Protests assail rigged trial of Chile indigenous leaders

The conviction, with harsh sentences, of four leaders of the Mapuche indigenous group in Chile is drawing international and national condemnation of the right wing government of Chilean President Sebastian Piñera.

There are about 600,000 people of Mapuche origin in Chile and neighboring Argentina. About 200,000 of Chile’s Mapuche speak the indigenous language, Mapudungun, and live in mostly indigenous communities south of the Bio-Bio River, though there are many people who self-identify as Mapuches in other areas of Chile as well. In centuries past, the Mapuche people gave the Spanish “conquistadores” a run for their money, and they also fought for many years against the government of independent Chile, eventually achieving a modus vivendi by which they basically ran their own affairs while recognizing Chilean sovereignty. However, starting in the 1880s, the Mapuche were subjected to a genocidal policy of war and starvation, which reduced their population and permitted the penetration of their heartland by large outsider-owned agricultural estates and timber companies.

Under the Popular Unity socialist government of President Salvador Allende, (1970 to 1973), the Mapuche people were able to make advances in terms of economic, political and cultural rights. For this reason, most Mapuches supported Allende against his right wing adversaries. So after the US supported military coup of September 11 1973, the Mapuches found themselves among the sectors of Chilean society that faced repression, and they lost ground. 

Since the end of the military government, Mapuches have again been able to openly and actively advocate for their core demands: restoral of alienated Mapuche land; the right to be recognized as a special group within Chilean society; and the right to use the Mapudungun language and preserve traditional Mapuche cultural practices. Successive post-Pinochet governments have made some concessions, but the power of non-Mapuche landowners and of foreign and Chilean owned timber companies that exploit the Mapuche area’s forest resources has been an obstacle to meeting Mapuche economic demands. The Mapuche organizations, some of whom follow the militant Arauco-Malleco Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora Arauco Malleco), have used a range of tactics from lobbying to civil disobedience and mass protest to demand that their lands be restored. The previous left-center “Concertacion” government, headed by Socialist President Michelle Bachelet, had tried to initiate a program of buying back historically Chilean land from its non Chilean owners, but that ran into the problem that the owners raised their prices sharply.

Starting in 2007, there were clashes between the Arauco-Malleco Coordinating Committee and the Carabineros, the Chilean rural police. A Mapuche activist was killed (shot in the back) during civil disobedience at the San Sebastian estate in 2009. However, four Mapuche leaders (Jose Huenuche Reiman, Hector Llaitul Carrillanca, Jonathan Mendez and Ramon Llanquileo Huillical Pilquiman) were arrested for an earlier supposed attack on a government prosecutor. The Mapuche people and their supporters in Chile and beyond were outraged by the fact that the government put them on trial using a special anti-terrorism law that was passed during the Pinochet dictatorship and never repealed. This law allows secret testimony by unidentified witnesses and other things that would not be permitted in courtrooms in most countries.

During the trial, the four defendants have engaged in a hunger strike to demand due process. The Mapuche organizations and the left have organized protests. But they were all convicted and, on March 22, sentenced to prison for 20 years for three of the accused and 25 years for Mr. Llaitul.

The Mapuche community and the Chilean left have expressed outrage at this kangaroo court proceeding and the harsh sentences.

The chairman of the Communist Party of Chile, Congressman Guillermo Teillier, accused the government of punishing the four individuals for being Mapuches. He added that the Chilean people “cannot accept this and we must profoundly call the attention of the Parliament and the executive so that this persecution is ended.” Read more here.  

An attorney for the four accused, Victoria Fariña, has announced that the case will be appealed on the basis of the inherent injustice of the Pinochet era anti-terrorism law. The case is being raised with international bodies also, including the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization and the Inter American Human Rights Organization.

Photo: A young Mapuche Weichafe, or warrior, patrols on horseback in the Temucuicui community in Chile. Chile is using an antiterrorism law inherited from the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in an attempt to control Mapuche Indians. (AP 2009 Photo/Francisco Negroni)



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.