The 14th of November 2018, the Chilean police shot the 24-year-old Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca in the municipality of Ercilla in the south of Chile. This incident received international media attention, but it is only one chapter in a long-lasting dispute over territory and autonomy between the indigenous Mapuche community and the Chilean state. Mapuche communities in Chile are demanding the restitution of territories, which were taken from their ancestors by the state. In order to defend and recover their land, some Mapuche organizations use arson attacks and land occupations. The Chilean government is responding with special operations units to ’control’ the conflict.
During the first weeks of January 2019, the Araucanía Region in central-south Chile experienced several arson attacks on agribusinesses, incidents that are not uncommon around this area. In these acts of sabotage, forestry companies’ machinery was set on fire. Shortly after, an organization called the Coordinadora de Comunidades Mapuche en Conflicto Arauco – Malleco (CAM), publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks. The CAM is one of many actors in the conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group.
Who are the Mapuche and why are they fighting for their land?
The so-called Mapuche conflict and the debate over territory and autonomy intensified after Chile’s transition to democracy in 1989, with the ending of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The Mapuche are an indigenous group from Chile and Argentina whose main territory is found in the Araucanía Region in the south of the city of Concepción and the Biobío river in Chile. During the times of colonialism, the Mapuche were able to resist the Spanish troops and remained autonomous. Only after the independence from Spain in the 19th century did Chile take control over the Mapuche and their territory. The Mapuche community lost large parts of their land, as it was given or sold to Chilean or foreign settlers. Nowadays, large national and international companies, some owned by the descendants of the settler families, bought extensive parts of land in the Araucanía Region and installed forestry industries there.
In a census in 2017, roughly 10% of the Chilean population defined themselves as Mapuche. Some Mapuche, whose name signifies ‘people of the land’, have declared the Chilean state and the agribusinesses, mostly owned by non-indigenous people, as their enemies. They not only accuse them of illegally stealing land from their ancestors, but also of replacing the native flora with easy to plant and harvest trees. They see them as occupiers of their Wallmapu (name for the Mapuche territory in Mapudungun, the Mapuche language). Furthermore, they condemn the inappropriate use of violence against the Mapuche and the discrimination of the basic rights of the indigenous group concerning topics such as access to healthcare and education.
Out of the large variety of Mapuche communities and organisations, the already mentioned Coordinadora de Comunidades Mapuche en Conflicto Arauco – Malleco might be the most prominent one. It was founded 21 years ago and has, since then, actively demanded the restitution of territories in the Araucanía Region from the Chilean state back to the Mapuche. As occupations of land by Mapuche were terminated by the police, some organizations or communities developed different ways to pursue their aim. For example, the Órgano de Resistencia Territorial (ORT), the body of territorial resistance, is the armed branch of the CAM which uses sabotage of machinery, arson attacks and road blocks, as seen in the incidents of January. They receive support from the CAM, as they consider sabotage of agribusinesses as a legitimate means to recover territory.
In the Araucanía Region, there exists a variety of organizations who share values and goals similar to the ones of CAM: Autonomy for the Mapuche in Chile and Argentina and the restitution of territory.
How does the state deal with the situation?
The government’s plan to bring peace and justice to the Araucanía Region is, besides social, cultural and educational programs, based on a strong police presence in the area. Special force units of the Carabineros de Chile, the Chilean police, are deployed in the Araucanía Region to prevent attacks on agribusinesses and the forestry companies. After being elected president in 2018, Sebastián Piñera announced that he would station the special force unit Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOPE) in the conflict area. Members of this group received counterinsurgency and counterterrorism training from the Colombian police and are trained to fight drug trafficking and organised crime. The militarization of the conflict is visible for everyone as armoured vehicles and heavily armed police officers can be seen constantly in the area.
The Chilean government’s approach to the Mapuche conflict is frequently criticized not only for the deployment of military-like special forces but also for the application of the anti-terrorism law, which dates back to the times of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, to cases with Mapuche involvement. This law allows longer prison sentences and the use of anonymous testimonies, if a case is defined as terrorist act. In 2013 an independent UN expert publicly called upon the Chilean government to make a change in legislation, as this anti-terrorism law is used in a discriminatory way against the Mapuche. The Mapuche and support movements around the globe complain about the criminalization of their community by the deployment of these special units and the application of the anti-terrorism law.
Death of Camilo Catrillanca
The conflict between the Mapuche and the Chilean state received international attention in November 2018, when Camilo Catrillanca, a 24-year-old Mapuche leader and activist, was shot by a special force unit of the police. The GOPE was tracking down the subjects of a robbery, in which masked men, armed with firearms, blocked a road in the area and stole three cars from a group of local school’s teachers. Catrillanca, who was riding on his tractor with a 15-year-old boy, was shot in the head by an officer of the GOPE. Protesters in Chile and major cities around the globe demanded a detailed investigation. The call for justice intensified as it became public that video material from a bodycam was destroyed by the police unit and that false statements were made by various functionaries of the government. As of now, Sebastián Piñera ordered the GOPE to leave the area of the conflict, but he explained that the police will uphold the strong presence in the Araucanía Region. Furthermore, the head of the Carabineros de Chile as well as other members of the police had to step down and the minister for internal affairs is heavily under critique.
This incident did not only lead to personnel changes in the Chilean police, but also to the re-emergence of the debate about Chile’s policy towards the Mapuche community. From my point of view, the appropriateness, effectiveness and legitimacy of the militarization of the Araucanía Region should be questioned in its entirety. The Chilean civil society as well as the international community should continue pressuring the Chilean government to fully investigate the murder of Camilo Catrillanca and it should be prevented that the incident is framed as a sole and tragic accident, as it furthermore demonstrates the criminalization of the Mapuche community and the police violence they suffer from.
As I neither see the willingness by the Chilean government to withdraw the special forces nor serious intentions to prevent the discrimination and criminalization of the Mapuche and international companies continue to invest and build in the Mapuche’s territory, the tensions between the conflict parties will remain on a high level. The growing presence of (international) companies and the militarization of the Araucanía Region are a constant attack on the right of self-determination of the Mapuche.
If the Chilean government wants to bring peace to the Araucanía Region, it is about time to regain trust throughout the Mapuche community and grant them more rights as an indigenous group. The first steps should be a revision of the anti-terrorism-law and its discriminatory application to cases involving Mapuche, and a demilitarization of the region. Furthermore, the police violence against members and activists of the Mapuche has to be stopped and former cases have to be investigated and brought to justice. On a more general level, everyday forms of discrimination, such as a more difficult access to education, health, jobs and justice have to be tackled as well.
If there won’t be any of these changes and no dialogue between the conflicting parties, the conflict will remain tense and not come to an end in the near future, as the mistrust of the Mapuche in the Chilean state is and will remain fortified by the recent events.