The killing of Mapuche farmer Camilo Catrillanca by militarised police, and the inadequate government response, has reignited protests in Chile over the state’s historic repression of the indigenous population.

Camilo Catrillanca was only 24 years old when he was shot in the head by the Chilean Special Forces, a militarised branch of the police that was deployed in the district of Temucuicui in the Araucanía Region, under the name ‘Comando Jungla’ (Jungle Command). Camilo was a Mapuche activist and the grandson of Lonko Juan Catrillanca*.

The story of Camilo Catrillanca’s death on 14 November, and what happened afterwards, not only enrages both Mapuche and ‘winkas’ (non-Mapuche Chileans) but is an example of the deeply rooted issues between the Chilean State and the Mapuche – the largest indigenous group in Chile. Catrillanca is one of many Mapuche killed by the Chilean state in a variety of circumstances, and whose deaths have occurred regardless of the political affiliation of the administration in place at the time. According to Mapuche website and others, there have been 15 Mapuche killed since Chile regained its democracy in 1990, with Matías Catrileo (killed in 2008) one of the highest-profile cases. Catrillanca’s murder, unlike the 14 that happened prior, was received with major civil unrest, and the improvised and poor response by President Sebastián Piñera’s ministers and authorities made matters worse.

It needs to be highlighted that Piñera’s government responded with distorted details that were uncovered in the hours and days after Catrillanca’s death. The Regional Governor of Araucanía, Luis Mayol, portrayed Catrillanca’s murder as an incident in which police officers were defending themselves after alleged shootings. Catrillanca had been blamed as the author of a robbery even though there was no evidence to suggest he was part of the theft. The official narrative indicated that a number of vehicles were robbed by hooded individuals and that the Comando Jungla – militarised police established by President Piñera to ‘keep the peace’ (in the government’s language) in the region – were after the culprit. Mr Mayol did not hesitate in defending the actions of the police and calling Catrillanca a delinquent.

More and more details came to light. The first was that Catrillanca’s record was clean. He had never committed a crime. This completely contradicted  the government’s insinuations that Catrillanca somehow got what he deserved. Another relevant aspect that became known was Catrillanca’s forensic report, as specialists indicated that he had died due to two ballistic impacts which penetrated his skull from the back of his head. The alternative story, which the government did not share, was that he had been returning to his domicile in a tractor after a day’s work in a neighbouring field. He was accompanied by a 15-year-old, a key witness in the case, who was detained by the police for a number of hours and possibly hurt. This is currently under investigation. The adolescent has consistently denied the police’s version of events.

After all this became known, social uproar grew. In Santiago, poet laureate Raúl Zurita wrote a powerful poem calling both the Minister of the Interior, Andrés Chadwick, and President Piñera the masterminds behind the young man’s death. His poem also expresses deep concern on how the Chilean state handles issues with Mapuche activists.

Chadwick, a cousin of President Piñera, defended the police’s actions and was in line with what Governor Mayol had stated. Minister Chadwick was very vocal in his defence of the police operation . After the incident, he asserted that the police had the government’s full support and that Catrillanca’s death had nothing to do with him being a Mapuche activist, but was a response to a robbery. However, more details would prove that Mr Chadwick’s declarations were, at best, misleading.

It soon came out that the police officers from Comando Jungla were carrying cameras, which recorded all of their engagements.  The one worn by the officer that shot Catrillanca was destroyed. This suggests that the officers involved in his murder are obstructing the course of justice and that Catrillanca’s death was not related to the aforementioned robbery. The minor accompanying Catrillanca, who saw him die, indicated that he noticed a camera on an officer’s helmet and that it was in operation at the time the shots were fired.

This information had potentially massive consequences as it quickly spread online. Catrillanca’s family are fighting for justice and to clear their son’s name, claiming he was murdered by the state. There have been many manifestations against Piñera’s government in the Araucanía region but also in the capital, Santiago, and other cities. These particularly criticise the way the government has handled Catrillanca’s death. What is more, the Catrillanca family and their supporters are demanding Chadwick’s resignation. As Minister of the Interior and head of the police forces, he holds political responsibility for this murder.

The Chamber of Representatives has summoned Chadwick for an interrogation regarding the case. The politician in charge of this action is Mapuche deputy Emilia Nuyado, from the Los Lagos region – another area with a significant Mapuche population. At the same time, the Governor of Araucanía, Mayol, resigned from his position only a few days after speaking against Catrillanca, having never approached Catrillanca’s family or offered apologies for his declarations.

If Camilo Catrillanca was not involved in the car robbery, the questions that remain are why the militarised police would shoot him twice and what were their reasons for destroying the evidence of his murder. Clearly, his death was at the hands of those who pulled the trigger, but also of those who gave the order: they are the ones that the citizenry are holding accountable for his death. The officers involved in this case have already been expelled from the police but that does not signal any sort of justice for the family, nor is there certainty that this sort of murder will not take place again.

Some implied a darker motive behind Camilo Catrillanca’s death. A few years ago, he had been involved in a lawsuit against an important Forestry company that, according to his community, was holding thousands of hectares of Mapuche ancestral lands. Catrillanca’s activism was said to be having positive results for his community and, as a lonko’s grandson, he had a promising future as a leader.

It remains to be seen what will happen with Minister Chadwick’s summons in December, or whether he will be asked to resign. If there is to be any justice for the Catrillanca family, this case will help reshape relations between the Chilean state and the Mapuche. For now, the government is under pressure to withdraw the Comando Jungla from the area, but has so far resisted doing so. It is also important to highlight that the Piñera administration has not only misled public opinion on this matter, but has lied to the citizenry and concealed relevant information, which poses a very dangerous precedent in current times.

All of this reminds Chileans of tactics used during the Pinochet dictatorship, such as police brutality and lack of transparency. Catrillanca’s death has sparked discussions not only about the relationship between the State and different indigenous communities, but also about the democratic nature of the Chilean transition.

Lonko is a word from Mapudungun meaning ‘head’. Lonkos are the chiefs of given Mapuche communities.