Killing of indigenous activist in Chile provokes widespread protests

Rodrigo Acuña reports on the death of Camilo Catrillanca, who was gunned down during a police raid.

November 27, 2018 · 8 min read
Demonstration for Camilo Catrillanca. Photo by Diego Ojeda (Flickr)

The recent death of the 24-year-old Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca has sparked wide condemnation and protests throughout Chile.

On Wednesday November 14, a newly created special ‘anti-terrorist’ unit of the Chilean police known as Comando Jungla entered the Mapuche traditional community of Temukuikui near the town of Ercilla in the Araucanía region, approximately 370 miles south of Santiago. Claiming to be in pursuit of local car thieves, the operation involved hundreds of police offices with two helicopters.     

Returning home with a 15-year-old minor on his tractor who was also wounded in the incident, Catrillanca – the grandson of a local indigenous leader –  was shot multiple times. According to community members, despite having suffered serious wounds, Catrillanca was surrounded by police and take to a local clinic instead of a hospital. The minor, who accompanied Catrillanca and has recently given a statement to the Public Ministry, claims he was assaulted by police afterwards.

Quick to back the police special forces version of events, that claimed Catrillanca was killed in a crossfire, Minister of Interior Andrés Chadwick and Luis Mayol Intendant of the Araucanía region spoke to the press in a series of bungled press conferences. Chadwick for days even went as far as to suggest that Catrillanca had a criminal record, hence cynically implying that his death was warranted.

The government’s version of events drew much ridicule when it was proven Catrillanca had no previous convictions, in contrast to the incumbent President of Chile Sebastian Piñera who, in 1982, was declared a delinquent and fugitive from justice after stealing funds from the Bank of Talca. (Eventually Piñera was saved by an intervention by then Minister of Justice Mónica Madariaga under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.)

With Comando Jungla, according to Bloomberg, having been trained in Colombia and the United States and “equipped with bullet-proof jackets, drones and high-tech communications systems”, the official government’s version of events was further discredited once the police could produced no video footage of their operation. Eventually, second sergeant Raúl Ávila Morales declared he had video footage of the incident on his GoPro camera but destroyed it given the memory card had private images on it.

Catrillanca’s death is only the latest in a series of actions by the Chilean State which has come to the defence of the forestry industry and other firms that are exploiting southern Chile’s natural resources such a water. While the forestry industry argues that they have legally bought or rented large tracts of land in this part of the country, indigenous communities for years have complained about the negative environmental impacts of their logging activities which, among other effects, results in soil erosion of indigenous crops and contaminates livestock food supplies.

Numerous Mapuche communities have decided to fight back. According to statistics published by a local business association in the city of Temuco, in 2017 43 attacks took place against logging companies which mainly involved arson.

While forestry firms hired their own security guards, in recent years Carabineros de Chile, the national police force, has stepped in to protect forestry companies while being accused of persecuting indigenous activists and falsifying evidence against them.

Journalist Francisco Marín writes that:

“The murder of Catrillanca joins a series of other similar incidents, in which carabineros have killed unarmed Mapuche, as happened with Alex Lemún Saavedra (2002), Matías Catrileo Quezada (2008) and Jaime Mendoza Collío (2009). Although  justice proved that the police versions to justify them were false, all those responsible were condemned to low sentences that intended their compliance in freedom.”

Excluding Catrillanca, according to the indigenous newspaper Werké, since 2001 the number of Mapuche activists murdered stands at 14. Earlier this year, the Red por la Defensa de la Infancia Wallmapu (Network for the Defense of Childhood Wallmapu) noted that more than 40 Mapuche children have been mistreated by police, including suffering gunshot wounds.  

Adding further complexity to the conflict, Carabineros de Chile appears all too keen to request State funds in dealing with Mapuche protests. This comes, as observes Christopher A. Martínez from Temuco Catholic University, as the police force is “currently going through its deepest crisis yet in the post Pinochet period” as numerous “top-ranking Carabineros officials, including a former general, are under investigation for a US$ 40 million fraud.”

To make matters worse, the Chilean State in the last two decades has commenced to use the Anti-Terrorist Law (specifically Law 18.314) against the Mapuche. Established under the Pinochet dictatorship in 1984, the law facilities the crushing of political dissidence. Both Amnesty International and the United Nations have condemned the use of the Anti-Terrorist Law against the Mapuche.

In some of the latest developments, the Intendant of the Araucanía region has resigned while several police officers have done likewise or been suspended. The National Institute for Human Rights has also filed a criminal lawsuit against the Carabineros claiming murder, attempted murder and obstruction of justice.

According to the 2017 national census, the Mapuche population numbers 1,745,147 (9.9% of the Chilean population) while they have lost 95% of their native lands.

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