Daniel Melinao, an indigenous werkén [tribal community leader] in Chile, spent almost a year behind bars charged with the murder of a police officer — a crime that he did not commit. On May 28, he was freed and absolved of all charges related to the carabinero's death.
Melinao and other advocates for the Mapuche people claim they are the victims of a political witch-hunt to silence the activists who are attempting to recover their ancestral lands.
"Their actions were in keeping with a political persecution against me," Melinao told VICE News, upon regaining his liberty. "There is a campaign to go after Mapuche leaders. They want to silence us. In my community alone there have been 6 peñis [brothers] who have become political prisoners and were later absolved."
"They will not scare us," he added. "We will continue to fight for what is ours."
At 9AM on April 2, 2012, several members of the Mapuche community Wente Winkul Mapu — in Ercilla, 350 miles south of Chile's capital city, Santiago — had their futures abruptly altered. Their land was surrounded by dozens of GOPE [special police] officers, armed with tear gas canisters and gas-launching vehicles.
The officers forced their way into the community to search the Mapuche homes for weapons, which they claimed were used during previous encounters with the police and attacks against landholders. No weapons were found, but several members of the community were arrested and residents claim that a handful of homes were destroyed during the encounter.
Half an hour after the operation began, Melinao received a call on his cellphone informing him of the government incursion that was taking place on his community's land. At the time, he was around 10 miles away, in the city of Collipulli. It took him 40 minutes to return to the site of the raid.
This call later became the key piece of evidence used to absolve him of allegations that he murdered an officer during the property search — charges that could have led to a 31-year prison sentence.
By triangulating Melinao's location at the time that he received the call, prosecutors were able to determine that it would have been impossible for him to have participated in the crime.
According to Nelson Miranda, a lawyer who has become the primary legal representative of the indigenous people in Chilean tribunals, more than 60 Mapuche have been wrongly incarcerated in recent years, and unlike Melinao, they have yet to find their freedom. Some have been condemned, yet others continue to await sentencing for myriad crimes, ranging from abusing an officer, to armed robbery, homicide, arson, and battery.
"Justice in Mapuche territory functions differently than it does in the rest of the country," Miranda told VICE News.
Chile's indigenous people allege judicial irregularities, setups, and police persecution against them. They claim that these frequent charges are used to deter them from protesting, to clear the way for businesses that wish to set up shop on land that they claim the Chilean government forcefully took from them.
In 2010, a group of jailed Mapuche held a hunger strike to protest being charged under anti-terrorism laws, as a result of their role in land disputes.
The community's call for land restitution — the so-called "Mapuche conflict" — has in recent years left hundreds of people injured and has led to several deaths: at least three indigenous people, one police officer, and an elderly couple of European descent.
Family members of these two elderly victims — who were found burned alive in January 2013 — have held property in the Mapuche region since the early days of the conflict. A man from a nearby indigenous community, Celestino Córdova, was sentenced to 18 years in prison as a result of this crime.
Contrary to the Mapuche's allegations of persecution, other victims of regional violence have criticized the outcome of trials involving indigenous people, considering the results to be unfairly favorable.
"The prosecutors are quite apprehensive when the accused is Mapuche," Alejo Apraiz, the president of the Association for Victims of Rural Violence, told VICE News. "There is no such thing as judicial equality, since the indigenous people are treated well — especially those who complain the most, and those who organize protests."
The Mapuche dispute in Chile is territorial in origin. It began when the people of southern Chilean towns began to demand the return of close to 25 million acres that were taken from them at the end of the 19th century after a series of military incursions and campaigns, during a process called the "Pacification of Araucanía." At the time, Chile annexed a lush territory of around 37,000 square miles — about the size of South Korea or the state of Indiana — which now predominantly belongs to forestry companies, and descendants of European settlers who are second or third generation Chileans.
In an attempt to calm the animosity, and after years of national policy aimed at repressing indigenous people, the administration of President Michelle Bachelet recently changed strategy on this issue.
She appointed a politician of Mapuche descent to serve as regional governor of Araucanía. Francisco Huenchumilla made history on his first day in office on March 14 by delivering a public apology.
"The state has erred and until now there have been no reparations," he said. "I come to ask the Mapuche people for forgiveness, for the dispossession of your lands caused by the Chilean government."
But in spite of the Huenchumilla's apparently good intentions, the environment is still heated, primarily because it was during Bachelet's first term — between 2006 and 2010 — that many Mapuche people were first incarcerated.
Last June, during the Mapuche New Year celebration, We Tripantu, Bachelet confirmed that she would look to accelerate the process of redistributing land to the indigenous communities, as a gesture of good will. To date, 725 acres of agricultural land have been returned to Mapuche communities in the conflicted region.
Many indigenous organizations and communities believe that the government is full of empty promises. They say the protests and land overthrows will continue, with the hope of eventually achieving demilitarization of the region and repossession of the land.
"We have documents that indicate that a large part of the territory surrounding our communities were occupied by our parents and grandparents," Melinao told VICE News, just days after regaining his freedom. "We are demanding something that is rightfully ours and ending up political prisoners because of it."
"It is evident that there is racism in this country's justice system. In this area the longest preventative prison sentences in all of Chile are taking place, for entirely political reasons," Mapuche defense attorney Miranda said. "I recently represented Mauricio Huaiquilao, who was accused of starting a fire at an agricultural estate. He spent two years in jail for a crime that he was later absolved of."
Due to situations like this, the indigenous people are predominantly criticizing public prosecutors, the Chilean officials in charge of pursuing the cases against the Mapuche people.
The regional prosecutor's office of Araucanía claims that all of the measures taken have been legitimate. According to them, it is up to individual judges to determine the sentencing of indigenous people, and the duration of their incarceration.
On the morning of May 28, Daniel Melinao heard the word "absolved." The tribunal hearing his case concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove his participation in the officer's death.
Yet other indigenous people in Chile have yet to hear this and they remain behind bars for the indefinite future.
Follow Nicolás Ríos on Twitter: @nicorios