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Chile accused of racist use of anti-terrorism laws against Mapuches



By Tian Spain & Mike Gatehouse, for LAB

mapuche_demoInhabitants of a Mapuche community in Freire demonstrate againts the planned building of an airportThe struggle for land and rights and the protection of their environment by the Mapuche population of Chile has rumbled on through successive governments since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. It has become considerably more bitter since 2002, when President Ricardo Lagos began to use Chile’s Anti-terrorist law against Mapuche activists, a practice which, despite promises to the contrary, continued during the presidency of Michele Bachelet and has been pursued with renewed gusto under the right-wing Alianza presidency of Sebastián Piñera. According to Pedro Cayuqueo, editor of the Mapuche newspaper Azkintuwe, around 1,000 Mapuches have spent time in Chilean jails in the past ten years. In the first months of 2010, 106 people were jailed, of whom 58 were charged under the Anti-Terrorism law. [1]

Matters took a new turn on August 7 this year, when the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sent to the Inter-American Court a case [2] against the Chilean government for using the Anti-Terrorist law against Mapuches and for ignoring the Commission’s previous recommendations. The citation states that the Chilean State “applied a criminal law that ran contrary to the principle of legality, with a series of irregularities that affected due process, and took into consideration the victims’ ethnic origin in a way that was unjustified and discriminatory—all in a context in which Chile’s anti-terrorist law was applied selectively to the detriment of members of the Mapuche indigenous people.”

Put simply, the Commission charges the Chilean government with racism in its application of the law. According to the Mapuche spokesman Eliseo Cañulef Martínez, a former council member of the Special Commission for Indigenous Communities (CEPI), this is something that the Mapuche have long claimed: “It is noticeable that the Anti-Terrorism law is only used to repress social protest by Mapuches. That is something which should be cleared up because at first sight this appears to be racist conduct. It has been described as such on numerous occasions by Mapuche social organisations, and international and local observers. And the opinion is shared by the lawyer Jaime Madariago who represents the community members at the international court.” [3]


The Ley Anti-terrorista

The current anti-terrorist law is a modified version of the one that was introduced by the m.ilitary government of Pinochet in 1984. Law 19,027 was originally designed to pursue armed political groups involved in kidnappings, attacks on police stations and assassinations. It is Chile’s most draconian law: it doubles the normal sentences for some offences, makes pre-trial release more difficult, enables the prosecution to withhold evidence from the defence for up to six months, and allows defendants to be convicted on testimony given by so-called ‘faceless’ witnesses, who are permitted to appear in court behind screens, invisible to the defendants and the public.

The case highlighted by the court concerns two lonkos (Mapuche traditional leaders), Segundo Aniceto Norín Catrimán and Pascual Huentequeo Pichún Paillalao. Together with members of their families and supporters, they were arrested in March 2002 after a truck belonging to a former government minister, Juan Agustín Figueroa, was set alight near his property, the Fundo Nuncahue. Norín and Pichún were initially sentenced to 800 days imprisonment. After a lengthy series of hearings and appeals, they were acquitted, only for the Supreme Court to order a retrial in which they were given an even longer sentence —five years—for allegedly “uttering terrorist threats” against Figueroa [4].

This case is only one of a number involving the Mapuche to come before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. In May 2011 a group of fishermen and indigenous communities from the Bay of Mehuín area on the Valdivia coast, 1,100kms south of Santiago, took to the Commission details of their 15-year conflict with the giant timber and paper company Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (CELCO). The company is seeking to construct a 36km pipeline from its Valdivia paper mill to discharge cellulose effluent into the Pacific. The plaintiffs claim that this will pollute local fisheries and that its construction involves digging up traditional burial grounds. They say that the company has paid ‘mafia’ thugs to issue death threats to those opposing the pipeline. CELCO has a poor environmental record: in 2004 it was fined by the government for discharging toxic waste from the same factory which killed black-necked swans in the River Cruces [5].

A proud people dispossessed

The Mapuche are the largest indigenous population in Chile, concentrated mainly in Bío Bío, Araucania and Los Lagos in the south of the country. They are one of the most impoverished sections of Chilean society. Mapuche means ‘people of the land’ in their language, Mapudungun, and their territory once stretched from the Pacific coast and islands of Chile across the Andes into Argentina. They defended that land from the Incan empires and, when the Spanish arrived at the end of the 16th century, the Mapuche fought and successfully resisted domination, living for more than 200 years with de facto autonomy. However, in the so-called ‘Pacification of Araucania’ (1861-1883), they were invaded and defeated by the Chilean and Argentine armies. The Mapuche were granted ‘mercy titles’ which led to their confinement in and around 3,000 communal lands (aptly, in Spanish, called ‘reducciones’) comprising approximately 500,000 hectares of the estimated 10 million hectares they had previously occupied. The confiscated land was sold off cheaply, mainly to European colonizers or non-indigenous Chileans. Between 1931 and 1971, the Mapuche lost another fifth of their land as communities were divided and land sold to non-indigenous people [6].

Under the administrations of Eduardo Frei (1964-1970) and Salvador Allende (1970- 1973), an agrarian reform programme was implemented. Although this was primarily directed at freeing up fertile agricultural land in the Central Valley for landless peasants, it also brought benefits for the Mapuche in southern Chile. Allende’s Popular Unity project, for example, was aimed at returning lands to the indigenous peoples through expropriation and putting a stop to the division of Mapuche lands.

Like many other progressive initiatives, this ended with the military coup of 1973. The Pinochet regime (1973-90) started a campaign for the ‘regularization’ of land titles that provided the pretext for a true agrarian counter-reform. Much of the land expropriated and handed over to peasants and indigenous communities during the Allende government was returned to its previous latifundista owners [7]. The Allende government had also been preparing to hand back a further 415,000 hectares to Mapuche communities, in an initiative that would have doubled the territory under their control. This land was now sold to large forestry companies at giveaway prices. At the same time, indigenous land was divided into individual plots. As their communities became further impoverished, many Mapuche migrated to the cities.

Broken promises

In the early days of the Concertación, the coalition of centre and left parties that dominated Chilean political life after the return to democratic rule in 1990, it seemed that real progress would be made in relations between indigenous peoples and the Chilean State. The new hope was embodied in the Nueva Imperial Agreement signed in 1999 by presidential candidate Patricio Aylwin and representatives of various indigenous organizations. This led in 1993 to the Indigenous Peoples Act (No. 19,253), in which the Chilean Government for the first time recognized the specific rights of indigenous peoples and expressed its intention to establish a new relationship with them. These included the right to participation, the right to land, cultural rights and the right to development within the framework of the State’s responsibility for establishing specific mechanisms to overcome the marginalization of indigenous people [8].

However, according to several scholars and members of the Special Commission for Indigenous Communities (CEPI), the wording adopted in Law 19,253 was very different from CEPI’s original proposal. Moreover, the actual policies adopted by successive Chilean governments following the return to democratic rule fell well short of providing indigenous groups with the legal protection of their rights that the law was supposed to have guaranteed. Finally, and crucially, the neo-liberal reforms introduced by the generals were not rolled back and, as the economy grew, economic pressure on the Mapuches increased.

The battle for land

During the 1990s, the Mapuche communities were seriously affected by the expansion of forestry companies, hydroelectric dams and highway construction. Vast new pine and eucalyptus plantations threatened the native biodiversity of the region, drying out water supplies and eroding the soil. The communities demonstrated against the loss of their land and native forest, but the forestry companies refused to establish any meaningful dialogue. Today, the Mapuches who, according to the country’s 2002 census, numbered 604, 349 [9], have just 300,000 hectares of land.

Nevertheless, the communities won several important victories. One of the largest land disputes of the period took place in the Andes between the Pehuenche indigenous communities in Quinquén and logging companies. Disputes in the area date back at least to 1946, when local land-owners installed two sawmills and began felling commercially valuable Araucaria pines (‘monkey-puzzle trees’) which are sacred for the indigenous people. Under the Pinochet regime in 1976, Araucaria were at first declared a protected species and ‘national monument’. Nevertheless, illicit logging continued apace and in 1987 the state forestry commission, CONAF, closely allied with the timber companies, secured a new decree, removing all effective protection from the Araucaria [10]. After the end of the dictatorship, the Mapuches renewed resistance to the loggers. The dispute ended in 1997 when the 30,000 hectares of land were purchased by the government for US$6.5 million and ownership and titles were passed to the indigenous communities [11].

The Mapuche were less successful in their struggle to stop the construction of the hydroelectric dam at Ralco on the upper reaches of the river Bío Bío, the ancestral lands of the Pehuenche people. Construction went ahead after President Eduardo Frei intervened in 1999 to get it approved by the national environment agency and by the Corporación Nacional de Desarrollo Indígena (CONADI). The two CONADI directors who opposed the dam were fired and police violently evicted a group of families from the community of Quepuca Ralco who were resisting forced resettlement. The lack of consultation, the meddling with the leadership of CONADI and police violence persuaded many Mapuches that they could no longer trust or cooperate with the government [12].

Between them, Chile’s two biggest forestry companies—Forestal Arauco (CELCO) and Forestal Mininco—own approximately 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres): fourteen times as much land as the Mapuche. Those companies have consequently become the target of sabotage by radical indigenous groups such as the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Committee, and some of their properties have been taken over by Mapuche communities.

Using the Anti-Terrorist Law

represion_contra_mapuches_1Police use teargas against homes in WenteWinKulMapu Lof Chequenco, November 4 2011represion_contra_mapuches_2Human Rights Lawyer Faundes says that, while the democratic governments of the Concertación coalition were initially slow to respond to Mapuche mobilisation, when communities began occupying farms and radicals burned logging trucks and tree plantations, they responded in much the same way as the miltary. Indeed, in 2002 the government of Ricardo Lagos began using an anti-terrorist law that was very similar to the one that had been used by the Pinochet regime to prosecute Mapuche activists. The government complemented it with harsh police tactics, creating what Faundes has called a ‘spiral of violence’ [13].

The Mapuche began to look abroad for redress. Numerous law-suits and Mapuche appeals to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission make reference to ILO Convention 169 (1989), which mandates that indigenous peoples in independent states be consulted about laws and projects that affect them. This Convention has been signed by many Latin American countries, including Chile in 2008. Unlike others, however, Chile’s Congress has not ratified the Article and right-wing representatives have blocked attempts to build into the legal systems full recognition of multi-ethnicity and guarantees for the collective rights of indigenous groups.

Recent struggles continue to focus on the protection or restoration of Mapuche lands. Human rights lawyer Juan Jorge Faundes explains that the administration of President Michelle Bachelet, who left office in March, approved 115 requests from Mapuche communities for the restitution of ancestral lands. However, her administration only managed to purchase 60 percent of that land before leaving office.

Bachelet promised while on a trip to Austria in 2006 that she would not apply the anti-terrorist during her term in office. However, that promise was broken with the arrest and prosecution in March 2009 of Miguel Tapia Huenulef, a Mapuche construction worker accused of involvement in a January arson attack on a private estate near the town of Lautaro, in the Araucanía Region. Among the items allegedly seized during the police raid on Tapia’s home in Santiago were a submachine gun, ammunition clips, two grenades and bomb-making materials, evidence that Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma claimed more than justified the application of the Anti-Terrorism Law.

Tapia Huenulef’s family says the charges are preposterous and insists the real agents of terror in this case are the more than 50 police who raided their home, racially abused them, threatened them with guns, stole money, tools and cell phones and finally—toward the conclusion of the horrific five-hour ordeal—planted the evidence against Tapia [14].

Since 2010, the right-wing Piñera government has refused to expropriate land for indigenous communities and some landowners have demanded exorbitant prices. Juan Jorge Faundes states that 308 Mapuche communities have presented requests for land that CONADI has yet to respond to. “The current government can’t ignore the historic debt,” he said. “Returning the requested land is an obligation of the state.” President Piñera has made no mention of the Mapuche Territorial Alliance’s demands, nor the restitution of Mapuche lands [15].

Persecution ramped up

Meanwhile reports of prosecution of Mapuche leaders and heavy-handed police raids on Mapuche communities are becoming more frequent. On November 26 2011 police raided the Temucuicui Tradicional community in Malleco province, throwing teargas canisters into homes where children were sleeping. Community werkén (representative) Mijael Carbone Queipul was forced to flee and has gone into hiding. Alberto Curamil, spokesman for the Mapuche Territorial Aliance (ATM), gave Carbone’s account of the raid: “The police fired repeatedly towards the house of Laura Queipul Marillan, throwing tear gas which caused serious breathing problems for a two-month-old baby and two children of 2 and 4 years of age, one of them in a neighbouring dwelling. Then they forced their way into the house and, as usual, destroyed property, beat up the people living there, held them at gun point and threatened to kill them. They were asking where they could find me —in fact my house was only a few metres away. ” [16]

On December 1st there were mass raids on the Mapuche communities in Trapilwe and Mawizache, in Freire community, where the inhabitants oppose the construction of the International Airport at Quepe —a major project which threatens their traditional way of life and the local eco-systems. The same day young men from the community had been arrested in Temuco by unidentified civilians, presumed to be police, taken to a detention centre, kept blind-folded for six hours, interrogated beaten and threatened with reprisals against their families. These attacks, with up to 300 police involved, using helicopters and armoured vehicles, were still continuing on December 8.

Autonomy the only option

The current repression and use of Anti-Terrorism law has convinced many Mapuches that their only option is to pursue full political and territorial autonomy. As Eliseo Cañulef says, “The lessons learned across so many decades of deception should serve to convince more and more Mapuches that the only thing which will change the situation is not the legal chicanery of a Spanish-Creole state operating open or covertly racist policies, but the constitution of a political force strong enough both to establish a full-blown project for political autonomy and to oblige the Chilean state to concede political and territorial autonomy—the only means for Mapuche society to re-establish itself as a civilizing force able to operate according to its own Mapuche principles and values without the interference of Spanish-Creole racism.” [17]


[1] See

[2] See

[3] See

[4] Details taken from the excellent Language of the Land: the Mapuche in Argentina and Chile, by Leslie Ray, International Workgroup for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) Document 119, 2007, readable at:

[5] See

[6] Human Rights Watch Report, 2004:13

[7] See

[8] See

[9] See

[10] See

[11] See

[12] See

[13] See

[14] See

[15] See

[16] See

[17] See

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