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Chileans Celebrated Columbus Day by Fighting with Cops

This Sunday, Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people stormed into Santiago for a demonstration and all hell broke loose.
October 13, 2014, 3:40pm

Photos by George Nelson and Cat Allen

On October 12, Latin America celebrated "Day of the Race," the region's equivalent of Columbus Day, which has evolved into a celebration of resistance against colonialism. So it's no surprise that this Sunday, the indigenous Mapuche people demonstrated their distaste for the arrival of Europeans on the continent by storming into Santiago for a demonstration, after which all hell broke loose.

Indigenous rights supporters came to Santiago riding a wave of fury after the murder of a Mapuche activist named José Mauricio Quintriqueo Huaiquimil on October 1. They surged up from the south of the country to demand the return of ancestral lands stolen by the young Republic of Chile over a century ago.

Last year’s march exploded in a blizzard of tear gas, arson, and mayhem as opportunistic hooded vandals known as encapuchados unleashed carnage. These hooligans are a common feature of protests in Chile and often appear toward end of student and indigenous rights demonstrations to carry out arbitrary attacks on police in an effort to bait confrontation. This year was no different.

Huaiquimil’s death—he was run over by a tractor-riding farm worker during conflict between Mapuches and landowners—was untimely to say the least. Two policemen were seriously injured after authorities descended on the Bío Bío Region to quell the violence that followed the murder. One copped a slug in the leg while another’s face was severely disfigured by a shotgun blast.

Given these recent events, there was a tangible undercurrent of hostility as the march began. There was an ominous inevitability to proceedings underscored by a heavy police presence.

Chile has been in a protracted battle with its indigenous inhabitants since the 1882 annexation of Mapuche land in Araucanía. The government promised to return much of the territory but progress is slow, leading to occasionally fatal exchanges between indigenous communities and authorities. Many Mapuches are incarcerated as a result. “We are here to rise up against the government and claim back land rightly belonging to us,” one Mapuche demonstrator told me. “We are here to secure the immediate release of all indigenous political prisoners.”

Thousands gathered in Providencia’s Plaza Italia and despite the march starting peacefully, simmering tensions soon boiled over as the procession rumbled down Liber Bernardo O’Higgins toward the presidential palace.

Armored Carbineros—Chile’s uniformed cops—and heavily reinforced riot wagons awaited protestors a few blocks before the government building. Seemingly out of nowhere an angry hoard of people wearing masks attacked, pelting police with anything they could get their hands on including jagged hunks of concrete and homemade Molotov cocktails. A scrum of gas-masked photographers instantly gravitated towards the ruckus as police retaliated with a hailstorm of tear gas and muscular jets of water laced with irritant. This was the first of many skirmishes.

One guy picked up a metal barrier and hurled it at the police. As he did so, his friend was telling me to, "get that fucking camera out of my face.” With stinging bloodshot eyeballs and a throat full of tear gas, I bolted up into a doorway where a charitable Chilean handed me a bit of vinegar-soaked cotton wool to soothe my irritated eyes—it was agony.

Meanwhile, the majority of Mapuche protestors stayed out of trouble and continued to chant the names of fallen activists and dance to the dull, heavy thud of drums. One of them confronted the encapuchados for sullying the indigenous cause, only to be bombarded with stones and bottles. The encapuchados soon turned their attention to defacing public property, leaving uprooted traffic lights, shattered shop windows, and burning bus stops in their wake.

After two hours of fighting, the authorities swarmed the area in front of La Moneda, dispersing crowds with water cannon and yet more tear gas bellowing from armored vehicles. Police also arrived on foot from all angles to break up the party.

The Mapuches weren;t going anywhere. They had set themselves up in front of the palace, commanding President Michelle Bachelet to hurry up and give them back their ancestral land, much of which is occupied by large timber companies.

Previous governments have vowed to return indigenous land only for these promises to stagnate. In June, Bachelet announced a plan to buy disputed ancestral land from forestry companies and local farmers and return it to better incorporate indigenous communities into Chile’s political and economic development.

Meanwhile, when conflict flares up, the Mapuche—who make up roughly 10 percent of Chile’s population—continue to be charged under the controversial 1976 antiterrorism law, which allows for the use of secret witnesses and prolonged prison sentences. Following a 39-day hunger strike by indigenous prisoners in May, politicians pledged to review the legislation.

For the Mapuche, this is only a first step, and they will continue to fight to get their land back. “Columbus Day is not a reason to celebrate,” the protestors shouted. “We defended our lands against European invaders and now we will defend them against the government!”