Public Buildings Set Ablaze in Chile After Police Shoot Street Juggler

Protesters were outraged by the killing, which was recorded on video. Ten public offices burned to the ground, leaving a city of almost 34,000 practically without public services.

By Pascale Bonnefoy and Mike Ives
Feb. 6, 2021

SANTIAGO, Chile — Demonstrators angered by the fatal police shooting of a popular street juggler set several public buildings ablaze in southern Chile Friday night, leaving a city of almost 34,000 people practically without public services.

Ten public offices in the city of Panguipulli burned to the ground, including the municipal government building, the post office, the civil registry, a local court and a water management company, the authorities said.

A police officer has been detained in the shooting, the head of the regional homicide unit, Rodrigo Morales, said on Saturday, adding that investigators were gathering video evidence from witnesses. The officer was not publicly identified and did not appear on Saturday at a court hearing, where he was represented by a lawyer.

The shooting took place after the juggler, identified as Francisco Martínez, did not comply with a police officer’s request to provide identification as he performed at a busy intersection in the center of Panguipulli, a popular lakeside community, witnesses said.

An argument followed, during which the officer pulled out his gun and fired at least two shots at Mr. Martínez’s feet, witnesses told reporters. Videos taken by witnesses, which spread widely on social media, show the juggler jumping to avoid the shots then running toward the officer with his props in the air. The officer then shot him in the chest, witnesses said, and he died at the scene.

Police officers described the shooting as an act of self-defense, saying Mr. Martínez was threatening the officer with a machete-like weapon. Witnesses interviewed by news media Friday night said it was a tin sword, a prop for his juggling show.

In interviews with several media outlets, Panguipulli’s mayor, Rodrigo Valdivia, described Mr. Martínez, 25, as a quiet, respectful young man who was well known in town because he had lived on the streets on and off for several years, performing for its many tourists and using the municipal shelter and food kitchen during the winter.

Mr. Valdivia, in a hastily called news conference by the destroyed municipal building, placed responsibility on the police for the shooting, saying the officer and his partner had not followed protocol in a routine ID check. Witnesses also faulted them for not trying to help Mr. Martínez as he lay dying. A nurse standing near the shooting was the first to assist him until an ambulance arrived.

The mayor also blamed the police for the fires, saying they had “entrenched themselves” in their own quarters and left other government buildings unprotected. Since protesters were unable to attack the police station, Mr. Valdivia said, they turned to other government symbols.

Confrontations between protesters and the police were later reported in the capital, Santiago, hundreds of miles north of Panguipulli. People across Santiago expressed anger over the shooting by banging on pots and pans, a ritual for airing public discontent known in Latin America as a cacerolazo, roughly translated as “casseroling.”

The under secretary of the interior, Juan Francisco Galli, traveled to Panguipulli on Saturday. Speaking from the police station, he said that the police use their weapons only as a last resort or in self-defense.

“We regret something like this that is unexpected in a police procedure, that a person dies and the carabineros had to use their weapons,” he said.

Still, some Twitter users posted footage of the blazes in Panguipulli with the hashtag, “He didn’t die, they assassinated him.” Others called for large-scale changes in police training and procedures.

“It happened in broad daylight in a moment of complete peace and without any threat to public safety,” the Chilean writer and literary critic Pedro Gandolfo wrote on Twitter. “A shameful act with a tragic result.”

Police misconduct came under scrutiny in Chile after mass protests in 2019 over economic concerns, which often devolved into violence and were met with police brutality. The Public Prosecutor’s Office received more than 8,000 reports of human rights violations, including hundreds of complaints of permanent eye damage from rubber bullets.

The abuse led to sweeping calls to reform the national police force, which was never significantly overhauled after the dictatorship led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990. Human rights groups and analysts have called for greater oversight of the force’s budget and training, along with other measures that would effectively bring it under civilian control.

Last November, the director of the national police, Gen. Mario Rozas, resigned after officers raided a juvenile center and shot two children in Talcahuano, in southern Chile. A month earlier, an officer pushed a teenager off a bridge during a protest in Santiago, abandoning him seriously wounded in a river bed.

The teenager survived, and in a stunning coincidence, a sister of Mr. Martínez said on Twitter Saturday that her brother, the dead street juggler, was that youth’s uncle.

Pascale Bonnefoy reported from Santiago, Chile, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

 

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