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Chile: no quick fix for Mapuche crisis


In spite of the positive noises coming from the recently-elected government of Michelle Bachelet, the long-running indigenous land conflict in southern Chile shows little sign of resolution. Recent violence has dispelled any hope that the change in government could help end the crisis. It presents a setback to Bachelet’s call for dialogue as a means of addressing Mapuche land claims in the Araucanía region.

The ethnic Mapuche have inhabited southern Chile for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that a homogenous culture was present in the region from 500BC onwards. Having successfully resisted the Inca Empire and Spanish colonial rule for several centuries, the Mapuche only came under external rule following Chilean independence in the 19th century and the new nation’s subsequent expansion. Since then, much of what constituted Mapuche territory has been eroded, and today vast swathes of land are privately owned by international logging companies or wealthy families, leaving ancient communities restricted to certain zones, in effect reserves.


Since conflict flared up in the 1990s, Mapuche communities, whose members make up slightly less than 10% of the national population, have demanded the return of ancestral homelands, the establishment of an autonomous state (known as Wallmapu in the Mapuche language, Mapudungun) and official recognition of their cultural and historic identity. Resistance to the status quo has taken the form of land occupations, attacks on company property and large-scale demonstrations in both the Araucanía and cities throughout Chile. While several administrations have expressed a desire to resolve the situation, few have taken any meaningful measures to do so, beyond increasing the security presence.

Domingo Namancura at the Mapuche community of lelfuncheSince her election victory in December 2013, Bachelet has been keen to appear proactive on the Mapuche issue. Having announced the appointment of Chile’s first ever Mapuche ambassador, Domingo Namuncura, to Guatemala, Bachelet announced on June 24 that “this is the time to recognise and broaden the rights of indigenous peoples in Chile. Over the years, the country has managed to dissipate the mistrust and we have now reached the point where we must deliver on the commitments we made along the way.”

Using anti-terrorism laws

Bachelet’s first administration (2006-2010) is among those which failed to adequately address the issue of indigenous rights. State repression in the disputed region has been evident over the years in the number of Mapuche deaths at the hands of security forces and in previous governments’ implementation of an ‘anti-terrorism law’ uniquely applied in indigenous cases. This controversial law was created during the Pinochet dictatorship and permits extended pre-trial detention, anonymous witnesses and tougher sentencing.  

During Bachelet’s previous presidency and then under the right-wing government of her successor Sebastián Pinera, the law was used a number of times to  prosecute  Mapuches, which resulted in Chile incurring heavy criticism from the United Nations. In 2013, Ben Emmerson, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, said “the anti-terrorism law has been used in a manner that discriminates against the Mapuche. It has been applied in a confused and arbitrary fashion that has resulted in real injustice, has undermined the right to a fair trial, and has been perceived as stigmatising and de-legitimising the Mapuche land claims and protests.”

A new commitment

The Bachelet administration has recently sought to distance itself from the policies of previous regimes, including the president’s own earlier government. On June 20, the Chilean ambassador to the United Nations, Marta Maurás, confirmed to the UN’s human rights council the official position regarding the law: “We confirm the government’s commitment to the non-application of the anti-terrorism law to members of indigenous groups who pursue claims for social improvements. This law is now being studied, with a view to amending it to bring it into line with international standards.”  

While the government may be seen to be taking the initiative at international level in Geneva, this has so far had little impact in the disputed Araucanía region. In March this year, Bachelet sought to address this with the appointment of Francisco Huenchumilla, a long-standing politician of Mapuche descent, to the position of governor of Araucanía. One of Huenchumilla’s first acts on taking office was to apologise to the Mapuche people for over a century of discrimination and exploitation. “In my role as governor and as Huenchumilla Jaramillo, a representative of both worlds, I come to apologise to the Mapuche people for the theft of your lands by the state,” he said. “The state has a pending debt [to you] and for more than 130 years it has implemented public policies that have failed to raise this region out of poverty and remove the stigma of being one of the country’s least developed regions.” Huenchumilla’s support for the Mapuche struggle has put him at direct odds with sectors of the Chilean right, which has numerous commercial interests in the Araucanía tied up in regional industry and land ownership.

The recent murder of local smallholder Mariano Guzmán Rojas has again thrust the conflict into the national headlines and seen certain political parties looking to capitalise on the unrest. Iván Moreira, a senator from the far-right Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI) party, criticised Huenchumilla, saying that “(this is) a governor activist who represents only one side and not that of all the people suffering from these attacks.” Another member of the UDI, the MP Gustavo Hasbún, has been leading attempts to prosecute Huenchumilla. “The governor has to comply with the state of law,” he said. “He must make a decision: justice and the state of law, or terrorism.”

A former mayor of his birthplace Temuco, the capital of the Araucanía, Huenchumilla has a long-held interest in the Mapuche conflict. He is a major critic of the social inequality that pervades in Chile, and recently highlighted the gaping chasm between haves and have-nots.  “There are hundreds, I don’t know if that’s an exaggeration, but there are a number of places where I go, that I travel to, where 80 families live on 120 hectares. Each of them has one hectare… Next to them, there is an entire 2000-hectare estate for one family. Who does this 2000-hectare estate belong to?  A well-known businessman from Santiago who goes there once, twice, three or four times a year, always on vacation with his family, while nearby people live with no means of subsistence.”

Unequal treatment

Yet sectors of the Mapuche community remain unconvinced by the governor’s words. During the previous Bachelet presidency, from 2006-2010, police brutality and repression was a common occurrence in the Araucanía, with insufficient measures taken against officers involved in the deaths of young Mapuches. One of these was 22-year-old Matias Catrileo, shot dead by police in 2008 while protesting on the Luchsinger family estate. In 2013, as protestors commemorated the fifth anniversary of Catrileo’s death, assailants entered the Luchsinger property and started a fire which killed the estate owner’s cousin Werner Luchsinger and his wife Vivianne McKay.

Poster for 5th anniversary of killing of Matias CatrileoWhile not condoning the arson attack, supporters of the Catrileo family pointed to the disparity of the sentences meted out in each case. The carabinero who shot Catrileo in the back, Walter Ramírez Inostroza, was found responsible for the killing, offered counselling and eventually discharged from the force, to be greeted by sympathetic newspaper articles. The guilty party in the Luchsinger case, Celestino Córdova, received a jail sentence of 18 years. Regardless of the sentencing disparities, the tragedies exemplify a cycle of violence that feeds off itself.

For many in the Mapuche community and beyond, it will take much more than administrative appointments and placatory discourse to show that Chile’s new government can offer a genuine solution to the conflict. Following the announcement of Huenchumilla’s new position in March this year, Mapuche leader Juana Calfunao of the Juan Pallalef community said, in the La Tercera newspaper, “it’s very difficult to believe the governor, because Michelle Bachelet’s previous government persecuted us. His Mapuche surname is no guarantee of anything.” The doubts and suspicions of Chile’s southern indigenous communities are likely to be assuaged only by tangible efforts by the government to redress the years of discrimination. In their eyes, now is the time for action, not words.

Temucuicui community on the marchYet, with the activists’ unwavering commitment to their cause and a government conscious of the futility of persisting with the same fruitless and inflammatory policies, could there really be an end in sight to the Mapuche conflict? A statement issued on June 26 by the Autonomous Mapuche Community of Temucuicui, a community of 120 Mapuche families in the province of Malleco, celebrated the withdrawal of security forces from the territory after fourteen years of military presence. The organisation said that it ‘proudly declares the major achievement of the LOF TEMUCUICUI in defeating individuals and the Chilean State, (and) calls all communities involved in the struggle to continue resisting, because the struggle and resistance will lead our people to a free Mapuche Nation.’

The statement also said that ‘the withdrawal of Carabineros from the TEMUCUICUI territory is a historic event for our community and a triumph of struggle, resistance, defence, land restitution and liberty for the Mapuche people.’

The Temucuicui community had been in conflict with the Chilean logging company Forestal Mininco, with community members having been imprisoned for attacks on company property. Only time will tell whether the military withdrawal from the zone signals a genuine shift in government policy, but for those accustomed to authoritarian persecution in Temucuicui, for now at least, it represents a victory for the community. Whether or not it heralds a breakthrough for the wider Mapuche struggle is another matter altogether.

Nick MacWilliam is a British freelance writer living in Buenos Aires who also spent a number of years living in Chile. He is assistant editor of the online magazine Sounds and Colours ( which focuses on South American music and film, as well as managing editor of Chile’s main English-language cultural magazine, Revolver Santiago Magazine (

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