The Mapuche People’s New Forms of Struggle

A long hunger strike by five Mapuche political prisoners in Chile, sustained by a significant amount of solidarity, seems to be evidence of the deepening of a people’s long struggle for the recovery of lands and control over territory.

“We denounce that Chile is the only country in Latin America where members of an indigenous group fighting for its rights are persecuted and jailed ...”

March 13, 2008

A long hunger strike by five Mapuche political prisoners in Chile, sustained by a significant amount of solidarity, seems to be evidence of the deepening of a people’s long struggle for the recovery of lands and control over territory.

“We denounce that Chile is the only country in Latin America where members of an indigenous group fighting for its rights are persecuted and jailed ...”

These words are from an open letter dated Nov. 11, signed by the five prisoners on a hunger strike since Oct. 10 in the Angol prison. Patricia Troncoso, Jaime Marileo, Juan Millalen, José Huenchunao and Héctor Llaitul took on the responsibility of representing 18 Mapuche prisoners in various Chilean jails, and launched a hunger strike, “liquid and indefinite”, with two main objectives: liberty for all the prisoners, who they define as “political prisoners” and not as terrorists, which the label applied to them by the government of Michelle Bachelet. They also seek “demilitarization and the end to the repression of communities mobilized to defend their political and territorial rights.”

The prisoners consider themselves “hostages of the Chilean state” and they denounce the deployment of a great quantity of soldiers to the areas of Lleu Lleu, Ercilla, Vilcún, Chol Chol, Traigen and Alto Bio Bio. In this case, the repression is not achieving its aim of isolating the Mapuche struggle. In the southern cities of Temuco and Valdivia there have been protests and actions to demonstrate solidarity with the prisoners, and there have also been actions in Santiago, the capital, and in various European countries. On Nov. 12, a delegation of Venezuelan legislators visited the Angol prison and expressed their worry over the prisoners’ health; each of them had lost between 15 and 20 kilos (roughly 10 pounds). The Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI) sent a letter to President Bachelet, in which they ask her to start talks with the Mapuche authorities.

Up to this point, the Chilean government has demonstrated total indifference, but on Nov. 19 the military issued a request to intervene in the hunger strike and admit the prisoners to a specialized health center if there is a major deterioration in their health. On Nov. 21, friends and family of the Mapuche political prisoners began a hunger strike in the Cathedral in Cañete. In a statement, they remind the authorities that under governments of the Concertación Democrática (from 1990 onwards), some 400 Mapuches have been tried under the authority of the Law of Internal Security or Anti-terrorist Law, since the Chilean government considers the Mapuche resistance and fight for land to be terrorism.

A new stage in the Mapuche struggle

According to historian Víctor Toledo Llancaqueo, the current Mapuche political movement, which emerged in the 1980s, the final years of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, “has been the protagonist of at least three major cycles of mobilizations for its rights” [1]. The first stage occurred during the dictatorship and its objective was defending communal lands. Later, during the beginning of the transition to democracy, in 1989, came the accords of Nueva Imperial, through which the Concertación government committed to advance a new indigenous law in exchange for a Mapuche agreement to call off the mobilizations. Many Chileans feared, according to Toledo, that there would be a repeat of the process of land occupation, on a massive scale, which marked the years 1970-1973, during the government of Salvador Allende.

In response to the co-opting of the Mapuche struggle, which is what that deal signified, there was born in 1990 the Council of All the Lands or Consejo de Todas las Tierras, which demands autonomy and political power and participated in symbolic occupations of land. In 1992, the government detained 70 communal activists and accused them of “delinquency”, and the courts tried Mapuches for “usurpation” and “illicit associations”. The trials were plagued with biases and the whole process was considered a judicial aberration.

Around 1997 a new cycle was opened with the proliferation of multiple conflicts that affected large forestry and energy companies. The government, unconditional ally of these companies, saw that its indigenous policy was being overwhelmed since the two agencies devoted to indigenous assistance (The National Corporation for Indigenous Development and the Indigenous Land and Water Fund) were collapsing because they could not respond to communities’ demands. Absent a policy, and not wanting to make concessions, the government hardened the repression.

The Ralco case (1997), an energy mega-project in Mapuche lands on the Alto Bio Bio, represented a watershed since the government violated the law in order to set it in motion. “The Ralco wall raised a political frontier between the Mapuche and the State,” says Toledo. That same year, in the Lumaco case, two million hectares of artificial forestry plantations and a cellulose plant, became “an enclave that has transformed the geography and power dynamics in the south of the country, altering the environment and impoverishing the surroundings.”

Forced into mobilizations by the lack of legal channels for the Mapuche people, the movement strengthened itself and developed autonomous cultural, artistic and media initiatives. New territorial organizations were created, such as the Arauco Malleco Coordinator and the Nankucheo de Lumaco Association. Thanks to the mobilizations, some lands have been recovered, to the point that the state funds for the purchase of lands for the Mapuche have gone from 5 million dollars in 1995 to more than 30 million in 2001, under the government of Ricardo Lagos.

Again, the response to this new wave of mobilizations was the criminalization of protest. There were new trials, before military justice,s during the years 2000 and 2001. Then, towards the end of that year, the Law 18314 or Anti-terrorist Law began to be applied, this in the context of the climate generated by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Repression was combined with intelligence work and the co-opting of indigenous intellectuals. Between Nov. 2001 and October 2003, 209 Mapuches were put on trial just in the region of Araucanía, while hundreds were in protests, beaten and mistreated. According to Toledo, this was nothing less than a “Dirty War”.

In Nov. 2004, the Mapuche won a legal victory, a sphere in which before they had only harvested defeats. A central pillar of the criminalization of protest begins to crumble. Defense attorneys were able to show that “terrorism” cannot be defined as damage to property, but only as “disregard for human life, or putting constitutional order at risk.” The fires and launching of artifacts, which are the means which the communities use to fight, cannot be considered terrorism. In the end, the accused were absolved.

Towards the deepening of the struggle

With the government of Michelle Bachelet (2006), things have not changed. The repression is still intact, even though the Anti-terrorist Law is no longer applied. “The Mapuche movement was able to persevere through the attempts to criminalize it, through social mobilizations, and an active appeal to the international system of human rights, opening opportunities for a change in the direction of indigenous policy and a deepening of democracy,” says Toledo.

Iván Llanquileo, lonko in the community of Juana Millahual, who was in prison two months and was freed Nov. 9, says that it was only after the struggle of 1997 “that a new stage begins in the Mapuche struggle, which consists in entering lands, working in them, defending them, and in this way exercising territorial control.” [2]. Through direct action, his community has succeeded in recovering hundreds of hectares of the 10,000 usurped by colonists and later transferred to the forestry companies.

In this new stage, lands are no longer occupied in a symbolic manner as they were in the beginning of the 1990s, but in a permanent manner and with the intent of shaping its day-to-day character. And the Mapuche no longer ask for land, but for territory. This leads to a frontal and inevitable confrontation with the mining, paper, and energy multinationals. The Mapuche themselves say they have no other option left to them. The Mapuche define themselves as a “people who resists disappearing.” The Arauco Malleco Coordinator, which defines itself as “Anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and libertarian,” released a communique in which it says that “we find ourselves at a historical crossroads, between extinction and cultural, social and territorial continuity; that is to say, between the life and death of our Mapuche world.”[3].

Raúl Zibechi es is member of the Editorial Board of the Brecha weekly in Montevideo, Uruguay. He is also professor and researcher at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and consultant to various social movements.
[1] Víctor Toledo Llancaqueo, “Prima ratio. Movilización mapuche y política penal”, en revista OSAL No. 22, Buenos Aires, setiembre de 2007,

[2] “Entrevista a Iván Llanquileo”, 19 de noviembre de 2007, en

[3] “Los mapuche en pie”, revista Ojarasca, México, noviembre de 2007.


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