Monday, 12 September 2011

Chile police officer implicated in student death

Source: The Santiago Times, 29 August 2011.

by Alison Silveira and Adeline Bash

Bullet from officer's UZI machine gun matches that found in student's body, prosecutor says.

The bullet that killed 16-year-old high school student Manuel Gutiérrez last week was fired from Carabinero police officer Miguel Millacura's firearm, prosecutor Jorge Martinez confirmed late Monday night. Martinez said that experts reviewed 160 weapons before concluding that Millacura’s was a match.

Millacura was asked to resign earlier Monday after admitting to using his firearm in the Macul borough of Santiago near where Gutiérrez was shot and killed Thursday night.
According to an announcement by Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter, Millacura hid his 9mm UZI submachine gun and changed the ammunition after the incident to avoid detection by the prosecutor's office.

In a press conference, Minister Hinzpeter also formally requested that the national director of Carabineros ask Gen. Sergio Gajardo, deputy chief of the Metropolitan Zone, to resign. Gajardo rejected the possibility of police involvement in the student's death last week and refused to open an internal investigation into possible wrongdoing within the police force.

Four other Carabinero officers were also discharged from the force Monday night in connection with the student death.

"Just as we have said on many occasions, we support the important, valuable sacrifices made by the Carabineros de Chile, but we demand that their actions be always within the framework of respecting the law, the rights of our citizens, and the norms that regulate these procedures," Hinzpeter said. "In this we are categorically inflexible."

He called both for recognition of the difficult situation that Carabineros have faced at ongoing student protests, and asked for the cooperation of both citizens and police officers in understanding and respecting the law and public order.

According to local media, Millacura, who has been with the Carabinero police force for 18 years, admitted early Monday to firing two shots into the air from an UZI machine gun close to midnight Thursday in the same area where Gutiérrez was reportedly shot in the chest. Gutiérrez died Friday morning in a nearby hospital.

Officer Millacura insisted that he fired his weapon only in response to other gunshots fired by protestors in the Macul area after Chile’s two-day national strike on Wednesday and Thursday.

Witnesses, including Manuel’s brother Gerson Gutiérrez who was with him at the time, have nevertheless maintained that Carabineros were responsible the youth’s death.

Carabinero officials immediately rejected these claims, however, initially refusing to even conduct an internal investigation.

Police maintained this stance until Monday, when Deputy Chief José Luis Ortega confirmed that Millacura was asked to resign for unauthorized use of his firearm. Ortega insisted that the measure was not related to possible involvement in the 16-year-old’s death.

There is still not enough evidence to connect Carabineros to Gutiérrez’s death, Ortega said midday Monday, explaining that an investigation of the bullet extracted from the youth would help officials better determine whether it came from Millacura’s weapon. Yet by Monday night Hinzpeter had confirmed the bullet to be a match for Millacura's machine gun.

The announcement about Millacura’s unauthorized firearm use on Monday coincided with public demands by politicians, national human rights groups and Chilean activists for investigation into alleged police involvement in Gutiérrez’s death.

"It's not reassuring that police officers use their weapons against civilians," said Supreme Court Justice and spokesperson Jaime Rodríguez after Hinzpeter's Monday night announcement.

Rodríguez likewise recommended that the case be reviewed by the military justice system, as the Carabineros police force is considered part of the Armed Forces.

On Saturday, student strike leaders demanded further investigation into Gutiérrez’s death as one of their pre-conditions for meeting with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to discuss education reform. That same day, Lorena Fries, president of Chile’s National Institute of Human Rights (INDH), publicly criticized Carabinero police officials’ refusal to investigate the claims of police involvement.

“It does not seem like an adequate response by the Carabineros to say we are not going to investigate because we had nothing to do with it,” Fries told Radio Cooperativa, adding that the organization plans to take legal action if someone is not held accountable.

According to Fries, appropriate investigation into Manuel’s death is especially pertinent given the Carabinero police force’s fragile public image, especially in light of allegations of excessive force in the recent citizen demonstrations across Chile.

“We know that there have been incidents of excessive violence in different cities and regions of the country,” Fries said. “(Investigating Gutiérrez death) requires maximum transparency so as to not increase the public’s existing distrust of police activity.”