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  HOME | Chile

Lives Shattered by Police Violence in Chile

SANTIAGO – Paola Martinez opens the door, but excuses herself immediately before disappearing into the next room. Her nephew, Mario Acuña, is due for his vitamins and a change of dressing and if she’s even a minute late, “the kid gets upset,” the aunt-turned-caretaker says.

Acuña, 44, is from a poor family and his parents are dead. So when the hospital discharged him in March after five months, Paola brought him back to her home.

Bedridden and unable to speak, Mario relies on a tracheotomy tube to breathe and takes nourishment through a gastrotomy tube inserted into his abdomen.

His injuries resulted from a brutal beating by police on Oct. 23, 2019, as he was taking part in a protest on the outskirts of Santiago amid Chile’s largest uprising since the end of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

“When I saw him open his little eye for the first time, I wept from joy,” Martinez tells EFE in a barely audible voice. “I have faith that Mario will come out of this. Sometimes I imagine that he’s calling me.”

She recalls that Mario was among a handful of people, including children, who ventured into the street to place candles in honor of previous victims of police repression only to encounter a group of cops who “tangled” with Acuña.

He spent more than a month in a coma. Almost a year later, Mario can barely follow the gaze with his eyes, though he can move his hands a little.

The extent and severity of his injuries are not known, as doctors did not perform the full battery of tests, such as an MRI. Acuña earned his livelihood in the informal economy and wasn’t enrolled in social security, which makes him ineligible for public benefits.

“The government has not taken responsibility, much less the hospital. They taught me to aspirate him, but not to clean the tracheo or the gastro. I learned from the few nurses who came at the beginning,” Martinez says.

They survive thanks to help from neighbors and funds raised by grassroots organizations. Everything is donated, from the hospital bed to the stomach tubes Paola uses to feed her nephew.

The assault on Acuña remains under investigation, but there has been little progress.

“I no longer want their help, I ask only for justice,” his aunt says.

While prosecutors have opened more than 4,600 investigations into the actions of the Carabineros – Chile’s militarized national police – against protesters, yet only 66 cops have been charged.

And there seems to be no prospect that anyone will be held accountable for the Oct. 20, 2019, death of Alex Nuñez, a 39-year-old electrician who died after being pummeled by Carabineros in the Santiago suburb of Maipu.

Nuñez wasn’t even protesting. He was stopped by cops while delivering a part after curfew, ex-wife Natalia Perez tells EFE, recounting his final words to her before losing consciousness and dying.

“He told me that they battered him as if his head were a soccer ball,” she says.

The police who killed the father of her three children “need to be found and taken off the street because those murderers continue working,” Perez says. “Their colleagues who know what happened are equally guilty. If they want to clean up the institution, they have to speak out.”

Nuñez’s death is one of the five police killings for which the Chilean government has accepted responsibility, an acknowledgement that has so far proved meaningless in practice.

Perez says that though she would like to take part in what is expected to be a massive demonstration this weekend in Santiago to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the mobilization, she will instead take her kids to the countryside for a respite.

University student Brandon Camus says that he sometimes feels guilty for being alive and because he lost vision in “only” one of his eyes when a policeman shot him in the face on Nov. 14, 2019.

The 23-year-old still gets goose bumps when he thinks back to the moment he arrived at the hospital.

“It was like a war zone,” he tells EFE standing in front of a desk covered by photos of people with bloodied eyes from the impact of pellets and tear-gas canisters fired by police.

Chile’s independent National Human Rights Institute reported that 460 people suffered trauma to their eyes as a result of the actions of police, including two who were left totally blind.

Police, Camus says, “see demonstrators as enemies, as threats. With the popular revolt it became clear that the Carabineros don’t work, they must be dissolved and a new institution created with different logics.”

Unwilling to return to the streets out of fear that he might lose his one functioning eye, he says that “very hopeful” about the Oct. 25 plebiscite giving Chileans the opportunity to begin the process of drafting a new constitution to replace the one imposed 40 years ago by Pinochet.


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