Chile: Mapuche Activist’s Death Heats Up Conflict

  (IPS) – The lack of opportunities for dialogue and participation and the struggle for control over land and natural resources in Chile are hurdles to a solution to the Mapuche Indians’ century-long conflict, which claimed a new victim this week: a 24-year-old activist shot by the police while taking part in an occupation of land claimed as indigenous territory.

Jaime Mendoza Collío, who was killed Wednesday in the community of Angol in the southern Chilean region of Araucanía, was the third indigenous activist killed since the restoration of democracy in 1990, when the Mapuche launched a strategy of land occupations aimed at recovering their ancestral territory.

The first was 17-year-old Alex Lemún, who was shot in the head by a police officer in 2002, under the government of socialist President Ricardo Lagos. The military court that tried the case ruled that the police officer had shot in self-defence, even though no evidence was found in the investigation that anyone other than the police had opened fire.

And in January 2008, a member of the Carabineros (military police) shot 23-year-old university student Matrías Catrileo, whose death is still being investigated by the military courts.

"The latest incidents are the natural result of a long-standing policy that has been intensified in recent weeks by the government, with regard to the conflicts over land in the region of Araucanía," José Aylwin, co-director of the Observatorio Ciudadano, a local NGO, told IPS.

That policy includes the strengthening of police presence in areas plagued by land conflicts, and crackdowns on communities that are demanding the return of their ancestral lands, said Aylwin, a lawyer who specialises in the rights of indigenous people.

The backdrop against which the government policy has been implemented includes excessive delays in resolving land claims and a lack of political will to engage in real dialogue, he argued.

Mendoza’s death coincided with Planning Minister Paula Quintana’s visit to Geneva this week, where she reported to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on the situation in Chile.

After an unsuccessful attempt to meet with socialist President Michelle Bachelet in Santiago, a group of traditional indigenous leaders or "loncos" launched a new wave of land occupations and protests in Araucanía on Jul. 23.

But in addition to the occupations of land, there have been violent incidents in which small groups of hooded activists threw stones at and painted graffiti on a passenger bus and set fire to two trucks. A radical Mapuche group, Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM), claimed responsibility for the incidents.

At the same time, an anti-Mapuche paramilitary group in Araucanía that calls itself the "Hernán Trizano Commando" announced that it would become active again, and issued death threats against Mapuche leaders.

The centre-left government says that since 1994, more than 650,000 hectares of land have been transferred to indigenous communities – 35 percent since Bachelet took office in 2006.

It also argues that the country does not have the financial resources to resolve all of the pending indigenous land claims at once.

The authorities say that only a small minority of Mapuche communities are involved in the protests and land occupations. But indigenous associations say the activities are widespread among the Mapuche people.

Aylwin provided more precise information regarding the government’s arguments. The more than 600,000 hectares of ancestral land returned to indigenous communities by the state include the country’s nine native ethnic groups, not only the Mapuche (by far the largest group, who number around one million in this country of 16 million people).

Of that total, said the lawyer, only 140,000 hectares were actually purchased on the market. "The rest involved formal transfers of land that the state considered to be publicly owned, but which was ancestral indigenous territory, or the regularisation of property that had already been distributed to indigenous communities and had been recognised as their own," he said.

Events have shown that "the budget earmarked for indigenous policies overall, around 0.3 percent of GDP, is insufficient," he maintained.

Aylwin also said the state sends an "ambivalent message" to native communities, promoting a multicultural policy on one hand while providing incentives for investment by corporations – such as logging companies – on their ancestral lands on the other.

Asked about the underlying causes of the delay in resolving the long-simmering conflict over land, which dates back to the end of the 19th century, the indigenous rights lawyer responded that "there is no doubt that there are very powerful economic interests in those territories."

The Mapuche lost much of their land in the late 19th century when it was occupied by the state in a process known as the "pacification of Araucanía".

"Chile’s insertion in the global market is based on exports of natural resources, which are essentially found in the territories of indigenous peoples: mining in the north, forests in the south, and salmon farming in the southern rivers and lakes," Aylwin said.

The preliminary autopsy results show that Jaime Mendoza was shot in the back and killed instantly while the police were evicting a group of native people from an estate that they claim as their own.

According to the government and the Carabineros, the policeman who shot Mendoza, Miguel Jara, was acting in self-defence in response to alleged pellet gun fire. But a Mapuche eyewitness who was not participating in the land occupation said the young men were unarmed.

The witness also said the police did not provide Mendoza with medical attention. In the midst of the clash between the protesters and the police, in which both indigenous people and journalists were injured, local residents attempted to reach the young man’s body, but were driven off by the police.

Jara is in custody while the military justice investigation continues.

In Chile, the military courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed by armed forces personnel and Carabineros police while they are on duty.

In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Chilean state to reform the military justice code, because it contravenes several basic rights. But Chile has not complied with the ruling.

Mendoza’s death has led to heightened tension in the region, with new land occupations and violent attacks. In the community of Ercilla, unidentified individuals set fire to privately-owned warehouses in the early hours of Thursday morning, causing millions of dollars in damages.

Mapuche organisations have called protest marches and issued statements repudiating the killing of Mendoza.

Expressing her regrets for the young man’s death and condolences for his family, President Bachelet said Thursday that "nothing justifies the violence in Araucanía, and it must be understood that dialogue is the only path to a solution to the legitimate historical demands of the Mapuche people."

"We will continue working so that all of the commitments that we adopted in our new policy towards indigenous people are lived up to. We hope the investigation will clarify what happened. But I want to reiterate that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies the violence," the president said.

Government spokeswoman Carolina Tohá announced that a government delegation would visit Araucanía next week to strengthen the emphasis on dialogue.

But indigenous people question the government’s willingness to sit down and talk, given that the delegation that visited Santiago to try to meet with Bachelet in early July was turned away.

For years, the Mapuche people have complained about judicial persecution and police brutality in response to their claims to their ancestral land.

Dozens of complaints of abuses at the hands of the police were documented in January 2007 by an international mission convened by the non-governmental Observatory for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, with representatives from groups like Amnesty International, Norwegian People’s Aid and the Argentine Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS).

Members of Mapuche communities said the police storm violently into their homes, sometimes without a warrant, destroy household utensils and objects of cultural value, mistreat elderly people, women and children, do not hesitate to use lethal weapons, and hurl racist epithets.

Aylwin said the implementation of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, as of Sept. 15, will offer a chance for reaching lasting solutions to the problem.

"The Convention establishes clear guidelines in a number of areas, including the rights of indigenous peoples to determine their own priorities in terms of development, and the right to prior consultation with respect to investment projects or public measures that affect them," he said.

It also establishes "a right that has been largely lacking in Chile: the right to participate in bodies that make decisions that concern them," Aylwin added.