Death of Indigenous Human Rights Activist Sparks Outrage in Chile

Peoples Dispatch
Members of the medical brigade attempted to save the life of human rights defender Denisse Cortés. Photo: El Desconcierto

Denisse Cortés was killed amid police repression against a peaceful march of Mapuche Indigenous people in Santiago, Chile. Eyewitnesses said that she was hit in the neck by a tear gas canister fired by the police agents, the police maintain it was a “firework” launched by the protesters themselves

The death of Indigenous human rights activist, Denisse Cortés, has sparked indignation across Chile. 43-year-old Cortés died on October 10 after officials of the national police force, the Carabineros, brutally repressed a peaceful march by Mapuche Indigenous people in the capital Santiago.

On Sunday, over a thousand Indigenous men and women took to the streets in defense of the resistance and autonomy of the Indigenous people as a part of the days of commemoration of October 12, celebrated officially in Chile as the ‘Day of the Meeting of Two Worlds’ or Indigenous Resistance day. The protesters gathered at the Dignity Square and began marching on Alameda avenue with the aim to reach Huelén hill in the center of Santiago. However, on their way, they were violently repressed with water cannons and tear gas bombs. According to various reports, at least 12 people were arrested and 20 were injured after the repression. Cortés was among the seriously injured people and she died a few hours later at the Santiago Emergency Hospital.

Cortés was a law student and a member of the NGO Defensoría Popular or People’s Ombudsman’s Office. She joined the march on behalf of her organization. According to a statement by Defensoría Popular, she was in charge of registering the detentions and monitoring compliance with detention guidelines. The organization stated that Cortés approached the Carabineros to request them to end the repression, an explosion was heard and she collapsed.

The police authorities said that the victim had died from a “firework” launched by the protesters, which allegedly targeted the agents but ended up injuring Cortés. Meanwhile, the eyewitnesses at the protest said that she was hit in the neck by a tear gas canister fired by the police agents. They also said that the police did not allow the members of the Health Brigades, who were accompanying the march, to attend Cortés immediately.

Videos posted on social networks showed that she was near a group of police officers when fireworks and tear gas were fired, but they didn’t show clearly where the projectiles were fired from. The Defensoria Popular reported that it had initiated legal actions and is collecting videos from the participants of the march in order to establish the truth regarding the events since there are different versions of the unfortunate incident.

The Defensoría Poplar lamented that “Denisse joins the long list of people who have lost their lives in the social protests and mobilizations that take place for the rights of people and for the recovery of dignity.”

Cortés’ mother, Teo Cortés, refused to believe the police version of the incident. “They tell everyone it was because of a firework. Nobody believes it because she had a wound on her neck, her lung was injured, the whole of her left side was wounded” the mother told a Telesur correspondent. She demanded justice for her daughter and an end to the discrimination, harassment, stigmatization and violence faced by Indigenous communities in Chile. “Someone must do something in this country to change the laws. They cannot trample us,” she added and hoped that the new constitution would improve their situation.

The spokeswoman for the Mapuche organization in Santiago, Belén Paillán, stressed that “it is important to denounce Cortés’ death because not only did she save lives through her knowledge, but she also rescued lives from the hands of the Carabineros (…) We directly hold the State responsible, who through its repressive force, once again repressed us and, as a consequence, (…) today we regret the death of Denisse.”

The legislator of the Communist Party (PC) Camila Vallejo blamed the Carabineros for Cortes’ unjust death. “The brutal repression of Carabineros in today’s march ended in the painful death of Denisse Cortés. Responsibilities should be clarified as soon as possible and why the police did not allow timely attention after she was injured. Anger, sadness and outrage. Justice for Denisse,” tweeted Vallejo .

Gabriel Boric, presidential candidate of the left-wing ‘Approve Dignity’ coalition, regretted Cortes’ death.  “Deep sorrow over the death of Denisse Cortés in today’s march. We accompany her family, comrades and the community of the Academy of Christian Humanism in their grief and demand a thorough investigation of the responsibilities of the involved individuals and institutions,” tweeted Boric.

Likewise, Yasna Provoste, presidential candidate of the center-left New Social Pact coalition, also expressed her condolences. “My deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Denisse Cortés. We demand that the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Investigative Police (PDI) act as quickly as possible to learn about the events and clarify what happened in the events that caused her death,” she wrote in a tweet.

Both Boric and Provoste, have promised to reform the national police force, which has been called out for its brutality countless times by organizations within and outside Chile since the 2019 protests.

Yesterday, on October 11, social leaders, human rights defenders, Indigenous communities, held a candlelight march in Santiago and Valparaíso to condemn the death of Denisse Cortés Saavedra and demand that the circumstances in which she died be clarified.