SANTIAGO: Pushing rickety grocery carts as improvised hospital beds, more than 100 Chilean doctors and nurses hit the streets shortly after riots broke out in Chile weeks ago, diving into the fray amid clouds of tear gas and volleys of rubber bullets behind just simple white shields.
Protests that began over a hike in metro fares quickly unravelled into violent riots, looting and arson, and eventually, mass protests demanding an end to social injustices and inequality. Clashes with police and military security forces have escalated.
"Healthcare for the streets," emerged almost spontaneously, its members say, as the need for urgent, on-the-spot medical assistance became clear.
The official statistics tell a grim story: More than 20 dead and nearly 2,000 protesters injured in skirmishes with security forces.
"We alone have assisted at least 500 injured people, and that's with limited capacity," Dr. Juan Villagra told Reuters.
The group has focused its activities around Plaza Italia, a central Santiago square where the country's largest protests have taken place. Along dead end streets and sidewalks, they pile medical supplies, cart the injured to safety and help in any way they can.
Prosecutors are also investigating more than 800 allegations of abuse, including torture, rape and beatings by security forces during demonstrations that have often degenerated into riots.
"We've seen how the response has gotten out of control, and it's led to hundreds of injuries," said Patricia Mieres, the group's director.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief and former Chilean president, has sent a fact-finding mission to Chile to interview alleged victims, as has Amnesty International.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera welcomed their investigations. "We have nothing to hide," he said.