"Mapuche Conflict" Flares Up in Chile's Araucania Region

By Witte-Lebhar, Benjamin | NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, August 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

"Mapuche Conflict" Flares Up in Chile's Araucania Region


Witte-Lebhar, Benjamin, NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs


A flurry of arson attacks, land occupations, and violent police raids have refocused public attention on Chile's long-simmering "Mapuche conflict," which is once again showing signs of boiling over.

So-named for the involvement of ethnic Mapuches, Chile's largest indigenous group, the conflict also involves non-Mapuche farmers and rural business magnates, as well as heavily armed carabineros [uniformed police], which maintain a constant presence in and around certain 'hotspot' communities in the Biobio and Araucania regions. Fueling tensions are issues of poverty, land ownership, and racism.

In its most benign form, the conflict centers on nonviolent land occupations by Mapuches who claim ancestral ownership of farmland that is legally controlled by forestry companies and other large-scale landholders. Occasionally, perpetrators--who tend to wear hoods to disguise their identities--have burned barns, homes, vehicles, and farm equipment.

Police and prosecutors claim Mapuche groups like the militant Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM) are behind the violence. Some of CAM's leaders have been charged in recent years under Chile's dictatorship-era terrorism law.

Indigenous leaders say the real terrorists in the conflict are the carabineros, who routinely raid Mapuche homes and use notoriously heavy-handed tactics to bust up land seizures. In at least three instances, Mapuche activists have died at the hands of police. The most recent case took place in August 2009, when a police officer shot and killed 24-year-old Jaime Facundo Mendoza Collio during an operation to evict Mapuches from a seized Araucania farm (NotiSur, Nov. 13, 2009).

'Sell a cow and buy a shotgun'

President Sebastian Pinera's assumption of office in early 2010 was followed by a relative lull in the conflict. The one exception was a high-profile hunger strike organized by a group of more than three-dozen Mapuche prisoners, including CAM leader Hector Llaitul (NotiSur, Sept. 10, 2010). The jailed Mapuches, many of whom were awaiting trial on terrorism charges, accused the government of political persecution. The Pinera administration eventually negotiated an end to the harrowing hunger strike, agreeing among other things to prosecute the men as normal "criminals" (NotiSur, Nov. 19, 2010).

Whatever good will may have been garnered from those discussions, however, evaporated this past April when, for the first time, carabineros lost one of their own to the conflict. Officer Hugo Albornoz Albornoz was fatally shot by unknown assailants following an April 2 raid on a Mapuche village in the Ercilla sector of the Araucania.

Tensions have flared in the aftermath of the shooting--on all sides. New land occupations and a recent surge in arson attacks have some farm owners calling on the government to declare a state of siege in the Araucania. Others are talking about taking the law into their own hands.

"The people around here have animals. My advice to them is, 'Sell a cow and buy a shotgun with 100 or 200 shells, and as soon as someone appears [on your land], you put a bullet in them,'" farm owner Joel Ovalle said in a July 20 interview with Radio Cooperativa. Ovalle's comments followed a rash of arson attacks that included two Ercilla homes, a school, and a barn containing some 1,200 bails of hay--all burned within a 24-hour period.

President Pinera responded to the violence by calling an emergency "security summit." During the meeting, which took place July 24 in Santiago, Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter announced plans to step up police presence in the Araucania, supply them with state-of-the-art equipment, and improve their intelligence-gathering abilities. He also promised to dispatch a team of lawyers specially trained to pursue perpetrators of such crimes.

"This is an administration that is very clear when it comes to the concept of order and public security," Hinzpeter said. …

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