As dawn broke over southern Chile on July 30, smoke and flames rose from barricades blocking the main highway into the town Padre las Casas, 675 kilometers south of the capital of Santiago. About fifty members of the Paillanao Mapuche indigenous community had constructed the barricades to protest the fact that the government had not responded to requests to improve six miles of rural roads in their community.
The police reacted with force, firing water cannons to disperse the crowd and reopen the road. In the melee, a 68-year-old tribal chief, or lonko, Felicindo Huaquinao Huaiquimil, was struck by the cannons and hit his head against the ground. He remains in serious condition in an induced coma in the Regional Hospital of Temuco, where he has undergone surgery for traumatic brain injury, according to assistant medical director Manuel Vial.
On July 23, just a week before Huaiquimil was injured, police evicted sixty Mapuche protesters of the Temucuicui community from private land they had occupied to demand the return of their ancestral territory. Amnesty International reports that 200 police officers used tear gas, pellet guns and shotguns to disperse the occupation and a subsequent protest outside a hospital where injured community members had been taken. At least four children were wounded in the confrontations, including a 12-year-old girl who was shot in the back with pellets and a 16-year-old boy who was shot in the head with rubber bullets.
Huaiquimil and these children are only the latest casualties in an ongoing confrontation between the indigenous community and Chilean authorities in what has come to be known as the “Mapuche conflict.” At the root of the struggle lies the land the Mapuche lived on for generations, and which they are now seeking to reclaim from the private and corporate landowners who have taken it over.
500 Years of Resistance
Although the Mapuche, South America’s third-largest indigenous population, successfully resisted Spanish conquest for more than 300 years, Chile’s independence in 1818 marked a turning point for the community. The Chilean government has since encroached on Mapuche territory to build cities and secure land for natural resource extraction. Logging companies have replaced lush, native forests with rows of dry pine and eucalyptus trees. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Mapuche had lost over 90 percent of their original 100,000-square-kilometer territory. The 37.6 percent of Mapuche remaining in rural areas of Chile struggle to maintain their organization as small communities on what remains of their land.
The ancestral Mapuche land in Chile’s Araucanía region has long been owned and developed by cities, private individuals and multinational corporations. Formed in 1993, the National Corporation of Indigenous Development (CONADI) is responsible for granting subsidies to indigenous people and communities to facilitate the return of portions of ancestral land from its current owners. But CONADI hasn’t been fulfilling its mandate: According to the Temucuicui Mapuche lonko, the land off which members of his community were evicted on July 23 was supposed to have been purchased and returned to them back in June by CONADI.
“June arrived and we contacted the authorities and they told us we should give them two more weeks. Time went on and I called and the authorities turned off their cellphones. They did not give us any answer and the community made the decision to occupy the land and go there with our animals, and work the land,” said lonko Juan Catrillanca in an interview with TV station 24 Horas. After the violent eviction on July 23, the community has stayed true to this original mission and has resumed their occupation of the land they are trying to recover.
The Police Response
The prolonged tension in the Araucanía region is now beginning to boil over to the national level, but in a way that could severely hinder Mapuche efforts to reclaim their land. On Tuesday July 24, the day after the eviction, President Sebastián Piñera and Minister of the Interior Rodrigo Hinzpeter met with top police officials and regional and national politicians to formalize a new set of security measures to be enacted within thirty days in several areas in which the Mapuche live. The initiative includes increasing the number of police officers in the region and using new police equipment during operations, among other measures.
The security summit was a show of strength for the government and landowners in the face of increasingly frequent attacks against public and private property. The week before the meeting, unidentified people, suspected by local authorities of belonging to Mapuche communities, burned a school, which served 130 rural students in Ercilla, as well as a home on a large estate in the town of Vilcún. No suspects from these two incidents have been detained.
Despite the lack of clarity regarding the identities and motives behind these violent incidents or the possible connections to land reclamation efforts, the government response has been to send additional police forces into already occupied Mapuche communities, and to protect the property of nearby landowners.
Convictions Under Terrorism Law
The anti-terrorism law in Chile, created in 1984 under the Pinochet dictatorship, has been used to convict and imprison scores of Mapuche activists and protesters. Currently, there are about forty Mapuche community members imprisoned or awaiting trial under this law. In addition to giving harsher punishments to people accused of terrorism for what would be a lighter punishment under civil law, the anti-terrorism law allows for anonymous testimony to be used in trials.
In many cases, accused individuals are detained for months before being released as innocent. In March 2008, documentary filmmaker Elena Varela was arrested under the anti-terrorism law while filming the documentary Newen Mapuche. She was released after a year-and-a-half detention in a high security prison.
Chilean authorities have compared the "Mapuche conflict" to guerilla warfare. District attorney of the Araucanía Francisco Ljubetic said in a June interview with the popular newspaper El Mercurio: “For us, it is nothing new that these groups attack land, people, vehicles.… These demonstrations are planned.…and in addition to being armed, have a whole strategy.… If you look that up in a dictionary, the only possible definition is rural warfare.”
A Real Solution?
In a staff editorial for the prominent Chilean newspaper La Tercera following the security summit, the paper argued that poverty and social instability in the Araucanía region is complex and requires a solution that goes beyond placating the Mapuche.
“[The solution] should not be reduced to security measures, and returning land [to the Mapuche] has proved to be ineffective in resolving problems,” the paper wrote.
The situation in Temucuicui is proof that this claim comes too early. The community has yet to be granted legal rights to its ancestral land, and has been ignored by local authorities as it demands an account of the progress toward this goal.
In response to the silence on behalf of local authorities and the militarization of their community, Temucuicui has called for a summit that will include all communities active in land recuperation. The summit, which is set to take place on August 18 and 19 at the site of the territory occupation in Ercilla, will be held “to debate and direct future mobilizations as people of the Mapuche nation,” announced a spokeswoman for Temucuicui in a public statement.
“We don’t want another Alex Lemún, a Matías Catrileo, a Jaime Mendoza Collío in Mapuche territory,” she said, referring to young people who have died in the last decade during similar land occupations at the hands of police officers. “Before today’s government realizes another plan to quietly assassinate our fighters, we will gather as the Mapuche Nation to not allow the Chilean state to ignore our communities again.”
Meanwhile, government officials held a second summit at the presidential office on August 3, this time focusing on social issues in the region. They announced a new “Araucanía plan,” which includes new measures to solve the conflict as well as stimulate growth in the region, which is the poorest in Chile.
The announced measures include building an additional technical high school, several hospitals, expanding the teaching of Mapudungun (the Mapuche language), and addressing territory claims.
“We will continue with the land transfer program, and we still have to fulfill this promise for thirty-two communities,” announced President Piñera.
Lonko José Cariqueo of the José Guiñón community reacted to the new plan in a public statement, stressing that the Mapuche want peace for the region above all other things.
“This may have been a tiny step, but we want social peace,” said Cariqueo. “We want the private companies that do not belong to the Chilean state to leave, because they have impoverished the town of Ercilla, here is only poverty.”