Brigada Dignidad: A Health Team Healing the Wounded by the Police in Santiago, Chile
Since October 18, 2019, Santiago and several cities in Chile became places of confrontation between the Chilean people, the police, and even, for a few days, the Chilean army. Although Chileans are not immune to state violence, police brutality, or human rights violations, the level of aggressions committed during the government of Sebastián Piñera has reached levels that had not been seen since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, at least not, in all parts of the country. It should be noted that this violence has been a systematic practice against the Mapuche communities and that today it only spreads to Chileans and Mapuche alike.
The peoples that inhabit Chilean territory have risen under the slogan “until dignity becomes the norm” and it is that promise that has taken thousands to the streets against all vicissitudes. According to statistics from the National Institute of Human Rights, these clashes have left more than 45 dead, more than 2.500 injured, by bullets, pellets or tear gas, and the use of chemicals in the waters thrown to dissolve the demonstrations. Among the injured, approximately four hundred and fifty people have suffered eye damage, some of which has resulted in partial and /or total loss of vision.
These confrontations created a new scenario; parts of the largest cities in the country became true combat zones in which the people have organically summoned themselves to take on various roles and to put into practice various self-defense and organizational strategies. Within these roles there were those who defend the right to protest, exposing themselves almost daily to suffer the aforementioned consequences and also those who defend the right to defend it, being ready to heal the wounds of the protesters when they become victims of repression.
One of the medical teams that has worked weekly in the so-called zero zone of the conflict in Santiago is Brigada Dignidad, a group of professionals from different specialties who voluntarily treat those who are injured by the police. The brigade is an autonomous organization that came together in the face of the critical health situation that was generated with the awakening in Chile. The brigade has people trained in various specialties, such as emergency internists, anesthesiologists, nurses, emergency nurses, physiotherapists, speech therapists, neurologists, psychologists, ophthalmologists, and others.
Protests remained strong every week from October until March. Right before the pandemic hit the country. On March 8th, a women’s march gathered 2 million participants on international women’s day. Right after that the government responded to the sanitary crisis installing a repressive regime, using the opportunity to control the population with curfews, identity checks and confinement, bringing the military into the streets. These measures dismantled protests until they resumed on September 4th, 2020. Upon returning, the brigadistas faced the loss of the physical spaces in which they used to carry out their work, for which they returned to literally attend patients on the street. They also faced the expiration of their supplies and medications, in a situation that from the start had been precarious, but making these teams and their patients even more vulnerable, considering that during the hiatus, the police forces had the opportunity to strengthen their tactical capabilities and acquire new weapons.
After becoming better articulated, this brigade has received since then, countless patients, in addition to new gas and toxic chemical attacks, since water and tear gas bombs are constantly thrown to the place where they work, despite the international treaties that protect medical teams that serve in conflict zones. In March of this year, the brigade’s medical post received an attack which ended up causing a fire, after the police launched a string of tear gas canisters. The incident occurred while the team was treating several people, who had to be transported outside through the flames. Two weeks ago, two members of this medical team were hit severely in the legs by an action taken by the police with one of their vehicles.
From September 2020 onwards, the demonstrations continue to take place every Friday and on emblematic dates. In October Brigada Dignidad treated new cases of eye damage, dozens burned by the chemicals thrown by the police, and dozens of people with respiratory difficulties from gas attacks (including children) demonstrating that state repression continues to occur in a systematic way and that it is the health teams that respond to this violence turn out being victims of it.
After celebrating on October 18th the first anniversary of the Chilean uprise and, after winning in a national referendum the possibility to have elected Chileans rewrite the constitution, written and implemented by Pinochet in 1980, protests have become stronger and more frequent once again. Chileans demand (among other things) the liberation of political prisoners; mainly young people detained during this past year, the abolition of a police force that has proven deficient and broken and overall, the destitution of the infamous president Sebastian Piñera. For now, Chileans will continue to take their demands into the streets, police will continue to respond with more violations to human rights by injuring protesters and health teams that rescues them, like Brigada Dignidad, will still be needed. At least they, have committed themselves to continue to carry out their practice in solidarity with the Chilean people, challenging the odds and the repression they encounter themselves “Until dignity becomes the norm”.