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For Chileans blinded in police violence, making music has become one path to healing

The band Hacía la Victoria, Spanish for "Onward to Victory," after rehearsal in Santiago, Chile, on Aug. 31. All of the musicians in the band sustained serious eye injuries during clashes with police who used tear gas and shotguns against anti-government protesters in 2019. From left: Camilo Galvez, Vicente Pascal, Sergio Concha, Gustavo Gatica, Cesar Galloso, Andrés López, Miles Camus.

SANTIAGO, Chile — At a recording studio in downtown Santiago, musicians are noodling on guitars and adjusting the drum kit as they set up for a jam session that's part rehearsal, part therapy.

All 10 members of the band, called Hacía la Victoria, Spanish for "Onward to Victory," sustained serious eye injuries during clashes with police who used tear gas and shotguns against anti-government protesters in 2019.

The band's lyrics focus on police brutality as well as the musicians' pain, confusion and frustration over what happened to them. In one song, "Así fue," or "That's what happened," guitarist Sergio Concha recalls the day the demonstrations broke out, when he was hit in the left eye with a shotgun pellet while taking part in the protests.

While playing the song, he says, "It feels like going back to that moment, when all of Santiago was on fire, when there were barricades in the streets, when masked protesters fought the police, and when I was in the hospital with my eye patched."

During five months of demonstrations, about 30 people were killed while more than 450 protesters were left partially blind when they were hit in the face with shotgun pellets or tear gas canisters fired by the police to control the crowds, according to Chile's National Human Rights Institute.

César Muñoz, a senior researcher in South America for Human Rights Watch, says the police lacked training in crowd control. Their shotgun shells usually contained metal rather than less damaging rubber pellets. And instead of firing from a safer distance and pointing toward the lower extremities of protesters, he says, agents often fired their shotguns straight at them from short range.

"It was kind of shocking to me," Muñoz tells NPR.

Meanwhile, the victims of eye injuries became high-profile symbols of the protest movement, which was triggered by an increase in subway fares but expanded to include calls for more affordable housing, health care and education and better access to decent jobs and pensions. One of the victims, Fabiola Campillai — who lost sight permanently in both eyes after being hit in the face with a tear gas canister — was elected to the Chilean Senate last year.

But instead of denouncing the police brutality, some Chileans labeled the injured protesters "troublemakers" who got what they deserved, says Diego Leppez, who was hit in the face with a tear gas canister that fractured his nose and left his right eye blind.

Survivors of eye injuries are easily identifiable because it's hard to hide their injuries. Some wear black eye patches or, as in the case of Sen. Campillai, their appearance is altered.

Leppez says he has been jeered at in the supermarket and on the streets of Santiago and has been treated for depression. Protesting for a better Chile "turned into a really big sacrifice," he says. "In my case, it cost me an eye."

The members of Hacía la Victoria have found a path to recovery through music.

The idea for the band was hatched during Zoom meetings between eye-injury victims during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several were musicians and once the quarantines ended, they started jamming together.

The band's rhythmic and emotional foundation is 23-year-old Gustavo Gatica. He was studying psychology at a Santiago university when the protests broke out. He joined in, but during one of the marches, Gatica was hit in the face with shotgun pellets, leaving him totally blind.

To take out his own frustrations, Gatica took up drumming and then joined Hacía la Victoria. Remembering that another protester who sustained an eye injury took his own life last year, Gatica says: "It's really important to have a circle of support."

Andrés López, a filmmaker and one of the band's vocalists, feels the same way. With most people, he finds it awkward to talk about the shotgun pellet that left him blind in his right eye. But with his bandmates, he can open up.

"With these guys, it's very easy," López says during a break in the rehearsal.

Songwriter and vocalist César Galloso adds: "There have been a lot of ups and downs, mentally and physically. But this musical project has helped a lot. We understand each other because we all went through the same thing."

The band plays a mix of genres, from hip hop to reggae to heavy metal. As it gains more attention, Hacía la Victoria has been playing in public nearly every week and has recorded several songs.

But its members are most proud of the fact that their protests helped change Chile.

For one thing, the country now has a left-wing government headed by President Gabriel Boric, a former student leader who is trying to address some of the protesters' demands.

"That's an important first step," says Gatica, the drummer.

But there have also been disappointments. On Sept. 4, a progressive new draft constitution — strongly supported by the protest movement — was overwhelmingly rejected by Chilean voters.

That's why, in spite of their injuries, Gatica and the other band members insist they will remain active — both on stage and on the streets.

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