There is an insurrection raging here in Chile which has not received much attention in the International press. It is not a guerrilla war–there are no heavy arms. The politicians here sometimes call it a “conflict”, at other times they call it “terrorism”. Certainly the government of President Sebastian Piñera now says this is terrorism especially given recent attacks. This fight is the Mapuche conflict, a struggle between the Chilean people and the Mapuche Indigenous people to reclaim their native lands.
In the South of Chile, in the Araucania or Bio-Bio region, located several hundred miles north of Patagonia, the dry and dusty valleys and barren lower Andes ridges give way to green forests and grasslands as one reaches the area around Temuco. Here rains are frequent. The smell of smoke fills the air as people heat their homes with wood. The ski resorts of Pucon and Villarica, which sits atop an actively smoking volcano, are located just to the south of the disputed area. This placid landscape has seen waves of violence that have surged in recent months while over the long run it has lasted many years.
In the early morning hours of January 4, 2013 20 hooded Mapuche Indians came onto the farm belonging to 75 year old Werner Luchsinger Lemp. The Mapuches set fire to his house burning him and his wife to death alive inside their home.
21 December 2012 two more Mapuches stormed another farm in the same Bio-Bio region of Chile and assassinated the farm’s caretaker Osvaldo Atilio Zapata, 54 years of age.
In April of the same year Mapuche Indians killed a policeman by shooting him through the throat.
In November of last year a group of Mapuche indigenous people felled a tree across the road stopping a tourist bus filled with senior citizens. They told the tourists to get off. Then they set the bus afire. Two trucks which stopped to render assistance were burned as well. Burning vehicles, structure, and forestry equipment is a common tactic of the Mapuche terrorists.
Who exactly are the Mapuche people and why are they attacking the farmers and logging companies in the Araucania region of Chile?
When the British and American frontiersmen settled North America they forced the Cherokees, Iroquois, Apache, Navajo and the other Indian peoples onto reservations where they still live today. But the situation in Latin America is different. The Spanish Conquistadors did not just butcher the Indians and drive them from their homes. Instead as they raped and pillaged, they took the Indian women as wives and mistresses. In Mexico Cortes had his mistress. Her name was Malinche. In Peru Pizarro took the wife of the Incan Indian leader. The result is that European America is made up of people who are white people of the Caucasian race. The people here in Latin America are of mestizo or mixed race whose hair, eye, and skin color varies as one goes from South to North and up and down the social classes.
You can see this written on the face of the people. In Chile, the people on television and the upper class are for the most part of European descent with light skin, light colored hair, and light colored eyes. But the ordinary person here has jet black hair and skin which is somewhat brown but not nearly as dark as the people of Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico.
The Chilean language too is Spanish mixed with a large number of words that come from the Diaguita, Quechua (Inca), Mapudungun (Mapuche), and other Indian languages.
The Inca empire, as most history students know, at one time spread from Ecuador in the North to Chile in the South as the Incas conquered rival Indian nations. But the Incan border stopped abruptly in the Bio-Bio region of Chile. This is where the Mapuche Indian people lived then and still live today.
The Mapuche Indigenous people are a mix of Indian nations which straddles the border between Chile and Argentina. They are comprised of four different Indian peoples who slowly came together to speak the same Mapudungun language.
The Incan armies were able to conquer the northern part of their territory but then were stopped in Bio-Bio in 1493. Then the Incan empire fell back upon itself in civil war. As a weakened nation they were then defeated by the Spanish.
When the victorious Spanish turned their attention to the Mapuche nation in the 16th century they started the War of Araucania which lasted for 300 years. The Mapuche were never defeated. They garroted and tortured the Spanish hero General Pedro de Valdivia instilling fear into the Spanish and increasing the Mapuche reputation as a fierce people who would never be conquered.
When Chile gained its independence from Spain in 1810 the Spanish left. Then the Chileans took up the battle and fought the Mapuche until the late 19th century when they conquered the people and put in place a program of pacification. The basic idea of the Chileans was not to carve out a region of Chile and give it to the Mapuches like the Americans did with their Indian reservations. Instead the Chilean government encouraged Europeans to migrate into the area and take the land from the Mapuches one family and one farm at a time. In 1934 Chile government planned to settle 15,000 people into Mapuche areas which they had given to forest companies. The Mapuches fought back and 500 people were killed.
The situation since then has basically been the same with the Mapuches saying that the Chilean government has violated the terms of the treaties and that the military regime further diminished their already disjointed territory by giving land to farmers and forestry companies. The Mapuches are fighting now in terrorist fashion to reclaim the land which was taken from them.
The Government Response
The Anti-Terrorist law, which was created in 1984 under the military regime, is invoked when the government deems it necessary. In the wake of the Luchsinger killing the law is in effect.
The United Nations Refugee agency explains it like this. “The law treats illegal land occupations and attacks on the equipment or personnel of multinational companies as acts of terrorism and subjects those charged to both civilian and military trials. Moreover, it sanctions the use of “anonymous” or unidentified prosecution witnesses and allows for indefinite detention for people labelled as being terrorists.”
After the Luchsinger killing seven provisions were announced to try to curtail the violence in the region. The first being the invocation of the Anti-Terrorism law to prosecute killings and arson. In addition a special prosecutor would be appointed and a new court created to prosecute crimes in the region. Eighty-four more police would be assigned to the region raising that number to 400. New armored vehicles and and a second helicopter were sent in. And a control zone would be created with roadblocks so that people going into and out of the region could be checked.
President Pinera told La Tercera newspaper that the anti-terrorist law, “Is not being applied to the Mapuche People, rather it is applied to the terrorists, regardless of what ethnicity they are, what color they are, and where they are located. We want to give more authority to the national police who are fighting against those cowards who cover their faces in order to conceal their identity and are fighting against the people and the police.”
The International Response
The Mapuches have been active overseas raising money for their cause and trying to highlight their situation.
Human Rights Watch for example says: “Improper application of the anti-terrorism law to crimes against property, such as arson committed by Mapuche activists, continues to represent a serious obstacle to due process.” The international human rights organization cited as an example two Mapuche leaders who had been sent to prison for attempted murder and armed robbery of a farmer in part based on testimony from undisclosed witnesses. A court later downgraded those charges to aggravated assault and arson.
In 2011 the Chilean National Institute for Human Rights criticized the use of the Anti-Terrorism law in Mapuche regions saying “We think that it is also at odds with international standards, it is very easy to build cases alleging terrorism using that law to establish evidence.”
One Mapuche tactic is to occupy agricultural land. When the national police arrive you can see on the television news older Mapuche women wearing their traditional Mapuche clothes beating the police with long wooden sticks. At times the police fight back usually with tear gas. Amnesty International criticized the police for firing buckshot into one crowd which included children.
Chile is not exactly thrilled to have foreign meddling. Two Italian documentary filmmakers were expelled from Chile having been accused of stealing wood. They had been detained while filming a Mapuche protest on property belonging to a forestry company. During the student protests of the last two years several times police detained reporters briefly. Reporters without Borders pushed Chile down to number 80 on their list of countries with regard to freedom of the press citing the behavior of the police during student protests. Recently changes in Chilean law have increased the penalty for raising funds to help terrorist organizations.
What the Mapuches Say
Four percent of the people who live in Chile are Mapuche with half living in the cities the other half on their ancestral lands. Some of the lands which they retained after the war with the Chilean government is not suitable to farming because the elevation is too high and the land too steep.
Sometimes this farming consists of nothing more than harvesting berries and straw which falls from the trees. A recent television report showed Mapuche children eating snow with sugar and going barefoot in the freezing weather or rain and snow. The children traveled once a week some three hours by mule, foot, and finally bus to school. The teacher said the children attend school so that they can eat properly for 5 days. Then they return home on the weekends. The elderly Mapuche Indian woman who was interviewed for this article has been in Europe several times trying to raise awareness of the Mapuche situation.
Reynaldo Mariqueo is a spokesman for the Mapuche people. In an interview with this magazine he says, “We are an occupied nation that has been colonized by a neighboring country for the past 130 years. The Mapuche territory was annexed illegally by the Chile and Argentine governments. This is illegal because the borders of our nation were recognized by a treaty signed by the King of Spain in 1641. ” Furthermore, he adds that this border along the Bio-Bio river was recognized and agreed upon by both the Chilean and Argentine governments in the first 50 years after their independence.
He says that the Mapuche people are living under military occupation. “Nevertheless the Mapuche people continue fighting for the restitution of their ancestral lands, the continuation of their culture, and the right to govern their own territory, a right which has been recognized by international laws”.
Asked whether the majority of the Mapuche people agree with the violence committed by the terrorists he says, “Obviously the Mapuches condemn the violence to which we have been subjected since Chile occupied the Araucania region a situation which thanks to social networks has been brought to the worlds attention. He adds, “For example the house of Lonko Juana Calfunao was burned three times and in one of those fires his uncle was burned to death. This crime was never investigated.” He says when the large landowners are similarly attacked the response from the Chilean government is decidely different.
So what will be the end to this Mapuche Conflict if indeed there is an end for people who have been at war for 500 years? Will the Chileans give large portions of Chile to the Mapuches like the Canadians have done with their Inuit indigenous people? Will the Mapuche violence continue? Will some other accord be reached? No one in the Chilean government is saying anything about giving back native lands and the Mapuches have said nothing about brokering any kind of peace. So the violence continues.