Antofagasta, Chile – Police in Chile continue to crack down on protests with contentious projectiles, despite the official suspension of their use this week in all but the most extreme situations.
The projectiles – circular rubber and metal projectiles called “balines” – have caused the majority of the more than 280 eye injuries incurred since the protests over inequality and the ensuing crackdown began in October, according to health professionals.
Carabineros police director Mario Rozas announced on Tuesday the force was suspending use of the projectiles in all but the most extreme situations, pending further study. The measure was in response to a University of Chile study that concluded the projectiles were 20 percent rubber and 80 percent other materials, including lead.
The balines projectiles would only be used in cases of imminent risk of death to a police officer or civilian, the same conditions required for the use of service weapons, Rozas said on Tuesday at a news conference.
“They are still using the projectiles,” Francisco Sepulveda told Al Jazeera in Antofagasta, a city 1,400km (860 miles) north of Santiago. “The suspension changed nothing.”
Sepulveda is one of the local doctors working alongside paramedics, nurses and other medical professionals in an all-volunteer first aid commission treating people injured at protests. It is one of the support efforts by Antofagasta’s Emergency and Protection Committee, a grassroots assembly-led coordination initiative set up just days after protests began.
“It seems to us that there is still a de facto state of emergency,” Sepulveda said, referring to the official nine-day state of emergency the government decreed in October in response to protests and property destruction.
“The repression has continued, and it seems to us it has increased from Carabineros. Politicians talk about peace agreements but underneath that, the police force continues to repress us,” he said.
Dozens of people were hit by the rubber-metal projectiles in the marginalised northern Antofagasta neighbourhood of Bonilla, many of them above the waist and some in the face, said Sepulveda. A child and a teenager were hit in the eye by balines fired by Carabineros. One of them is not expected to regain any vision in the eye.
“He was inside. They tear gassed the home. He came outside and was shot in the eye,” said Sepulveda.
Residents had been protesting and barricading streets on Thursday. In response to the police crackdown, some protesters began attacking a nearby police station. But they were creating imminent risk to a building, not to anyone’s life, another member of the Emergency and Protection Committee in the neighbourhood on Thursday, told Al Jazeera.
Emergency and Protection Committee volunteers collected samples of munitions and projectiles used on Thursday from the neighbourhood streets. They include rubber projectile cartridges, a variety of tear gas canisters, blanks and at least one 9mm bullet casing.
The Antofagasta regional hospital said on Friday it treated 37 people injured in Thursday’s protests and five individuals remained hospitalised due to the severity of their injuries.
“It has been systematic over these past five weeks,” Natalia Sanchez, an emergency room doctor at the Antofagasta regional hospital, told Al Jazeera of injuries caused by projectiles.
Sanchez has been working overtime for weeks, but not at the hospital. After her day shifts in the emergency room, she joins Sepulveda and other medical professionals on a volunteer basis and helped treat five people for projectile wounds on Thursday night. The suspension announced by Rozas has had no effect, she said.
“It is left to the personal discretion of Carabineros. But we see that they do not have any criteria,” said Sanchez.
General Enrique Bassaletti, head of the Carabineros in Santiago’s Eastern Metropolitan Zone, confirmed the continuing use of the controversial projectiles in a press conference on Friday. Carabineros were using them in accordance with the suspension – except for where police stations or officers were under attack, he said, adding that rocks could be lethal too.
While commenting on the case of a Chilean television cameraperson injured on Thursday night by one of the projectiles, Basseletti used an analogy that sparked outrage in Chile. He compared police actions to chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
“Good and bad cells are killed,” he said.
Basseletti later issued a public apology for his cancer analogy but did not retract his other comments on the ongoing use of the controversial projectiles.
Prior to Rozas’s announcement on Tuesday, legal action against the use of projectiles was already under way. Last week, a regional court in Antofagasta ordered Carabineros to stick to protocols, not to fire them in peaceful protests and to limit the use of tear gas to extreme situations. Several other regional courts around the country have since issued similar orders.
Long-lasting exposure or exposure to a large dose of riot control agents such as tear gas can cause blindness, glaucoma, respiratory failure or death, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.
Despite the court order, tear-gas use continues unabated on a daily basis in Antofagasta. Many people now wear face masks all day in the central area of the city due to the effects of lingering tear gas particle residue.
Carabineros police also continued to fire the contentious projectiles at protesters in Antofagasta. Camila*, a local university student, was wounded when a projectile hit her in the leg last week, just days after the regional court ruling.
“It did not change anything,” she told Al Jazeera of the court order. “They continued to use them.”
Amnesty International highlighted the use of projectiles and prevalence of eye injuries in a report released on Thursday. Based on victim and witness testimony, data, video footage and meetings with government officials, the UK-based human rights group concluded security forces were intentionally injuring people to dissuade protests.
Basseletti, the Armed Forces, and a government spokesperson have since publicly rejected the report findings and strongly denied allegations of intentional injuries and generalised attacks.
Car ploughs into protesters
Also on Thursday, a large protest march in Antofagasta ground to a halt when a car ploughed through a group of protesters at a nearby intersection, where youth were blocking the street to impede Carabineros from potentially approaching the march. The driver then turned the corner and sped through another crowd.
Nine protesters were injured and two remain hospitalised, according to the regional hospital. The driver, who was not a police officer, turned himself in, according to information released by the Carabineros of Antofagasta. Judicial proceedings will continue on Sunday, when a judge could order his detention pending an investigation for attempted homicide.
Chile’s Minister of Health Jaime Manalich visited protesters injured by the vehicle on Saturday morning in the Antofagasta hospital. Doctors and other hospital workers protested against his visit and called for his resignation.
While some first responders were still at the scene of the incident on Thursday, police began firing tear gas up the street, affecting the area.
“Why are they like this?” a woman in her 50s said, tears streaming down her face, as medics walked her to the Emergency and Protection Committee’s makeshift first aid station for treatment for tear-gas exposure.
The march disbanded after protesters were injured, and some protesters set up barricades and bonfires in the centre while others protested in the plaza. In a few parts of the city, as in some others, significant looting and property destruction carried on into the night.
The continuing crackdowns on protests around the country continue to fuel outrage. The Chilean Dockworkers Union announced on Friday that its members would strike on Monday and Tuesday, paralysing ports up and down Chile, and that other sectors would strike on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Human rights are non-negotiable,” the union said in a statement on Friday. “The reasons for a new general strike are unchanged: rejection and punishment of a criminal government that has responded to protesters with brutal repression.”
*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.