Fears for Chilean indigenous leader’s safety after police shooting

Former recipients of a prestigious environmental award, together with Amnesty International and the lawyer of indigenous land rights defender Alberto Curamil, have launched an appeal for Curamil’s safety after he was seriously injured in a shooting by police.

Curamil, an indigenous Mapuche leader who in 2019 won the Goldman Environmental Prize (GEP), also known as the “green Nobel”, was left with 18 riot shotgun pellets embedded in his body after police chased his truck and opened fire after a protest against an arson attack on a Mapuche home on contested land in southern Chile.

Former winners of the GEP, Craig Williams and Alfred Brownell, are writing to Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, and the country’s US ambassador, Alfonso Silva Navarro, to push for further investigation into the shooting.

Amnesty International will contact the Chilean justice department to seek answers to questions about the attack and the burning of the home of Mapuche community spokesperson Elena Paine, which sparked the protest where Curamil was injured.

Alberto Curamil receives medical treatment after being shot by police.
Alberto Curamil receives medical treatment after being shot by police. Pellets fired at Curamil were rubber-coated ballbearings that can be fatal or maim when used at close range. Photograph: Handout

Curamil’s shooting comes 18 months after Chilean authorities sought to jail him for 50 years for armed robbery in 2019, despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Environmental supporters said the charges were aimed at silencing his activism, leading high-ranking members of the international community, including a UN special rapporteur on human rights, to appeal to the court for a fair case. He was unanimously acquitted of all charges, which arose less than two years after he successfully petitioned and halted the construction of two hydroelectric projects on a sacred river in 2016, for which he received the GEP.

Curamil’s shooting has renewed calls for his protection, and worried environmental supporters. A growing list of those killed in high-profile cases after attempts to tackle environmental damage includes two GEP winners: Berta Cáceres who was murdered in 2016 had protested against dams in Honduras and Isidro Baldenegro who was shot dead in 2017 had opposed illegal logging in Mexico.

Curamil attended a protest on 29 April near the town of Perquenco in the Araucanía region, where most of Chile’s 1.5 million Mapuche live. Araucanía has seen decades of land disputes between indigenous rights advocates, the Chilean state and corporate landowners. The demonstrators used burning tires to barricade the Pan-American highway – a regular form of protest aimed at disrupting Chile’s road-based freight system – in support of Paine. Paine said she had received anonymous threats prior to her home being destroyed.

“This was a peaceful protest with families,” said Curamil. “If women and children are invited, there is never an intention to commit violence.

“The police arrived with all their power, shooting point blank, trying to kill us. We left and, as I was driving away, a police pickup truck chased us, caught up from behind and started shooting. My teenage nephew and son were in the trailer and ducked to avoid being shot.

“A teargas canister smashed through the back window, choking me, so I stopped. As soon as I put my leg out of the vehicle I felt a shotgun blast hit me on my left thigh, then a second blast on my back. A teargas canister hit me in the back and knocked me to the ground. They fired from less than 3 metres away. The Carabineros [Chilean police force] hit me while I was being handcuffed and asked who I was. I believe I was targeted, they had their man.”

Curamil, his nephew, 18, and son, 16, were arrested and released the following day. Manuela Royo, Curamil’s lawyer, said all three face a trial for public disorder. “The public prosecutor’s office is investigating but, to date, no police officers have been charged,” she said.

Doctors have removed some of the pellets from Curamil’s body but four remain in his torso and leg because they are so deeply embedded.

Piñera’s coalition government was heavily criticised in 2020 over the state’s misuse of non-lethal weapons against protesters, amid reports of thousands of human rights abuses during the country’s 2019 social uprising. Pellets used against Curamil were rubber-coated ballbearings and can be fatal or maim when fired at close range, which breaches manufacturer guidelines.

Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, famous for ordering the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean Human Rights Commission (CHDH), the American Association of Jurists (AAJ) and the Centro di Ricerca ed Elaborazione per la Democrazia (CRED) have written to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, accusing Piñera of “crimes against humanity” committed since October 2019.

Craig Williams, who won the GEP in 2006 after his work against chemical weapons stockpiles in the US, said: “What is occurring to a fellow Goldman Environmental Prize recipient is intolerable. A concerted effort between government officials, the international NGO community and human rights organisations to shine light on this situation is being undertaken to prevent further violence against Alberto and the Mapuche people.”

A demonstration in Santiago by Mapuche activists against Columbus Day in October 2020.
A demonstration in Santiago by Mapuche activists against Columbus Day in October 2020. Most of Chile’s Mapuche live in the Araucanía region, which has seen decades of land disputes between indigenous rights advocates, the Chilean state and corporate landowners. Photograph: Iván Alvarado/Reuters

In its most recent report, Global Witness recorded the highest number of land and environmental defenders murdered in a single year, with 212 people killed in 2019 – more than four a week. Francisca Stuardo, of Global Witness, said: “The violence and criminalisation Alberto has faced is shameful and appalling – but all too familiar to those who protect our planet, particularly indigenous people.”

Ana Piquer, executive director of Amnesty International Chile, said: “Our experience shows that when Mapuche leaders are accused of crimes, in those cases investigations are swift, and often in breach of due process. But when Mapuche leaders are attacked, whether by police or other actors, justice tends to be slow and rarely gets results, and such acts end in impunity.”

A spokesperson for the Chilean police, Carabineros de Chile, said that the arrest they made was legal.

Author: Keith Hughes