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Mapuche conflict simmers
Benjamin Witte-Lebhar
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Goverment repression and unfulfilled promises fuel further tensions between Chile´s largest indigenous group and the state.

The recent police killing of an indigenous activist has sent shock waves throughout Chile, ratcheting up age-old racial and political tensions and reigniting a national debate over how best to resolve the so-called “Mapuche Conflict.”

The victim, 24-year-old Jaime Facundo Mendoza Collío, died Aug. 12 during a police operation to evict Mapuche activists from a seized farm in Region IX. Also known as the Araucania, southern Region IX is home to more than 30 percent of Chile´s approximately 800,000 Mapuches, the country´s largest indigenous group. It has also been the focal point for efforts by impoverished Mapuche communities to recover ancestral lands that have long been in private hands.

The officer who fired the fatal shot, José Patricio Jara Muñoz, claimed self defense, saying he dispatched his weapon only after being ambushed and hit by buckshot. Witnesses told a different story, insisting Mendoza Collío was unarmed. They also claim Jara Muñoz shot the Mapuche in the back and later kicked his prone body. Autopsy reports corroborate the witness accounts.

The killing, the third to occur at the hands of Carabineros (uniformed police) since 2002, sparked protests in several of Chile´s major cities. In the meantime, Chile´s political leaders – with an eye on the upcoming elections – launched into a finger-pointing routine that culminated on the floor of Congress. There, Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez-Yoma and conservative Dep. Gonzalo Arenas, whose family home was recently vandalized by Mapuches, had to be literally restrained after hurling insults and papers at each other.

Temuco Bishop Manuel Camilo Vial offered a more subdued reaction when, speaking at Mendoza Collío´s memorial service, he described the death as simply “a failure of our society to solve these problems through dialogue and understanding.”

But while there appears to be some general consensus over the bishop´s assessment, questions nevertheless remain over what caused the failure and what, if anything, can be done to sooth the long-simmering antagonisms between the Chilean state and its marginalized Mapuche minority.

Empty declarations?
President Michelle Bachelet, now in the final stretch of her presidency, described Mendoza Collío´s death as “something painful and regrettable.” She also made a plea for dialogue, calling it the “only way to resolve the legitimate demands of the Mapuche people.”

It was not the first time she made such an overture. In April 2008 Bachelet unveiled a program called Re-Conocer, which calls for distributing land to 115 Mapuche communities designated as “priorities” by the government’s in´igenous affairs bureau, CONADI. Later that year, she ratified the International Labor Organization´s Convention 169, which recognizes the rights of indigenous people “to participate in the decision-making process in all questions and programs directly affecting them.” Convention 169 also recognizes the rights of indigenous people to own lands they traditionally occupy or to which they have access.

Critics, however, say Bachelet´s indigenous rights record is more symbol than substance. According to the Temuco-based Observatorio Ciudadano, a human rights organization, only 36 of the 115 Mapuche communities targeted under the president´s Re-Conocer plan have actually received land.

“They´re declarations that stay in their paper form. They´re nothing more than good intentions, because in practice they don´t have any real influence,” said the Observatorio´s Elías Paillan. “At this point even the original Indigenous Law, which was a huge advance during the government of [former President] Patricio Aylwin [1990-94]and led to the creation of CONADI, is hardly respected by the Mapuche movement or even by the Chilean people in general.”

Mixed messages
Some observers criticize the government´s “stick and carrot” approach – land grants and political promises on the one hand and police repression on the other – for sending a mixed and ultimately counterproductive message.

Residents in some of the Araucania´s more mobilized zones say they are constantly besieged by Carabineros, technically a branch of Chile´s armed forces. Mapuche groups and their sympathizers also decry the government´s continued use of a dictatorship-era anti-terrorism law to prosecute indigenous activists.

Carabineros, in contrast, enjoy a high-degree of legal protection due to the fact that disciplinary matters are handled internally, via military rather than civilian courts. Military prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against the Carabinero who shot and killed 17-year-old Mapuche activist Alex Lemun in 2002. The case against the police officer accused of killing Mapuche activist Matías Catrileo in January 2008 is still pending. The officer, nevertheless, has since returned to active duty.

“We´ve never considered ourselves terrorists. There isn´t a single dead Carabinero,” said Carolina Nahuelhual, a member of a Santiago-based Mapuche organization called Meli Mixan Mapu. “But against us in contrast, against the Mapuche social movement? How many deaths have there been? In those cases, the perpetrators are known. They´re Carabineros. But the Chilean state doesn´t take responsibility for those killings.”

The government´s heavy-handed approach to the Mapuche conflict does not appear like it will change soon, particularly if wealthy businessman Sebastián Piñera – the frontrunner heading into Chile´s Dec. 13 election – wins the presidency. Echoing conservative business leaders who say Mapuche unrest costs southern Chile outside investment and limits its development, Piñera insists Bachelet and her predecessors have been “soft” on Mapuche wrongdoers.

Mendoza Collío´s death, meanwhile, appears to have strengthened the resolve of Chile´s numerous though traditionally disparate Mapuche organizations. The young man´s Aug. 16 funeral drew an estimated 3,000 mourners, attracting Mapuche leaders and activists from throughout the country.

“People are joining together in their pain,” said Paillan. “It was impressive how many people came for the funeral. There were a lot of [Mapuche] leaders who haven’t been seen in years. There were others who had sometimes questioned the actions of groups demanding land. They were there too. Rather than weaken the Mapuche movement, [Mendoza Collío´s death] has no doubt made it stronger and more unified.”
—Latinamerica Press.


Government´s lack of action to defend Mapuche communities has turned deadly. (Photo: Kendal Montgomery)
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