This story is over 5 years old.


An Anti-Terror Law is Inflaming Tensions in Chile's Indigenous Turf War

The legislation currently allows for the extended detention of suspects without charge and greater sentences upon conviction, as well as, most controversially, anonymous witness testimony as primary evidence.

Despite heavy police presence in the region, violent conflict between indigenous activists and landowners continues in the Araucanía. Photo via Alianza Territorial Mapuche

Chile’s conservative right is calling on the government to use controversial anti-terrorism legislation against those responsible for a series of violent attacks in the south of the country, including the July shooting of a police officer and arson attacks on property. The attacks relate to the long-running conflict between activists from Chile’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuche, and local landowners over land rights. Labeling these attacks as terrorism has divided political opinion for several years.


Originally introduced to curtail any opposition under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, the anti-terrorism law was first applied to crimes relating to the Mapuche movement in the early 2000s. The legislation, since modified in the democratic era, currently allows for the extended detention of suspects without charge and greater sentences upon conviction as well as, most controversially, anonymous witness testimony as primary evidence.

Unsurprisingly, it has been criticized for leading to miscarriages of justice and provoked resentment from Mapuche groups who claim it stigmatizes protesters as terrorists.

Following President Michelle Bachelet’s pledge not to apply the law in the run-up to 2013 elections, the bill remained in limbo for several months, still active but intentionally avoided until the government announced plans to review it in May. This capitulation was brought about by a 39-day hunger strike of three prisoners considered terrorists by the Chilean state but hailed as heroes by many in the Mapuche movement.

Opinions remain polarized on the best way to end the conflict, which has turned violent in the last 15 years as the government takes its sweet time to give land back to indigenous people that was taken from them in the 19th century. But many across the political spectrum agree on one thing: the long-running tensions of this centuries-long conflict aren't going anywhere. Mapuche activists remain frustrated by the state’s response to their calls for greater political autonomy and a return of ancestral lands, while landowners and big business in the region are worried about the worsening security situation and demand tougher policing.


Mapuche prisoner Cristian Levinao was one of three prisoners to participate in a 39-day hunger strike protesting Chile’s controversial anti-terrorism law and its provision of anonymous witnesses for the prosecution. Photo by Fernando Lavoz

Neither side wants to compromise. Bachelet is already a controversial figure for many within the indigenous movement for having overseen several incidents of excessive police force resulting in the death of Mapuche activists during her first term (2006–2010). Her administration, then, will be judged on whether or not it chooses to cut the terrorism terminology and accompanying ideological baggage from the debate by modifying the law.

For now the most contested point is the provision for anonymous witnesses, one of several points currently under review by an external panel of experts. Supporters of the measure say it is an indispensable protection for witnesses. Otherwise they could be vulnerable to threats and retaliatory attacks—pointing to the repeated death threats made against so-called “anti-Mapuche” prosecutor Luis Chamorro, which, they speculate, prompted his decision to resign in mid May.

However, international human rights groups and the United Nations have consistently criticized the potential for miscarriages of justice as a result of secret testimony. And with good reason—earlier this year several cases were overturned after a formerly anonymous witness was discredited and claimed to have been a police informant.


For Domingo Namuncura, director of the Indigenous Rights Program at think tank Fundación Chile 21, the move toward charging the more serious crimes related to the Mapuche movement as acts of terror has reshaped how the conflict is perceived and exacerbated divisions. “The so-called ‘Mapuche conflict’ was understood from then on as a public order issue,” he told me. “This error of focus would go on to create considerable distance between the indigenous movement and the government. From then on the historical context of the demands of indigenous groups was largely overlooked.”

Professor Jaime Couso, legal expert at Universidad Diego Portales, expressed similar concerns. The use of the terminology of terrorism, he said, "introduces the rhetoric of an ‘internal enemy,’ which in turn increases the likelihood of the Mapuche people considering themselves as part of a struggle of a nationalist character.”

But while the harsh language of terror risks entrench the position of the indigenous movement, those in land disputes with Mapuche communities are happy to call what they see as a spade a spade.

As activists become frustrated with the pace of land reform via official channels, the tactics of occupation and other overtly militant action have increased. Groups representing non-indigenous landowners in the region such as the Association of Victims of Rural Violence (AVVRU) claim many of those in dispute in the Araucanía suffer persistent orchestrated intimidation in the form of arson and attacks on livestock and property—the vast majority of which, they say, are never solved.


Arson attacks on timber plantations are among the alleged tactics of hard-line indigenous groups that the anti-terrorism law has been used to combat. Photo via Mapuexpress

“No one wants to recognize the open secret about life [in the Araucanía], which is that every day and every night there are both minor and major attacks,” AVVRU President Alejo Apraiz said in a public statement in April. “The small incidents are never reported in the press, and so it’s as if they don’t exist but we, the victims, watch on powerless in the face of [intimidation] which has no end.”

AVVRU Executive Director Felipe Romero said the police are no longer capable of maintaining law and order in parts of the Araucanía. Many factors are to blame but a significant issue is the government’s policy of purchasing territory for groups who resort to hardline tactics in land disputes, he said.

“The only thing this is achieving is to compel [non-indigenous landowners] to arm themselves out of fear,” Romero told me, pointing to the numerous violent incidents reported in the region throughout June. He noted that the law had been ratified on numerous occasions since the return to democracy—so why not use it? “It’s very concerning that a government will simply announce it will not apply one of the country’s laws,” he said, claiming that police had few tools to combat the problem as it stands.

Indigenous protesters carry a banner reading: “We are not terrorists,” a response to the application of the controversial anti-terrorism law to the conflict. Photo via Mapuexpress


Among the politicians to advocate a tougher stance toward such tactics is Deputy Gonzalo Fuenzalida of the center-right National Renewal (RN) party. He lambasted the government for its decision to review the anti-terrorism law and its provision for anonymous witnesses, telling press it further isolated the already vulnerable victims of intimidation.

“[The government] is calling into question the scarce legal resources that we have specifically for victims to denounce offenders and proceed with cases for attacks against their family and property,” Fuenzalida said.

Calls for the anti-terrorism law to be applied to crimes in the Araucanía conflict gained further momentum in mid July after the government announced its decision to use the legislation against those responsible for leaving an explosive device on the Santiago metro the previous weekend.

“Undoubtedly, what happened on the metro is an act of terrorism, but by that token we don’t understand what is different about the arson attacks which take place in the south of the country,” Senator Victor Pérez of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) told press last week. “In the Araucanía organized groups use violence to generate fear in the general population. This is terrorism however you look at it.”

But others in Chile remain doubtful of the long-term benefits of further stigmatizing the Mapuche as terrorists, who may just become more and more likely to live up to that label.