Mar 7, 2014 | By W. Alejandro Sanchez
Activists, on Friday, Jan. 3, 2014 protested the death of Matias Catrileo, a young Mapuche Indian who died on Jan. 3, 2008, after allegedly being shot by police during a land dispute in southern Chile (AP Photo / Luis Hidalgo).
President-elect Michelle Bachelet –who assumes the presidency next Tuesday, March 11– should address her campaign promise to reform the Chilean government’s treatment of the Mapuches.
This past February 28, a Chilean court sentenced a Mapuche to 18 years in prison for his role in a couple’s murder in early 2013. This decision will likely increase tensions between the government in Santiago and the country’s sizeable indigenous group.
The Mapuches are an ethnic group that live mostly in Chile’s southern regions of Araucania and Bio Bio, and populate around one and a half million.
They have historically been treated as second-class citizens. The Augusto Pinochet dictatorship persecuted Mapuches who were members of the violent left-wing movement Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria.
In recent years their grievances and protests have centered on land rights and ownership. Santiago and private companies have exploited Mapuche land for natural resources without requesting permission from local communities. One such example was the construction of a hydropower dam called Ralco in Alto Bio Bio.
In late 2012- early 2013 there were a series of arson attacks in the Arauca region. On January 4, 2013, two persons, Werner Luchsinger and his wife Vivianne McKay, were killed in their home, which was set aflame by hooded individuals. The Mapuche Celestino Cordova Transito, was the only person arrested and was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The prosecutor had called for life without parole but the judge opted for a much smaller sentence. The Associated Press reports that the court’s ruling was “a blow to the government of outgoing President Sebastian Pinera, which investigated the killing using an anti-terror law dating back to Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.”
Reuters’ Alexandra Ulmer summarizes the polarized points of Mapuche communities stating, “Some Mapuche advocate violence as a means to recoup land, arguing the government is illegitimate and that their claims will never make headway in courts or the political arena. Many others in polarized Araucania want peace and argue that century-old wrongs should be put to rest.”
The outgoing Sebastian Pinera presidency has generally opted for a crackdown on Mapuche protests by resorting to the Chilean carabineros, the country’s gendarmerie.
In fact, General Ivan Bezmalinovic, chief of the carabineros in Temuco region, where a lot of Mapuches live, has requested that the government purchase armored vehicles. The high-level security officer explains that these vehicles will protect the carabineros from protesters who are using guns and incendiary bombs.
There have also been significant allegations by the Chilean government. In early January 2013, the Minister of the Presidency, Cristian Larroulet, declared that Mapuches carrying out arson attacks at the time “had links with the [Colombian narco-insurgent movement] FARC.”
The minister also argued “we are in the presence of terrorism, that kills people, that has no mercy, and in order to accomplish its goals, it burns, kills people.”
This is not the first time that there have been allegations of a linkage between the FARC and Mapuches.
In 2010, the office of the Attorney General of Colombia provided Chile with a 200-page report that explains the links, including training, between the narco-insurgents and Mapuche extremists.
This author does not have enough information to confirm or deny the links between the FARC and Mapuches. (The security news agency InSight Crime has also analyzed these allegations). While there may be some truth to them, it cannot be denied that this argument also serves as justification for the Chilean government to apply anti-terrorism laws on Mapuches, and serves as an excuse for certain repressive initiatives.
Presidential-elect Michelle Bachelet waves during a victory rally in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo).
As previously mentioned, during her presidential reelection campaign, President Bachelet promised a new treatment of Chile’s Mapuche population. In October 2013 she stated, “I believe that with the Mapuche people we need a new deal [… ] I’ve said that it was an error to apply the anti-terrorism law on Mapuche communities [during her 2006-2010 presidency].”
The president-elect will once again assume control of the South American nation this upcoming March 11. U.S.vice president Joe Biden is expected to be in attendance.
She certainly will have a lot on her plate, including dealing with the fallout of a maritime border dispute with Peru, the situation in Venezuela as well as Chile’s domestic affairs.
Nevertheless, Mapuches have for too long been treated as second-class citizens in Chile, and their demands should be properly heard and addressed. This does not mean that Chile’s police and judiciary should not persecute Mapuches who have committed violent acts, but should rather lead to a “new deal,” to use Bachelet’s parlance, in the Santiago-Mapuche relationship.