Chilean president removes police chief after shooting controversy

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean President Sebastian Pinera asked the country’s police chief to resign on Thursday following a growing controversy over the circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting of an indigenous man in southern Chile.

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds up an image of Camilo Catrillanca, an indigenous Mapuche man who was shot in the head during a police operation in ‘Ercilla’ town south of Santiago, outside the government house in Santiago, Chile, November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo

Last month, Camilo Catrillanca, the grandson of a local Mapuche leader, was shot in the head during a police operation near the town of Ercilla, 480 miles (773 km) south of Santiago in the province of Araucania.

Police originally said they had acted in self-defense when they fired on Catrillanca, a suspect in a recent car theft and assault, but the government and subsequent police reports found that he was unarmed.

The incident prompted fury among opposition parties and human rights activists and triggered widespread protests throughout Chile.

The Pinera administration had come under increasing pressure to remove Hermes Soto, the country’s top-ranking police officer, amid accusations Soto had helped cover up problematic details of the incident, or had been unaware all together.

At a news conference at the La Moneda presidential palace late on Thursday, Pinera said he had asked Soto to resign and that 10 other top police generals would depart as well.

“I’ve reached the conclusion that Chile’s police needs new leadership to face, with more will, effectiveness and speed, all of today’s problems and the big challenges of the future,” Pinera told journalists as he read from a prepared statement.

Pinera, who started his speech by praising the police and ended it by expressing his esteem for Soto, said his government was committed to uncovering the truth in the “unfortunate death” of Catrillanca.

Soto initially said it was unclear who shot Catrillanca because none of the members of the special forces unit that handled the raid had worn body cameras.

But one of the police officers involved was later spotted in media footage wearing a camera. He told investigators he had destroyed the camera’s memory card.

Earlier this week, two additional police videos surfaced in the local media, showing key moments of the raid and raising questions as to the veracity of the original police account.

Pinera said he would purge officers who had provoked a “credibility crisis” in the 60,000-strong police force.

“A small group of police have betrayed their oath, dishonored their institution and caused grave harm to society,” he said.

The Mapuche have long accused the state and private companies of taking their ancestral land, draining its natural resources and using undue violence against them. Their communities are among the poorest in Chile.

Reporting by Antonio De la Jara, writing by Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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