The Guardian-John Bartlett in Santiago
Fabiola Campillai, 38, who was shot by police on her way to work on 26 November 2019 as Chile was convulsed by protests. She is running as an independent candidate to become a senator. Photograph: Tamara Merino/The Guardian
Fabiola Campillai was shot in the face by a teargas canister as she walked to work in 2019 amid nationwide protests against social inequality. Now she is running for office as an independent
On a November evening two years ago, Fabiola Campillai stepped out into the fading sunshine to head for her night shift at a food processing plant.
For weeks, Chile had been racked by a wave of mass protests against social inequality, but there were few signs of demonstrators in Cinco Pinos, the quiet neighbourhood on the outskirts of Santiago where Campillai lives.
“There weren’t any protests that evening. A man crossed the street in front of me to buy bread,” Campillai remembers. “And that was the last thing I ever saw.”
Patricio Maturana, an officer in Chile’s Carabineros police force, fired a teargas canister at Campillai from just 50 metres away, hitting her square in the face. A study estimated that the metal cylinder would have reached temperatures of up to 200C at the moment of impact.
From then on, Campillai remembers nothing.
The impact shattered her skull and caused cerebrospinal fluid to leak on to her brain. It blinded her totally and irreversibly, depriving her of sight, taste and smell.
Rather than helping Campillai as she lay unconscious, the officers threw more teargas, retreated down an underpass and drove away. It was left to neighbours to lift her into a car and drive to hospital.
Campillai’s horrific, life-changing ordeal has made her Chile’s most recognisable victim of police brutality. After months of operations and rehabilitation, Campillai is beginning to rebuild her life in total blackness. And she is also standing as an independent candidate for Chile’s senate in elections later this month – which will also see the country elect a new president.
“I will never get my eyes back,” she says, the light catching two prosthetic spheres set into her reconstructed eye sockets. “But I want to turn this tragedy into a strength and keep on fighting. Not just from the streets like before, but from the legislature – I want to be there to help change everything.”
On 21 November, Campillai will be on the ballot to become one of Santiago’s five senators.
She is running against a former health minister, Jaime Mañalich, who notoriously declared on television that he had “no idea” about the poverty and overcrowding in the southern districts of Santiago where Campillai was born and raised.
The porch of her one-storey home doubles as a campaign headquarters while she continues her recovery alongside her husband and three children.
Once a volunteer firefighter, football player and community organiser, Campillai can no longer leave the house alone or lift heavy weights, as the exertion could cause fluid to leak back into her brain.
She moves around the house following the edges of a carpet on the living room floor, and clings gently to her husband’s waist when they walk around the neighbourhood.
Since the protests began in October 2019, more than 400 Chileans have totally or partially lost their sight after being shot or beaten by police, and Campillai’s case is one of the most emblematic.
Body-camera footage of the attack shows a police patrol huddled tightly behind riot shields facing down a quiet street, and an officer encouraging Maturana to fire.
When the teargas canister strikes Campillai, another exclaims “Good shot!” Later the officers discuss the incident: “It got her, right? I think [Maturana] got her, he hit her …”
It took more than eight months for the Carabineros to conclude an internal investigation and dismiss Maturana.
He is under house arrest while a second investigation by public prosecutors is under way, and faces 12 years in prison.
But the trial is yet to begin – even though more than 70 witnesses, officers and doctors have given evidence.
A spokesperson for the Carabineros said that the force could not comment while the case was ongoing.
“Neither the government nor Carabineros have ever contacted me,” says Campillai, “No help, no apology, no acknowledgment.”
But while the wait for notional justice goes on, Campillai is working hard to launch a political career.
“A dignified Chile would have better education, healthcare, housing and pensions,” she says, “This would make it a better place for the majority – and I want to be part of this movement.”
Demands for a fairer Chile have found fertile ground as the country begins to broaden participation and include independent voices from beyond the traditional parties, such as Campillai’s.
Since Chile returned to democracy after Gen Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990, only 10 independents have ever been elected to the chamber of deputies – and there has been just one independent senator.
“Before, it was almost impossible to get elected as an independent,” said Kenneth Bunker, a political scientist who edits Tresquintos, a political analysis website.
But a rule change for the election of the constitutional convention in May lowered barriers to participation, and 41% of the candidates were independent.
“It’s very clear that when people are given a more diverse list of candidates to choose from, they are going to elect these independents – and Campillai’s story resonates with many,” said Bunker.
While November’s election will be held under the old rules, legislation is moving through congress which would open up the playing field permanently.
After months of operations and rehabilitation, Campillai is hoping to continue her education and return to work at the factory in a computer-based role.
“Justice would mean giving back what they stole from me,” she says, “But that can never happen, however many years they make [Maturana] sit in jail.
“So I’m going to make change happen myself. I want to send the message that politics is for everyone – not just the usual suspects.”