On August 12, 2009, Mapuche activist Jaime Mendoza Collío, 24, was shot in the back by a police officer during a symbolic land occupation of the San Sebastian ranch outside the town of Angol, Chile. The killing - and the reactions to it - reflects a deepening crisis in the relations between the Chilean state and the 900,000-member Mapuche nation, the largest indigenous group in Chile. (See the accompanying article, "Chile's Mapuches Call For Regional Autonomy," by Roque Planas, on the NACLA Website.)
Two thousand Mapuche people attended Collío's funeral, and thousands more demonstrated throughout the country. In Temuco, the regional capital, hundreds converged on the office of the intendente, the regional governor appointed by the president, chanting "Killers!" and "People, listen: they killed a Mapuche!"
From the steps of the intendente's office, a Mapuche protester spoke to those amassed: "While the Chilean state advances toward its bicentennial, stained with the blood of Mapuche peoples, the nation rises up in battle for the recovery of its territory."
The death of Collío is the third at the hands of carabineros, Chile's national police, in the last decade. Alex Lemún Saavedra and Matías Catrileo Quezada were similarly killed in 2002 and 2008, respectively, during actions to recover Mapuche territory. Their killers have faced "justice" in military tribunals, which have a near perfect record of granting police impunity in cases related to Mapuche abuses, including harassment, torture and death. To date, no one has been convicted of these killings, although the carabinero who killed Catrileo, Walter Ramírez Espinoza, now facing charges of "unnecessary violence resulting in death," which could carry up to ten years in prison. Such a sentence is unlikely from a military court.
Mapuche protests have continued at a steady pace in recent years, employing a wide range of tactics including marches, office and land occupations, appeals in international human rights fora, and, for some more militant activists, setting fire to property and tree plantations on Mapuche territory. Since the 1989 return to electoral democracy, Chilean courts have imprisoned hundreds of Mapuche people under a Pinochet-era "anti-terrorist" law.
Underlying the state's policy for contending with Mapuche protest is an official view that indigenous land occupations are not a form of political expression, but terrorist crimes that cannot be tolerated. The anti-terrorist law allows prosecutors to call unidentified witnesses (who testify behind screens), withhold evidence for long periods, deny bail, and double the length of sentences. Often charges are brought not for actual crimes, but for terrorist association. The right to due process and a fair trial are casualties under these circumstances.
The use of the anti-terrorist law against Mapuche dissent is blind to the historical roots of the conflict, in which the state features as the chief antagonist, and is disproportionate to the actions being taken by protesters. A 2004 Human Rights Watch report concluded: "Chile's use of the anti-terrorism law for crimes committed by Mapuche in the context of land conflicts, which do not approach this threshold of seriousness, is not only inappropriate but also reinforces existing prejudices against the Mapuche people."
A report by UN special rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen in 2003 similarly urged: "Under no circumstances should legitimate protest activities or social demands by indigenous organizations and communities be outlawed or penalized. Charges for offences in other contexts ('terrorist threat', 'criminal association') should not be applied to acts related to the social struggle for land and legitimate indigenous complaints."
In one high-profile case, four Mapuche activists and a supporter imprisoned for arson in the Angol prison maintained a hunger strike for months in 2007, demanding the release of all Mapuche "political prisoners" and the demilitarization of indigenous communities. Former theology professor Patricia "La Chepa" Troncoso Robles, 37, who had been found guilty of burning 250 acres of pine plantations and sentenced to ten years, continued without food for 112 days. Also charged was Héctor Llaitul Carrillanca, a leader of the militant group Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM). He was acquitted, but not before serving 16 months of pre-trial incarceration, during which time he maintained an 81-day hunger strike. Upon release, Llaitul declared, "They persecute me for what I say, not for what I do. It's an ideological persecution."
After a few months of freedom, new charges were brought against Llaitul, alleging he was the architect behind the ambush of a vehicle carrying public prosecutor Mario Elgueta in which Elgueta and his police escort were injured.
The persistent conflict between Mapuche groups and the state can be traced in part to Chile's exclusionary and rigidly institutionalized democracy, which ensures minimal capacity for renovation or citizen participation in Chilean politics in general. In the context of state discrimination against indigenous peoples, Chile's political exclusion has achieved its ultimate expression in the incapacity to address indigenous grievances. The slow pace of reform is evident in Chile's failure to sign onto UN Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples until 2008, after 17 years of congressional debate. Moreover, both the process of ratifying Convention 169 and Congress's subsequent approval of constitutional reforms to implement the convention were marred by its attempts to reinterpret international law so as to minimize indigenous rights, and by its failure to properly consult the indigenous community. As a result, Chile still refuses to recognize indigenous collective rights, traditional organizations, or territorial claims.
Chile did establish a land and water fund in 1993 to expand the land base of Mapuche communities through market purchases. By 2005, the fund had acquired 202,335 acres of private land at a cost of US$140 million, which was allocated to 7,611 indigenous families, the vast majority of which were Mapuche. An additional 339,046 acres of state land was transferred to 7,983 families, with about half going to Mapuches. Although these transfers have been important for the recipients, the fund has been criticized by indigenous groups for the targeting of recipients based on political influence rather than need, assigning land to individuals instead of communities, and acquiring land of low quality. Moreover, the amount of land transferred represents a miniscule fraction of traditional Mapuche territory, millions of acres of which have already been converted to sprawling tree plantations of non-native Monterey pine and eucalyptus at the hands of Chile's twin timber giants Arauco and Mininco.
Perhaps more than her predecessors, the conflict has plagued President Michelle Bachelet, having been a political prisoner herself under the Pinochet dictatorship. In April 2008, Bachelet pledged a new commitment to political participation and improved conditions for indigenous people. She asserted that the problems facing indigenous people are "a matter of rights, of a collective identity seeking expression in a multicultural society," and announced a new "Social Pact for Multiculturalism" to promote "integrated development" and novel indigenous rights.
But it was not long before skepticism turned to disappointment. Most recently, during an August 28 meeting with Mapuche youth in Temuco, Bachelet's indigenous policy coordinator José Antonio Vierra-Gallo deeply offended the indigenous community when, following what they felt was aggressive and arrogant behavior, he stood up and walked out. Mapuche groups insist that the social pact has not delivered real gains, and have invigorated their demand for territorial and collective rights by forming a "Mapuche Territorial Alliance." The coalition of more than 60 communities intends to develop a "Mapuche Agenda" and strategize for future mobilizations.
The death of Jaime Mendoza Collío is the latest indicator that a resolution of the historical impasse between the state and Mapuche communities is unlikely anytime soon. Llaitul, who awaits his next trial in the El Manzano jail in Concepción, affirmed: "As long as there's poverty and misery in the communities, the fight for land and independence will go on."
Jason Tockman is a NACLA Research Associate.