Charis McGowan in Santiago
Fri 29 Jan 2021 11.00 GMT
Camilo Catrillanca, 24, was shot during a vehicle chase
Case highlights treatment of largest indigenous group
A demonstrator holds a banner picturing the late Mapuche community member Camilo Catrillanca on the first anniversary of his killing, in Santiago, Chile. Photograph: Orlando Barría/EPA
A Chilean police officer has been jailed for killing a Mapuche farmer during a vehicle chase in a case that cast a harsh spotlight on the country’s treatment of its largest indigenous group.
Camilo Catrillanca, the 24-year-old grandson of a prominent Mapuche indigenous leader, was shot in the back of the head in November 2018 in Temucuicui, a small community 600km south of the capital, Santiago.
His death – and a subsequent attempted cover-up by police officers – caused widespread public outrage and reignited deep-seated grievances over the Chilean state’s treatment of the Mapuche.
On Thursday, the police officer, Carlos Alarcón, was sentenced to 11 years in prison over Catrillanca’s death, with an extra five years for the attempted killing of a 15-year-old boy who was on a tractor with Catrillanca.
Ingrid Conejeros, a Mapuche educator and human rights defender, hailed the sentencing as a “historic day” for Mapuche rights. “There have been cases of Mapuche killings that weren’t even investigated,” she said.
Other human rights activists also welcomed the sentence, which came as the country’s police face accusations of widespread human rights violations – including rape and torture – during a nationwide wave of anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
“It’s a light of hope. A first step,” said Vania Ortega, legal director of the police watchdog NGO Opip. But she stressed that police impunity would continue “unless these sentences stop becoming an exception, and start to become the general rule”.
Chile’s national police force, known as the Carabineros, has faced broad condemnation for its heavy-handed response to protests over inequality that began in 2019 and left at least 30 civilians dead, hundreds blinded by shotgun pellets and thousands injured.
Officers have long enjoyed reduced sentences with high impunity rates for their crimes. Rights defenders believe the historic ruling in the Catrillanca case may change the abusive nature of the institution.
Chile’s National Human Rights Institute presented 2,520 legal complaints against armed forces a year after the social uprising – only 31 of them have been investigated.
The Mapuche have long accused the Chilean state and private companies of appropriating their ancestral lands, plundering their natural resources and using indiscriminate violence against them.
Alarcón was part of a controversial special forces unit called “the Jungle Commandos”, trained in anti-terrorism operations specifically related to internal armed conflict over land rights.
The unit was disbanded after Catrillanca’s death, but armed confrontations and arson attacks have continued to escalate in La Araucanía, the southern province that is home to the majority of the Mapuche population.
In January, a landowner, who was not Mapuche, was shot and killed outside his home by unknown assailants. His son demanded that the authorities take greater control of the region.
The same day, eight police officers were injured and one was killed during controversial anti-narcotics raids on several Mapuche communities.
Mourning the two unrelated deaths, President Sebastián Piñera vowed that “action will be taken”.
Amid fear that armed police operations will intensify in light of the killings, the National Human Rights Institute encouraged authorities to engage in dialogue, stating that violence “exacerbates intercultural conflict” in southern Chile.
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