A longstanding conflict between the Indigenous Mapuche group and the government of Chile flared into violent protests this week, prompting President Sebastián Piñera to call a state of emergency in parts of the country.
The Mapuche, Chile's largest Indigenous group, have for years been demanding self-determination and the restoration of their ancestral lands, mostly in the south of the country. Mapuche leaders argue that their homelands, which are now owned by farmers and logging companies, should be returned to them. The dispute has led to outbreaks of violence and several deaths, especially over the past decade.
Piñera called a 15-day “state of exception” in the southern regions of Biobio and La Araucania, allowing the government to deploy soldiers to the region to support the local police and maintain the peace. In a news conference to announce the measures, he claimed that the “armed groups” in the area have engaged in “repeated acts of violence linked to drug-trafficking, terrorism and organized crime.”
It’s unclear how involved members of the Mapuche are in the drug trade and organized crime. While there have been a few isolated cases, there has not been proven evidence that it is widespread. Local Mapuche groups released a statement in January distancing themselves from organized crime in the region, and said those involved were “external agents to the communities trying to introduce drugs and bad practices.”
Piñera went on to say that the violence has not only taken innocent lives, but those of police officers and government officials.
“We are instituting this state of emergency so that we can permit the inhabitants of the affected zones to live in greater peace, so they can live with freedom, better rights, and live without fear and violence,” said Piñera. The 15-day state of emergency could potentially be extended.
Piñera did not mention the Mapuche by name in his speech, but it was clear when he referred to destruction of property and violence in the region that he was speaking about activists of the Indigenous group that accounts for around 12 percent of Chile's population of almost 20 million.
Successive Chilean governments have downplayed the Mapuche land claims, and used words like “terrorism” to describe their uprising. But the Mapuche have faced centuries of persecution and marginalization, and say they are just fighting for what was theirs to begin with. Spanish colonizers were unable to conquer the Mapuche, and it was only after Chile’s independence in the 19th century that state forces eventually took control of the Indigenous group and their land.
“We want to make it clear that we have always been available to talk, to discuss the Mapuche cause with the different people that may be necessary, but we are not going to compromise on our territorial and political demands and the transformation processes that we will carry out,” Héctor Llaitul, a prominent Mapuche leader, told EFE. “Although, that implies all the hatred and all the persecution that the state and the system are giving us.”
While members of the Mapuche have destroyed forestry equipment, set fire to pine tree plantations, burned down churches and occupied land, the group has also experienced the brunt of security forces’ violence.
In 2017, eight Mapuches, including Llaitul, were imprisoned for organizing attacks in the region, but it was later proven that a police unit fabricated evidence in the case. The next year, police killed the 24-year-old grandson of a local indigenous leader, which triggered nationwide protests. Tensions heightened again in July when hooded men allegedly invaded a logging company facility and ended up in a confrontation with police that killed another Mapuche man.
Piñera's declaration of a state of emergency came just days after Mapuche organizations held a protest march in the capital of Santiago that ended in a violent face-off with police. During the unrest, one Mapuche woman died, at least 17 people were injured and 10 others arrested, according to local news outlets, after protesters fought police water cannons with sticks and stones.
The state of emergency announcement came as Piñera faces a scandal after his name emerged as part of a global investigation into financial irregularities by the world's elite known as the Pandora Papers. On Wednesday, opposition lawmakers began an impeachment process against Piñera for his alleged connection to the sale of a family mining company, a transaction that was uncovered in the investigation.