I dreamt that I was dreaming:
that we had been subjected
and tyrants ruled us.
I go on a hunger strike
to awaken the rage,
to lift the flight
and annihilate the dream.
Juan Jerónimo Lemus, Cherán, México
On May 4, Mapuche spiritual leader Machi Celestino Córdova, imprisoned in Chile’s Temuco prison, launched a hunger strike to demand respect for Indigenous rights as enshrined in international law. Several Mapuche in another prison joined him. Weeks later, the total number of Mapuche on hunger strike behind bars in the cities of Temuco, Angol, and Lebu rose to 27.
The hunger strikers called on the Chilean state to fulfill obligations outlined in the International Labor Organization Convention 169. The convention outlines the right of Indigenous peoples to free, prior, and informed consent for projects on their territories. However, it also stipulates that authorities and courts must take into account Indigenous peoples’ “customs…in regard to penal matters” and give preference to “methods of punishment other than confinement in prison.”
Family members and spokespersons made a statement announcing Machi Córdova’s hunger strike and calling for solidarity. They said the move marked “a step toward mobilization, given that it is better to die fighting than on our knees before an oppressive system that relentlessly subdues us.”
Córdova was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2014 over the death of an elderly couple during a Mapuche land reclamation struggle. He maintains that authorities targeted him to stifle Mapuche land claims.
Through their hunger strike, Córdova and other Mapuche political prisoners used their bodies as tools of resistance to confront state violence, police repression, and the siege of landowners and multinational companies on their territories. Those who hold economic power deride them as "terrorists" and the "internal enemy," but the strikers offer their newen (strength) to seek the freedom of their people.
On August 18, Córdova ended his hunger strike after 107 days. As a result of solidarity from other strikers and mobilizations around the world, the machi (spiritual leader) was able to negotiate minimum agreements, including permission to visit his rewe (sacred altar) and guarantees that hunger strikers would not face reprisals. Other Mapuche political prisoners continued their hunger strikes. On August 24, strikers in Lebu and Angol began a dry fast, one of the most extreme forms of protest that people can take when locked in prison. Then, on September 3, Angol prisoners ended their strike after 123 days. On September 10, prisoners in Lebu and Temuco also suspended their strikes, after 66 days and 54 days, respectively.
Throughout the weeks of hunger strikes, the Chilean government showed little interest in resolving the conflict. Strikers’ core demand was for authorities to regulate prison terms linked to Indigenous causes under the criteria of ILO Convention 169, which Chile adopted more than a decade ago. The government did not agree to the strikers’ demands, going against its international legal obligations.
The reasons for the political imprisonment of Mapuche community members are key to understanding the hunger strike. In the early morning of January 29, more than 100 police officers violently raided five homes in the Elikura Valley, located in Lavkenche (coastal Mapuche) territory of Wallmapu (entire Mapuche territory). After beatings, struggles, and transgressions against the families, authorities detained Matías Leviqueo, Eliseo Raiman, Guillermo Camus, Esteban Huichacura, Carlos Huichacura, and Manuel Huichacura. The defendants were held in remand for allegedly participating in the death of a neighbor in the area.
At a preliminary hearing, it became clear that the only evidence against them were statements provided by protected witnesses. The alleged witnesses contradicted each other and failed to link the accused to the crime. Ignoring these legal gaps, the peñi (Mapuche men) from the Elikura Valley were transferred to the Lebu prison, in Arauco province, where they later joined the hunger strike.
Counterinsurgency Targets the Weichan as the “Internal Enemy”
During the 1990s, the emergence of the Mapuche movement, in general, and its autonomist line, in particular, put the monocultural character of the Chilean nation-state into crisis for the first time. People seeking to transform their reality categorically questioned the Creole-Chileanization long imposed by blood, fire, and law. This process crystallized under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who infamously proclaimed, "there are no Mapuche anymore because we are all Chileans." The government's flawed cultural promises could not contain Mapuche self-determination at the turn of the century.
Over the course of the decade, land recuperation actions gained strength and political organizations proliferated. The weichan (resistance), a historical Mapuche tradition, became the praxis of sectors that began to distrust neoliberal institutions. The first demonstrations of collective insubordination during this period were in the Lavkenche area, which gave life to the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Committee (CAM). This sparked a legacy of rebellion that continues today. The territorial claims in the Elikura Valley are the product of a Lavkenche generation raised and trained in this cycle of insurrection.
Seeing their interests threatened amid the ascendancy of the neoliberal "Chilean miracle," the ruling classes rearranged their power structures to face the resurgence of a new "internal enemy." Their discourses portrayed Mapuche in struggle as racialized terrorists. Criminalization appeared to be the most effective way to deal with this threat. Thus, a new cycle of low-intensity conflict began—that is, counterinsurgency based on passive and coercive mechanisms of submission, cooptation, exploitation, and persecution of the enemies of the neoliberal model.
This low-intensity conflict has concealed an onslaught counterinsurgent strategies and neocolonial projects on the Mapuche people in weichan. At the continental level, the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, among other agreements, have accelerated capital accumulation. And at the national level, attempts to modify the Indigenous Law and the expansion and modernization of the Arauco wood pulp plant, located within territory to which the Mapuche lay claim. Another example is the Araucanía Plan, a government strategy for social and economic development in Mapuche territory that fails to address the key question of land claims. These political-economic initiatives have three objectives: to definitively open the Wallmapu to transnational corporations, to loot and pillage natural resources, and to suppress territorial protest. In short: the complete subordination of nature, the spiritual realm, and the Mapuche’s political capacities for resistance to capital.
Through transnational webs, imperial interests shape this coercive logic. In the last two decades, the Chilean state has promoted numerous persecution and criminalization plans to weaken the Mapuche autonomist movement and accuse its members of terrorism. These efforts have included the 2002-2004 Operation Patience aimed at dismantling the CAM; Operation Hurricane in 2017, which media described as a bid to "behead" the Mapuche resistance movement Weichán Auka Mapu and the CAM; and the 2017 Operation Andes, which was part of Hurricane and aimed to link the Mapuche weichan organizations with arms trafficking and political-military structures in various territories.
Landowners, forestry companies, and farmers' associations that are aligned with the regional extreme Right and inhabit the Wallmapu today are also part of the “fight against terrorism.” The heirs of settler colonialism, who have benefited from the territorial dispossession, displacement, and racial subordination of the Mapuche, justify their historical presence, their properties, and their investments under the protection of a presumed nationalist white supremacy. In addition to constructing the idea of the “terrorist Mapuche,” these forces have organized paramilitary self-defense groups that threaten to intensify the violence they and their ancestors have perpetuated.
Specifically, for the Lavkenmapu (coastal Mapuche territory) and the Elikura Valley, this counterinsurgency plan is evidenced in the systematization of data that the Mapuche media outlet Aukin brought to light in 2019 under the headline "The new repressive plan for the Lavkenche strip." The government, in dialogue with the "main" productive sectors of the area, crafted measures targeting the south of the province of Arauco in order to mitigate the rates of "rural violence," a term media often use to refer to the Lavkenche resistance. The creation of new police stations, the arrival of 100 troops to the area, the permanent presence of police checkpoints, the deployment of 16 all-terrain armored cars and a helicopter, and the donation of state-of-the-art drones are only some of the elements of the repressive plan aimed at persecuting the lov (Mapuche social structure) and communities that defend the Lavkenmapu.
Cruelty as a Counterinsurgent Biopolitical Device
This low-intensity conflict manifests in the imprisonment of Mapuche political activists. The “color” of Latin American prisons is no secret, as anthropologist Rita Segato points out, noting that the racism in incarceration lays bare the “history of colonial rule that continues to the present day.” The judicialization of Indigenous protest also has a color. For three decades in Chile, authorities have systematically subjected Mapuche militants, leaders, and cultural authorities to lengthy judicial processes that generally end in acquittals or dismissals due to lack of evidence.
These cases, famous for their technical inconsistencies and legal gaps, are not necessarily intended to convict. Rather, they seek to neutralize Mapuche fighters, exhaust the resistance movement, and force it to contest the government’s agenda.
Political imprisonment does generate a certain degree of social and community cohesion even between dissimilar groups. But it pressures the movement to focus its energy on immediate objectives, which generally means neglecting strategic goals. The liberation of prisoners or the improvement of their prison conditions are, with good reason, indisputable priorities. The ruling classes profit politically by keeping Mapuche insubordination fragmented and focused on seemingly ephemeral objectives. Political prisoners’ resistance and support requires a wide repertoire of alliances, negotiations, and protest practices. Action in support of political prisoners, particularly those on hunger strike, are emotionally and materially exhausting for a movement that does not have abundant resources nor extensive networks of solidarity beyond the Wallmapu.
However, there are moments of rupture in which the Mapuche movement sets the agenda and forces the government to negotiate. In recent months, an increase in sabotage actions, occupations of public spaces, and other pressure actions managed to break the government’s indifferent stance.
Prison, and the prisoners’ last resort of hunger strikes, constitute disciplinary mechanisms over the individual and their bodies. This discipline also extends to inflicting pain on the families and close circles accompanying these processes. In addition to chronic bodily consequences of sustained liquid and dry fasts, the arrests, raids, and long judicial processes that lead to prison also produce suffering.
In the last three decades, hundreds of women, men, elderly people, and children have suffered the violence of these counterinsurgent biopolitical mechanisms, which leave indelible marks on their lives. Many pichikeche (Mapuche boys and girls) have spent their childhoods in militarized territories, exposed to police harassment and the gloomy corridors of the courts. Women generally shoulder a large part of the effort of supporting prisoners. In addition to working full-time in the rudimentary camps erected outside the prisons, they must take care of daily work in their homes and the multiple tasks in their respective lov and territories.
Despite these adverse circumstances, power structures composed of Chilean and transnational elites have not been able to break the collective will of Mapuche political prisoners. “We end the strike but not our struggle,” prisoners in Angol declared in a statement announcing the suspension of their hunger strike. Risking their lives through the hunger strike, Mapuche political prisoners were not fighting for individual demands. Rather, their protest sought to establish a minimum legal framework to regulate their collective conditions and to raise awareness about the political imprisonment of Indigenous peoples in Chile.
From their cells, Mapuche political prisoners face repressive actions from all levels of counterinsurgency. With shouts of encouragement, ceremonies, and small displays of solidarity, they fight the violence of economic consortia, political structures, judicial powers, and repressive apparatuses. The Mapuche political prisoners embody the greatest possible expression of human dignity: they offer up their vitality and their newen to seek the freedom of their people.
This text is in honor of the dignified resistance of the Mapuche political prisoners on hunger strike in the Lebu prison: Matías Leviqueo, Eliseo Raiman, Tomás Antihuen, Guillermo Camus, Esteban Huichacura, Carlos Huichacura, Manuel Huichacura, Cesar Millanao, Orlando Saez, Damian Saez, Robison Parra, Oscar Pilquiman. I also dedicate it with affection to Kelüray and Külapañgi, seeds of rebellion in the Lavkenmapu.
Translation by Claudio Ekdahl.
Edgars Martínez Navarrete is a militant of the Mapuche autonomist cause, a member of AUKIN, and a candidate for a doctorate in Anthropology from CIESAS-CDMX.