Protests in Chile: the “epidemic” of eye injuries that call into question the government of Pinera Latin America

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“I don't know if you have seen the one eye that is left crying for a person who has exploded an eyeball, cry for the other eye, which also has it damaged. Cry blood ”.

That asked a group of government officials from Chile, including the Ministers of Defense and Interior, Senator Alejandro Navarro, president of the Human Rights Commission of the Chilean Upper Chamber.

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It was during a special session of the Commission, convened last Monday to talk about the large number of accusations of human rights violations by security forces during the massive protests that have shaken the South American country since last October 19.

According to the Chilean Prosecutor’s Office, 23 people have died since the mobilizations began. Five died at the hands of state agents and two others died while they were being held at a police station.

Meanwhile, more than 2,500 people have been injured during the protests, according to the Chilean Red Cross. And according to the National Institute of Human Rights (NHRI), there were at least 400 injuries from shots of rubber bullets or pellets.

Chile lives in the biggest crisis of its young democracy. (AFP).
Chile lives in the biggest crisis of its young democracy. (AFP).

But what has caused special consternation among medical authorities and even some officials is the amount of serious eye injuries that have occurred because of these non-lethal weapons.

Both the Medical College and the Chilean Society of Ophthalmology (Sochiof) warned that during the first two weeks of protests Almost 180 people suffered a severe injury to one of their eyes.

60% suffered a severe decrease in vision, while almost 30% were completely blind in one eye.

"World record"

Speaking to the Human Rights Commission, the president of Sochiof, Dennis Cortes, gave more details about the victims.

He said that more than 85% are men and that they are on average 30 years old.

According to the Red Cross, more than 2,500 people have been injured during protests in Chile. (Getty Images)
According to the Red Cross, more than 2,500 people have been injured during protests in Chile. (Getty Images)

He also said that about 30% "enters with the exploded eyeball, therefore there is no possibility of visual recovery in that eye."

But the thing that caused the most chills was when he noted that the number of injured in the eyes by rubber bullets It is not only a record in the history of Chile.

It also has no precedents in the world.

"There is no number in the history of our specialty that supports these numbers that we have at the moment," he said.

"Moreover, when we talk about this internationally, making an exhaustive review of the number of cases of patients who have lost an eyeball due to the use of non-lethal weapons, the number is also very alarming and sadly we lead this figure"he said.

"Making a review of the last 27 years, taking all published series regarding people who were damaged with non-lethal weapons in demonstrations or conflict areas – and I am including Israel, Palestine, Jerusalem, Gaza, among many others – in total they are more than 1,900 injured by pellets, and of them 300 had eye injuries. "

"We have almost half of that number in two weeks”He denounced.

What the statistics say

Cortes' claims are based on one of the most comprehensive studies on the use of rubber, plastic and other non-lethal weapons to contain crowds.

The work, published in 2017 in the medical journal BMJ Open, analyzed more than 3,000 documents with statistical data on deaths, injuries and disabilities caused by these objects, known technically as "kinetic impact projectiles".

In Chile there are more eye injuries from rubber bullets than in three decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, experts warn. (Getty Images)
In Chile there are more eye injuries from rubber bullets than in three decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, experts warn. (Getty Images)

Researchers at the University of California, Emory University and other health agencies in the United States analyzed the information collected between 1990 and 2017 in seven regions of the world.

They include US statistics. and some of the most conflictive areas on the planet, such as Israel and the Palestinian territories, Northern Ireland and southern Asia.

As Cortes pointed out, the report concludes that there were more than 1,900 injured by these projectiles. But there were not 300 who had eye injuries, as he said.

They were less: 261 (300 were those who suffered permanent disability in some area of ​​the body).

This means that the 180 cases of Chile represent almost 70% of the total number of victims of eye injuries caused by rubber bullets between 1990 and 2017 (the 27 years mentioned by the president of Sochiof).

Hong Kong

However, the official's comparison did not include statistics for the last two years, in which there were a lot of protests around the world.

In Hong Kong the social protest broke out in June and still continues. (Getty Images)
In Hong Kong the social protest broke out in June and still continues. (Getty Images)

In particular, the massive mobilizations that have been taking place in Hong Kong since last June, against the Chinese authorities, have been characterized by the use of non-lethal weapons by the security forces.

Has been famous cases of people who were injured in the eyes by these projectiles, most recently the Indonesian journalist Verby Mega Indah, who lost his sight in his right eye because of the bullet he received while covering the protests, in early October.

Even an anonymous victim – a young woman who was filmed lying on the floor, with blood flowing from one of her eyes – became a symbol of protest, when someone drew it, with a bloody bandage around his face.

The image, seen today in posters and pamphlets, has become a public complaint against excessive police violence.

The young woman with the wound in her eye became an icon of the protest in Hong Kong. (Getty Images)
The young woman with the wound in her eye became an icon of the protest in Hong Kong. (Getty Images)

Despite this, the agency Bloomberg reported in late October that the number of severe eye injuries in Chile "far exceeds similar injuries in recent protests in Hong Kong, Spain, Lebanon and France".

The BBC tried to corroborate the data with human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, but could not provide the figures for victims during the past two years.

"Epidemic"

The truth is that in both Hong Kong and Chile there have been marches to denounce what some medical authorities are calling an "epidemic" of eye injuries.

During the session of the Commission on Human Rights, Navarro informed that some senators presented appeals for justice Against Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel – the Carabineros politician responsible, the Chilean police accused of committing these abuses – to prohibit the use of these projectiles.

"The degree of damage caused by the pellets, the pellets, is not consistent with the progressive protocol of the use of force," Navarro said.

"They must be taken out of their use, given the very serious situation they have caused and that far from deterring, they unnerve, excite the citizenship," he said.

In response, Minister Blumel said that "all the very painful situations, very unfortunate, are being investigated and denounced to the Prosecutor's Office so that they can be resolved in criminal headquarters, if there is indeed a background to justify it."

"We will demand sanctions if there are actions that are outside the framework of the law"He said.

Minister Blumel took office in late October, after the ministerial replacement ordered by Pinera. (Getty Images)
Minister Blumel took office in late October, after the ministerial replacement ordered by Pinera. (Getty Images)

However, did not respond to the request to stop using this type of projectiles to control the massive demonstrations that continue in Chile.

On Wednesday, two days after that session, the minister visited, along with President Sebastian Pinera, a young paramedic who suffered an eye injury after being hit by a rubber pellet.

But they did not make announcements about the use of non-lethal weapons.

BBC Mundo consulted a spokesman for the presidency about the request of the Commission on Human Rights to ban them, but got no response.

Carabineros Defense

Beyond collaborating with Justice and ensuring that any excess force will be sanctioned, the Pinera government has maintained a strong defense of police and the Armed Forces that acted during the first days of the protests.

The authorities emphasize that some 800 police officers were injured during the demonstrations, which on several occasions have become violent.

However, the alarming number of victims of eye injuries caused by rubber bullets seems to be generating some cracks within the Executive.

The government defends the actions of its security forces, but some ministers have acknowledged that there are human rights violations. (Getty Images)
The government defends the actions of its security forces, but some ministers have acknowledged that there are human rights violations. (Getty Images)

On Thursday, during a radio interview, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said that "the number of people with eye injuries is brutal".

Despite pointing out that Justice should define the situation, he added: "One can argue that in several of these disproportionate injuries there is a violation of human rights."

Also the Minister of Culture, Consuelo Valdes, recently acknowledged that there are some "violations of human rights." in Chile and said that these "are not acceptable or justifiable."

However, Justice Minister Hernan Larrain has maintained, like Pinera, that these are "mistakes" and "excesses" that the law will judge.



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