A Hunger Striker Becomes Chile’s Conscience

Amalia Córdova

On January 28, Patricia Troncoso, a prisoner hospitalized in the city of Chillán, in southern Chile, ended her hunger­ strike of 111 days. Thanks to mediation by the church and to the national and international support she received, Troncoso was given the chance to submit her handwritten demands directly to the government, which finally accepted her terms. Together with four Mapuche activists, Troncoso, 37, a former theology professor, was convicted in 2004 of “terrorist arson” under the Pinochet-era Law 18314, known as “the anti-terrorist law.” They were accused of setting fire in 2001 to the 250-acre Poluco Pidenco pine tree farm, owned by Forestal Mininco, a major Chilean lumber company.­

Each was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay about $679,000 in compensation. By October, there were at least 18 imprisoned Mapuches convicted under the anti-­terrorist law, while many more had been arrested or were awaiting sentencing. In response, Troncoso and six of her compañeros, considered political prisoners by the Mapuche movement and its supporters, began a hunger strike to protest the unfair application of the anti-terrorist­ law against the Mapuche, request appeals to their cases, and demand the release of all Mapuche political prisoners. By January, however, Troncoso, popularly­ known as La Chepa, was the only remaining hunger striker, the rest having given up for health and family reasons. She pressed on with her hunger strike, making an additional demand: an end to police raids on communities in Wallmapu, or Mapuche terrritory. Hers would be the longest hunger strike in Chilean history.

Berna Castro, the Troncoso family doctor, announced in January that Troncoso was in critical condition and in need of immediate hospitalization. Under strict police supervision, she was transferred to the Chillán hospital from the Angol Prison in Temuco. Roberto Troncoso, Patricia’s father, said in a press conference that he was not informed of the authorities’ decision to move his daughter to the Chillán hospital, rather­ than to one in Santiago, as her doctors had asked. “It looks like the government wants her to die as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s a total lack of respect.”

Castro added: “In the times of the dictatorship in Chile, our compañeros risked their lives to defend the safety of our compatriots threatened by state violence, just as today we see violence is being exercised with the application of the anti-terrorist law to Patricia Troncoso.”

Although Chile’s national TV and mainstream print media largely ignored the Troncoso story, the news of Troncoso’s­ worsening condition sparked widespread outrage. Pro-­Mapuche demonstrators marched through downtown Santiago and other Chilean cities, denouncing state violence toward the Mapuche and honoring Troncoso’s protest, while demonstrations also took place at Chilean consulates in Argentina, Canada, France, Greece, Spain, and Venezuela. Various indigenous organizations—Agrupación Kilapan, the Aymara cultural corporation Jach’a Marka Aru, Jvfken Mapu, the Mapuche Pikunche Council, Wemollfun, and the Observatory on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (ODPI)—rallied around her cause, holding daily press conferences and presenting a letter to President Bachelet demanding, among other things, freedom for all Mapuche political prisoners. The Rural and Indigenous Women’s Association also expressed its concern in a letter to Bachelet, demanding adequate, professional medical attention for Troncoso and appealing to Bachelet to stop this “major institutional femicide.”

Troncoso’s hospitalization came just two weeks after Chilean police killed Matías Catrileo, a 22-year-old Mapuche agronomy student. Catrileo and a group of about 30 unarmed activists had occupied a farm outside Temuco and reportedly set fire to bales of hay, when they were confronted by members of the Carabineros, Chile’s national police, who opened fire. The incident echoed the 2002 police killing of Alex Lemún, a 17-year-old Mapuche activist, during a similar occupation of a forestry estate near the town of Ercilla. The officer charged in that case was acquitted by a military appeals court, and activists fear the same pattern of impunity could recur in the case of Catrileo.

Evidence of police abuse against Mapuches has been mounting for years. Amnesty International’s most recent yearly report includes mention of at least two cases—in July 2006, the report says, police raided the Mapuche community of Temucuicui in Ercilla and fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition on unarmed community members. The following December, in the same town, police fired on Mapuche workers collecting their salaries, injuring six people.

The reports of abuse, along with steady use of the anti-terrorist law against the Mapuche, have increased as tension has intensified over land ownership in traditional Mapuche territory in the country’s southern zone. Illegal occupations of privatized lands, road blockades, and destruction of property by Mapuche activists have been on the rise since the 1990s, when, under the post-dictatorship government, energy, construction, and especially forestry companies began widely encroaching on Mapuche ancestral lands.

By 2000, according to Human Rights Watch, about 3.7 million acres of Mapuche land had become pine and eucalyptus plantations, most of them owned by two Chilean companies, Arauco and Mininco. After a 2003 visit to Chile prompted by the land conflict, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the UN special rapporteur on human rights for indigenous peoples, called on the Chilean state to “consider declaring a general amnesty for indigenous human rights defenders on trial for social and/or political activities in the context of the defense of indigenous lands.”

Troncoso agreed to be transferred back to Temuco to begin her recovery. There she will enjoy weekend visiting rights, which was one of her demands, and it will be extended to two of her fellow Mapuche prisoners, Juan Millalén and Jaime Marileo.

As Troncoso’s mediator Alejandro Goic, president of the Episcopal Conference, put it: “This put the Mapuche issue on the table.” Indeed, Chile, now led by a socialist woman and considered by many to be exemplary in its transition to democracy and development of a neoliberal economy, must now own up to the human costs of its “success.”

Editor's note: After this article was published, Troncoso renewed her hunger strike.

Amalia Córdova is a Latin American specialist at the Film and Video Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. She is from Santiago, Chile.

Tags: Chile, hunger strike, Mapuche, indigenous, terrorism, repression, protest

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.