured in this year’s Write for Rights, Amnesty International’s annual global letter-writing campaign.