Thirty-six-year-old Hugo Adrian Palazón is a cartonero, or recycler, from a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He supports his wife and five children by collecting cardboard boxes, tin cans, and plastic bottles on the city streets. Or at least he did, until he lost one of his eyes.
On December 18, 2017, thousands marched in Buenos Aires against a controversial pension reform that unions said would slash benefits and hurt retirees. The demonstration wound, for blocks, around Argentina’s Congress. Most of it was peaceful, but police faced off for hours with a group of several hundred protesters hurling rocks, chunks of concrete, and other projectiles.
And then the police pushed back — hard. They cleared the plaza and its neighboring streets with force. Cellphone footage from the day shows people running from the approaching troops across the square, corralled down narrow side streets, the echo of guns firing behind them. Water cannons. Smoke and tear gas.
Palazón was collecting items to recycle a few blocks away, his cart beside him, when a mass of people rushed forward. The city police were close behind, firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
He shouted that he was only working. It didn’t matter. From 10 feet away, Palazón says, an officer aimed a gun at his head and opened fire. Palazón ducked and raised his arms to defend himself, but not before something stung his right eye. Later, a doctor would tell him that the impact of the rubber bullet had so badly shattered his eye that it looked like it had been cut into thousands of tiny pieces.
He was not the only one to lose an eye that day.
At Santa Lucia Ophthalmological Hospital, he met Horacio Ramos, a 53-year-old metal worker and activist. He had attended the march, and he, too, lost an eye when he was shot in the head by a police officer at close range. He immediately lost his vision and touched his face. Blood covered his hand.
Daniel Sandoval is a teacher who was also at the protest. According to reports, he was beaten by police and shot 21 times with rubber bullets. Six of them hit him in the head. One of them hit an eye.
“It was the worse moment of my life,” Sandoval told the Argentine daily newspaper Página 12. “I felt like I was being hunted.”
During the December 18 march, more than 60 people were detained and over 160 were injured, including protesters and police. (The police later claimed that 125 officers were injured — a much higher total than was reported elsewhere.) Five people lost eyes when police officers shot them with rubber bullets — an unprecedented number for a single protest. Additionally, one police officer also lost an eye, although according to reports, he may have been hit by a fellow officer.
Several of the victims, including Ramos, had to have a bullet surgically removed from their eye socket.
“Most of the policemen aimed at the faces of demonstrators,” said human rights lawyer María del Carmen Verdú, of the Buenos Aires group Coordinator Against Police and Institutional Repression, known by its Spanish acronym CORREPI. “They were shooting for men’s eyes and women’s chests.”
Verdú said she had 20 cases of women who were shot in the chest on December 18.
“Official protocols say that you have to use these weapons with rubber pellets from the waist down. It’s impossible to imagine that all of the officers forgot about the protocols at the same time,” she said.
Palazón, Ramos, and Sandoval are just three of the latest victims of the most violent peak in repression in Argentina since the end of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983, according to a December report from CORREPI.
Argentine Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich has called CORREPI’s report “an absolute lie.” But, according to CORREPI statistics, which detail each death, Argentine police killed an average of just over one person a day since President Mauricio Macri came to office in late 2015 — 725 killings in 721 days.
Many human rights advocates see the increasingly brutal tactics of the police as a means of social control, as the Macri administration attempts to roll back the progressive policies of the preceding Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administrations. The pension reform, approved by Congress on December 18, was only a small piece of a larger package of neoliberal reforms that have rattled the social welfare state.
Inflation has skyrocketed. Electricity and water prices have increased by as much as 1,000 percent. Hundreds of thousands have been laid off. In response, protests have rattled Argentina, and the police have responded with force.
Argentina has a history of using violent force to respond to protests, even after the dictatorship ended — 39 people were killed by police in protests around the country following the financial crash of December 2001. But human rights advocates see the spike in violence as concerning, particularly when combined with a documented increase in political prisoners, a crackdown on independent press during marches, and the disappearance of 28-year-old Santiago Maldonado on August 1, 2017.
Maldonado went missing during a protest in support of the Mapuche indigenous community in the Argentine province of Chubut. Witnesses said he was last seen being detained by the Argentine National Gendarmerie. His body was disappeared for more than two months, before it was found floating in the Chubut River.
During the months that he was missing, marches ripped across the country demanding his return alive. Again, the marches were violently repressed. Members of the press were detained for several days without charge.
“There was a clear goal of detaining people who were filming the protest, so we couldn’t show what was happening, which was essentially the state forces running over the people who were protesting,” said Juan Pablo Mourenza, a reporter with the National Network of Alternative Media, or RNMA by its Spanish acronym. Mourenza was detained during a march on September 1, one month after Maldonado went missing.
According to CORREPI, roughly 200 people have been disappeared since the end of the Argentine dictatorship, but the case of Maldonado was acutely reminiscent of repressive tactics that many hoped had been buried forever.
“It’s unbelievable that after 40-plus years, we have to once again yell, ‘You took them alive, and alive we want them returned,’” said Taty Almeida, a longtime member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children were among the 30,000 disappeared during the dictatorship. Almeida’s son was disappeared in 1975 at the age of 20.
The Mothers have been marching each week around Plaza de Mayo for 40 years. Recently, they have been actively involved in denouncing the new wave of repression.
In mid-January, Ramos, the metal worker and activist, joined the Mothers and thousands more in Plaza de Mayo to demand justice for the December crackdown and the loss of one of his eyes. At the march, Ramos and his lawyers announced that they would be issuing a formal request for an investigation into the police responsible for the shooting. A local judge accepted the request, and Ramos has been allowed to participate in the investigation. Ramos says that a local alternative media outlet has agreed to help him try and identify his shooter through their footage. Otherwise, Ramos fears the investigation, like most, would go nowhere.
Meanwhile, the Mothers have warned that security measures under the Macri administration are becoming increasingly worrisome.
“It’s not a dictatorship, like we had in the ’70s and part of the ’80s,” said Almeida. “But unfortunately, the measures they are taking, and the statements they are making, come very close. Very, very close to what we witnessed during the dictatorship.”
Rubber bullets — also called kinetic impact projectiles — are often touted by law enforcement as a safe means of crowd control. But it is not uncommon to hear of someone losing an eye at a march or a protest. In recent years, people have lost eyes from rubber bullets or other projectiles at protests in Brazil, France, India, the United States, Spain, South Africa, and elsewhere. The Spanish province of Catalonia banned the use of rubber bullets in 2014, after a woman lost an eye in a protest.
According to a December 2017 study by several U.S. researchers, published in the medical journal The BMJ, the bulk of permanent disabilities and severe injuries from rubber bullets are often the result of strikes to the head and neck. The researchers underscored that the use of rubber bullets can lead to “death, injuries and disabilities,” and they called for an “urgent need to establish international guidelines.”
The Argentine police’s widespread use of rubber bullets is well documented. The country was included in a 2016 report on crowd-control weapons by Physicians for Human Rights, which highlighted the indiscriminate use of rubber bullets on a protest against the demolition of a section of Borda Hospital in Buenos Aires, in April 2013. Rubber bullets were fired at close range. More than 40 people were injured.
“These cases show that the use of rubber bullets to disperse protests is widely used in Argentina, usually without previous warning, even towards unarmed people who are running away from the violence,” wrote the report’s authors.
The police tactic of aiming for people’s eyes is also not new. In 2003, police shot out one of the eyes of an unemployed worker named Pedro “Pepe” Alveal, during a protest in the Argentine city of Neuquén. The tactic has been employed since, but never so systematically, and never with so many permanently injured.
“On December 18, the police did more than just push us out of the square,” said Ramos. “Their goal seemed to try to hurt us. To mutilate us. To try to handicap us.”
Ramos has had to leave his position as a metal worker at a warehouse on the outskirts of the city. Doctors say the dust and particles could infect his eye socket, which could put his life at risk.
For those who lost eyes, it’s clear that the real impact of the police bullets will last long beyond December 18.
On a warm summer day in mid-January, Palazón traveled to Santa Lucia Ophthalmological Hospital on the Buenos Aires underground metro, and waited on one of the white metal benches to see his doctor.
Palazón wore jeans and a black-and-white T-shirt. Gray hair showed beneath a raggedy white baseball cap. He looked tired — older than his 36 years. In the place of his right eye was a clear plastic prosthetic. For weeks, he’s visited his doctor and is still waiting to receive a clean bill of health. But even when he does, he still might not be able to go back to work. Not as a cartonero.
Working with trash and recycled objects on the street is dirty. Doctors have also told him that if his eye gets infected, it can easily infect his brain, and this could kill him.
“So I’m here, on the edge. I got nothing. I’m just depending on my family,” said Palazón, holding back tears. “To be honest, I don’t know what to say. Every day, I get up feeling completely powerless. You know how that feels? My kids ask me to buy them some chocolate. I don’t have any money to buy it.”
Even if it puts his life at risk, it’s possible he’ll be back on the streets and collecting material to recycle in a few months. It’s all Palazón knows. He tries to be positive and says he’s going to find a way, if for nothing other than his five kids. But it’s hard. Beyond the physical injury and the loss of his income, he also faces psychological damage.
“Someone who loses an eye has sometimes irreparable trauma. Psychological harm can be repaired, but it can also have lasting consequences,” Buenos Aires psychologist Adriana Fernández told The Intercept. “And when the state does not take responsibility for this injury, it makes it worse.”
The Intercept reached out to the Buenos Aires Ministry of Justice and Security for details about the police action on December 18. In a prepared statement, it responded that “for more than six hours, police personnel resisted the aggression of a group of protesters who threw rocks, sticks, molotov cocktails, explosives and projectiles causing a great number of injured and destruction valued at more than 14 million pesos. The police advanced to retake order only when the organizations that had called for the march, and who were not participating in the aggression, had left the Plaza Congress.”
The ministry did not respond to questions about the practice of shooting for the head.
According to some journalists, including Juan Pablo Mourenza, the reporter detained in the September march, plainclothes police were among the protesters, throwing rocks and inciting violence.
“The [police] are doing these things to change the focus of what is really important — to create disorder. When people hit the streets, they don’t do it to throw rocks at the police. The problem is not with the police, it’s with the measures that this government it taking,” Mourenza told The Intercept. “The people are not happy. They are hungry. They’ve been laid off.”
For Palazón, the day changed his life and his opinion of his country’s police force, which he says he used to respect.
“They went out to hunt people. They went out to hunt. They shot at whoever they saw,” said Palazón. “I was just working. I went out on December 18, to try and make some money, so I could buy some things for my kids. To at least give them a nice meal. You know what we did for Christmas? Nothing.”
Correction: May 3, 2018, 4:30 p.m.
A previous version of this story contained images that were incorrectly attributed. The images have been replaced.