Chile hit by protests against police killing of Mapuche activist

Issue 
Protesters carry images of slain Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca.

Much of central Santiago de Chile has been brought to a standstill by protests against the police killing of 24-year-old indigenous Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca on November 14. Catrillanca joins Matiás Catrileo, Jaime Mendoza Collio, Alex Lemún, José Huenante and Rodrigo Melinaeo, all young Mapuche men who have been killed by Chilean police or disappeared while in police custody in recent years.

Protesters in Santiago trashed police vehicles and set fire to barricades constructed out of O-bikes, forcing the closure of main streets and three of the city’s underground Metro stations. In Araucanía, where the killing occurred, a church and a school have been burnt down in protest.

According to police, the killing occurred during a gunfight that ensued after police pursued three reportedly stolen cars. However, the story doesn’t sit well with the fact that Catrillanca was apparently driving a tractor home from his family’s land when he was killed, at around 5 pm on Wednesday. Catrillanca, moreover, is the grandson of the lonko (indigenous mayor) of nearby Temucuicui and a prominent Mapuche spokeperson in his own right, raising suspicions of an assassination. The conservative government of President Sebastián Piñera initially maintained their silence, before backing the police versions of events following the protests.

The shooting has renewed opposition to the militarisation of policing in the historically indigenous province of Araucanía in the country’s south. The policemen responsible were part of a unit known as Jungle Command (‘Comando Jungla’), a squadron equipped with armoured vehicle, tanks and drones fitted with heat-seeking cameras. According to Chilean press, Jungle Command earned its name following its training in the US and then Colombia, a key US regional ally whose military has a long history of assassinating leftist and indigenous politicians and activists.

Jungle Command was introduced as a military police unit supposedly to respond to Mapuche “terrorism”, particularly the ongoing arson attacks against the forestry industry on land that Mapuche claim should be respected as indigenous territory. However, on the morning of November 15, TV news station Ahora Noticas reported that Jungle Command is now the only police unit operating in Mapuche communities.