The Mapuche people – whose territory spans across the southern regions of Chile and Argentina – have a long history of colonial resistance. They make up Chile’s largest indigenous ethnic group and were never fully subjugated by the invading Spanish colonialists.
On 3 March, the Chilean Chamber of Deputies approved Resolution Project 1448 lending political support to the president of the Republic, Sebastian Piñera. This ordered a state of Constitutional Exception and deployed armed forces in the southern Zone of Chile- Mapuche territory. This drastic measure was announced after fierce lobbying from the right-wing Chilean Federation of Southern Truck Owners president Jose Villagran, who threatened roadblocks across the nation’s highways if Piñera’s administration “fails to address arson attacks’ against truckers in the La Araucania region”. According to the Truck Owners Federation, these attacks are attributable to radical Mapuche terrorist cells.
Militarising the Conflict
Not content with creating a special paramilitary force accused of violently raiding Mapuche settlements and targeting leaders, Piñera is now attempting to impose a state of emergency in the Araucania zone. Reynaldo Mariqueo from Bristol-based NGO Mapuche International Link told Phoenix Media Co-op:
We are dismayed that the Chilean parliament has approved the resolution to authorise a State of Constitutional Exception on ancestral Mapuche territory. For the Mapuche communities that peacefully struggle for their rights that include recovering the land of their grandparents, this means more repression, more evictions and raids, more imprisonment and death.
The brutality and crimes of the Chilean military police against the Mapuche people have been widely documented by human rights organisations, it’s a situation that brings new challenges for those who closely follow the destiny of the indigenous peoples under the threat of extinction thanks to the genocidal policies of the government.
The Truckers Federation is well versed in applying pressure to governments via the threat of roadblocks. It paralysed the country during the Salvador Allende years, a key element in sabotaging Chile’s ambitious socialist project.
At the heart of the so-called ‘Mapuche Conflict’ is the net worth of Mapuche Ancestral Lands where multinationals have vested interests. Forestry, fisheries, energy and tourism are the key businesses that operate in the region.
After the 1973 US-backed coup, dictator General Augusto Pinochet privatised state companies operating in forest land previously belonging to Mapuche natives’ farm cooperatives. Pinochet supporters purchased companies at low prices and quickly expanded with no government or environmental controls. Mapuche livelihood from hunting and fishing and native plants for traditional medicine were decimated to make way for pine and eucalyptus planted for export. This destroyed the local biosphere and deprived indigenous communities of food sources. Industrial fisheries owned by multinational foreign corporations have also contaminated local rivers and lakes.
The treatment of the Mapuche people and respect for their rights has waxed and waned dependent on Chilean government policy. But rampant neoliberalism imposed by the regime has impoverished local communities and disenfranchised them from the political process. Their quest to recover and live on ancestral land has been met with violence and brutal evictions.
Criminalising the Struggle
The Mapuche struggle for the right to live on ancestral land has been met with relentless militarised responses and criminalisation. The ‘Comando Jungla’ is a specialist team that received training in the United States and Colombia to combat ‘terrorism’. In 2017, Piñera said:
We created a special force of Carabineros that has been prepared in Chile and abroad to improve the effectiveness of our police in the fight against terrorism.
This unit was responsible for killing Camilo Catrillanca. He was travelling home on his tractor when he was shot in the head by the Comando. It’s important to note that Catrillanca was the grandson of an influential Mapuche leader and had recently won a land claim.
As the Chilean state has responded to ancestral land claims from Mapuche invoking anti-terror laws from the Pinochet era, community leaders have found themselves criminalised, often spending long periods in prison for damage to property or accused of random acts of small-scale vandalism and convicted by kangaroo courts composed of anonymous witnesses.
Chilean tactics to criminalise the Mapuche struggle include classing prisoners as common criminals. They’ve since launched several hunger strikes and demanded recognition as political prisoners.
Celestino Cordoba is a machi (shaman) and was accused of killing an elderly German couple at the centre of a controversial land dispute. The house where they lived burned down with the couple inside it. Cordoba found himself accused of the double murder. Although there’s no hard evidence linking him to the crime, he’s serving an 18-year sentence. He went on hunger-strike for over 100 days in 2020 because he was being denied the freedom to practice his religion, a right enshrined in international law. Cordoba is one of dozens of Mapuche political prisoners. These include Facundo Jones Huala, who was imprisoned after the Chilean and Argentine state colluded. Most of them are held at the Temuco, Angol and Lebu prisons.
Ancestral and human rights
Mariqueo also told Phoenix Co-op:
It’s important to note that the actions of the Chilean Parliament override international law, such as convention 169 of the ILO [International Labour Organization] on indigenous peoples, and the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people. Both instruments indicate that governments must consult these groups via appropriate channels ‘each time legislation is approved that may affect these directly’. Therefore, the Mapuche have no other alternative but to appeal to international tribunals to claim justice being denied by the Chilean legislature.
Mapuche organisations in Europe – including the Mapuche Human Rights Commission – are calling on international agencies to intervene if Piñera manages to push the bill ahead. If it goes through, it will be nothing short of a racist attack on unarmed people who simply want to claim their ancestral and human rights.
Image used with permission.