Chile’s Mapuche population has long struggled for greater rights. So many warmly greeted President Sebastián Piñera’s recent promise to give “top priority and urgency” to finding a constitutional solution that will recognize Chile’s Indigenous Mapuche people, a 700,000-person strong minority group that constitutes 6 percent of Chile’s population. His reaction comes after a month of increased tension in the southern Araucanía region, where the majority of the Mapuche live.
After a mid-January summit was held in Temuco, Araucanía’s main city, Piñera has promised to set up a council for Indigenous peoples that is “truly representative of the community’s history, tradition and culture.” This is a positive first step in trying to integrate the Mapuche into the political process since they currently do not have any representation in Congress. At the same time, demands by the Mapuche for an independent state were ignored. The Indigenous group’s main struggle is for the return of what its members claim are their ancestral lands.
It is a positive sign that Piñera and the Chilean government seem to be trying hard to quell violence within the Araucanía region and are beginning to open up dialogue and negotiations with the Mapuche.
But efforts toward reconciliation are being viewed in an increasingly cynical manner by both sides.
The dismissal of Walter Ramirez, a policeman who killed Mapuche leader Matias Catrileo in January 2008, has been called tactical by Ramirez’ lawyer Gaspar Calderon. Calderon told CNN Chile that his client is a victim of "popular justice” and suggested that the decision was made merely to give Chilean Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick something to offer the Mapuche ahead of the Temuco summit.
More than 600 Mapuche representatives gathered in Chile’s conflict-torn La Araucanía region on Wednesday to discuss proposals for self-government and address the violent clashes between Indigenous activists and state authorities in southern Chile over land ownership and restitution.
Mapuche leaders organized a special summit at the cerro Ñielol (Ñielol hill) in the city of Temuco in an effort to assert Indigenous autonomy and protest the Chilean government’s response to the growing unrest in La Araucanía, including a special anti-terrorist group sent to combat violence in the region.
The latest tragedy in the long-running conflict between the Mapuche and the Chilean government occurred after an elderly couple, Werner Luchsinger and Vivian Mckay, died in an arson attack on January 4. Local Mapuche activists reportedly believed that the land-holding couple had usurped ancestral Mapuche territory and targeted their home.
Celestino Córdova Tránsito, a young Indigenous man, was detained near the scene of the crime and charged with the couple’s death last Friday under a controversial anti-terrorism law first enacted under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The law considers the destruction or illegal occupation of property an act of terrorism that can be tried in both civilian and military courts.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Minority Rights Group International have criticized the anti-terrorism law being invoked against Mapuche activists, claiming that it has been used exclusively against the Mapuche since Chile returned to democratic rule.
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declined an invitation to attend the Mapuche summit in Temuco, but Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick and Social Development Minister Joaquin Lavin planned to meet with local lawmakers and Indigenous leaders to discuss the ongoing conflict. The government said it would send a representative as an observer to the summit at cerro Ñielol.
Four Chilean congressional representatives from opposition parties announced today that they are joining an ongoing hunger strike by 34 indigenous Mapuche prisoners, who are protesting the use of Pinochet-era anti-terrorism laws to charge indigenous civilians for their role in land disputes with the government. The protesters say they are political prisoners and should not be treated as terror suspects or have to face trial in military courts.
According to congressional aides, the leftist lawmakers are members of a human rights commission in the lower house of the national congress and have demanded that President Sebastian Piñera's government begin talks with the inmates.
Reports indicate that Mr. Piñera this week introduced legislation that aims to ensure that civilians cannot be tried in military courts, and to reduce sentences under the anti-terror statutes. The Piñera administration has so far declined, however, to enter direct talks with the protestors. In response to the lawmakers’ decision to join the hunger strike, Minister of the Interior Rodrigo Hinzpeter has said the legislators are acting like “kindergartners” and should return to congress to press their case.
Indigenous community leaders on Monday staged a take-over of Santiago-based radio station Bío-Bío to protest the station’s failure to report on the hunger strike of 32 Mapuche activists. The protesters demanded that Radio Bío-Bío air an interview with a spokesperson for the prisoners, who began their hunger strike on July 12. The take-over occurred one week after internal government documents surfaced alleging links between Mapuche activists, the Chilean Communist Party, and Colombian guerrilla groups.
Mapuche activists have consistently challenged the Chilean government’s purported militarization of the southern region of Araucanía, which is the ancestral homeland of 650,000 Mapuches. The strong police presence in the region, they claim, is exacerbated by what they believe are the exploitative practices of multinational logging and mining companies.
Many of the jailed activists were arrested for illegal land occupations or attacks on the equipment or personnel of multinational companies, both of which are considered acts of terrorism under the Pinochet-era Anti-Terrorism Law, No.19.027. The hunger strike is in direct protest of the law, which protesters say allows the state to hold people for up to two years without charges, restricts defense attorneys’ access to evidence, and use testimony from anonymous witnesses.
Since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, this law has been applied to Mapuche activists. The Chilean government maintains that the law is not being applied unfairly, and that the acts of the terrorists, regardless of their ethnicity, must be tried to the fullest extent of the law.