SANTIAGO – Abel Acuña, a 29-year-old protester, was among the dozens that died in 2019 during the social uprising. He died at Plaza Italia, which protesters have dubbed Plaza Dignidad. Nearly one year later, his father is still looking for answers: “It was a peaceful day, but Abel stepped into hell.”
“Just one month earlier, Abel had graduated. He was going to work in a lab,” Abel Acuña’s father, Anselmo, says while looking at pictures of the graduation. “For a Chilean family from the lower middle-class, getting a son or daughter to graduate is a big thing. We were so proud.”
Abel Acuña was at Plaza Italia on Nov. 15 with a friend. Since the protests started on Oct. 18, he had participated in several marches. His father warned him about increasing police repression. “But he wanted to go. He wanted to be part of the movement. You can’t stop a man with convictions,” Aselmo told Chile Today.
During the march, while the square was packed with a large group of protesters, police started to disperse the crowd. “It was completely out of protocol,” according to Aselmo. “They started to throw excessive amounts of tear gas, they launched the water cannon and shot rubber bullets. The protesters were only celebrating, they were not doing any harm.”
But Abel collapsed. He had heart problems and was carrying an Implantable Automatic Defibrillator (IAD), which helps controlling the heart’s rhythm. With the air filled with tear gas, Abel, who had joined the crowd chanting “Chile Despertó,” started feeling unwell. He warned his friend Rodrigo and they decided to leave. On his way out of the crowd, Abel fell.
“Sometimes we watch the videos here, with my wife at home. The police made sure no one got to Abel. They didn’t allow any help near him. It was murder, their goal was to kill,” Anselmo said with trembling voice. Video footage and testimonies from medics present at the scene confirm these claims. A paramedic who tried to give Abel CPR was shot at by riot police. An ambulance, which appeared within six minutes, could not reach Abel because of the water cannon and tear gas cannisters. According to medical reports, Abel could have been saved if it weren’t for the police violence.
Nothing will bring Abel back, though. Anselmo, who lives with his wife in Santiago’s Maipú district, says that the emptiness is difficult. “People always ask you: how are you? But the reality is that we never are alright. The only thing we seek is justice.”
Conviction for Apruebo
Anselmo became even more convinced to vote for Apruebo during the referendum on Sunday because Abel’s case has not advanced and the government has never directly contacted him. “I am not against capitalism. But the way capital is divided in Chile is very unequal,” Anselmo said. “I am aware the referendum or a new Constitution is not a solution. But it’s a part of a journey towards more equality.”
For Anselmo, the only thing that is left, apart for voting on Sunday, is waiting for answers and seeking justice. He says he won’t stop and will go to international tribunals if the Chilean system doesn’t provide answers. In Maipú, a memorial for Abel will be built and neighbors have started a petition to rename a park in his honor. “The support from other families, who have been through the same, to our family has been great. But nothing that we do will make Abel come back.”
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.