Killing of Indigenous Man in Chile Spurs Criticism of Security Forces
Posted November 25, 2018 9:14 p.m. EST
SANTIAGO, Chile — The killing of a young indigenous man by an anti-terrorism police squad has intensified long-standing criticism over the treatment of native communities in southern Chile by the government and security forces accused of systemic abuses.
The killing of Camilo Catrillanca, 24, on Nov. 14 is the latest flash point in a fight over ancestral lands claimed by the Mapuche, which has led leaders in Chile to treat some indigenous land rights activists as terrorists — by for example, charging and trying them under anti-terrorism laws.
Catrillanca, a Mapuche, was riding a tractor home after working in the fields near the town of Ercilla, in the Araucanía region, about 370 miles south of Santiago, the capital, when an anti-terrorism police team approached him, apparently suspecting that he had taken part in a car theft.
According to a 15-year-old boy who was riding on the tractor, Catrillanca turned the tractor around and started driving away from police when members of the squad, nicknamed the Jungle Commando, shot at them from an armored car.
Catrillanca was killed by a shot to the back of the neck fired by one of the officers, the teenager said; the teenager was subsequently detained and beaten by police. He also said that the officer who fired the fatal shot was wearing a helmet with a camera, from which he removed the memory card with video of the episode.
Police officers initially claimed that they had not been wearing cameras at the time, but later acknowledged that they had, in fact, erased the video.
In a message posted on his Twitter account, the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, pledged to “exhaust all means” to determine what had occurred. But he said he supported the right of police “to defend themselves when they are attacked.”
After investigators for the public prosecutor determined that police had destroyed the memory card, two high-ranking officers in Araucanía resigned and four officers directly involved in the killing were expelled from the police force.
Days later, the regional governor, Luis Mayol, also resigned.
In addition to the prosecutor’s investigation, the National Institute for Human Rights has filed a criminal lawsuit, seeking murder, attempted murder and obstruction of justice charges against the Carabineros, as the national police force is called. Over the past seven years, the institute has filed more than 30 complaints over abusive police actions against the Mapuche. In May, it filed a criminal complaint against the national police force after four boys in Ercilla were stripped and interrogated.
The death of Catrillanca spurred protests in several cities and rural areas, and on Nov. 18, hours after thousands of Mapuche attended his funeral, demonstrators banged pots and pans throughout Santiago and other cities, demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick and the dismantling of the Jungle Commando police unit.
Since then, at least 20 protests, roadblocks and arson attacks have taken place in the Araucanía and Bío Bío regions in southern Chile, where most Mapuche live. Protests have continued almost daily in several cities, including the capital.
Members of Congress, opposition leaders and rights groups are questioning the government strategy to address what is often referred to as the “Mapuche conflict.”
The Mapuche contend that over the past century they have lost a large portion of their ancestral territory, which straddles the border between Chile and Argentina, as the government pursued policies that divided indigenous communities, took control of lands for which the Mapuche did not have formal property titles, and encouraged the sale of such land to farmers, lumber and energy companies, and other private owners.
Over the past couple of decades, Mapuche communities have occupied part of those lands, while others have sought to negotiate land transfers with the government.
A small number of indigenous groups have resorted to violent actions, like arson attacks on corporate infrastructure, vehicles, private property and churches.
Since 2001, some Mapuche have been tried and convicted under a dictatorship-era anti-terrorism law. In 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned Chile for violating the due process rights of eight Mapuche activists convicted under that law.
Piñera, who assumed the presidency in March, has adopted a tougher stance. In June, he sent the Jungle Commando force, outfitted with tanks, helicopters, armored cars, drones and thermal cameras, to the most restive indigenous areas in southern Chile. The nickname comes from training that the units did in Colombia alongside the militarized special operations units of the Colombian National Police that fight organized crime in that country and are known as Jungle Commandos.
Summoned before a congressional human rights commission last week to explain the events in the Araucanía region, Chadwick, the interior minister, said the situation was one of “extreme violence.”
Since 2013, he said, there have been 920 arson attacks, 924 armed confrontations, 509 attacks on police and 542 road blocks.
“We are in a serious zone of conflict, different from the rest of the country,” he said.
Catrillanca lived in the Mapuche community of Temucuicui, which took over what the Mapuche claimed were ancestral lands and declared autonomous control over the territory over 15 years ago. The community comprises about 150 Mapuche families spread over a hilly rural area of around 5,000 acres.
Jaime Huenchullan, a Temucuicui spokesman, said the government militarization of the area began around that same time, when some Mapuche started recovering their lands. Two years ago, he said, the number of special police forces deployed to the area rose significantly, reaching its peak with the arrival of the Jungle Commando force.
“Over the past couple of months, the commandos have raided and harassed our communities almost on a daily basis,” Huenchullan said in a phone interview. “They use weapons of war, fly helicopters low over the communities and stop and search people on rural roads. The 10 days before Camilo was killed, they entered Temucuicui four times; the last time they came in firing automatic weapons. On Sunday after the funeral, the entire area seemed to be under a state of siege.”
Opposition leaders and rights groups are calling for the dismantlement of the Jungle Commando units and a restructuring of the national police force, which has been widely criticized on several fronts. Earlier this year, the director of the police force, Gen. Bruno Villalobos, and the chief of intelligence, Gen. Gonzalo Blu, resigned after a public prosecutor revealed that officers had fabricated evidence against a group of Mapuche who were subsequently arrested.
Hundreds of officers have been under investigation since last year over fraud and corruption that has resulted in losses of about $40 million of public money. At least 130 have been indicted.
Catrillanca, the grandson of a traditional Mapuche leader, is the fourth Mapuche to be killed by police since 2002. His community considered him a “weichafe,” or warrior, of the Mapuche cause. He was the father of a 6-year-old girl, and his wife is expecting another child.
He studied agriculture at the Pailahueque polytechnical high school, which is attended mainly by Mapuche from impoverished rural families. A few years ago, the school and its grounds were converted into a police station; it is now the Jungle Commando headquarters, leaving students in the area without a school.
“The Mapuche’s legitimate and historical demands for land and autonomy cannot be resolved through militarization,” Huenchullan said. “What stands in the way, I believe, is racism, discrimination and hatred toward the Mapuche.”