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Violence Between Landowners and Chile's Indigenous Is Only Getting Worse

The conflict stems from when the Chilean army invaded autonomous Mapuche land in the 19th century. Now the Mapuche are fighting violently to get it back.

by Nicolás Ríos
Mar 30 2016, 3:05pm

Imagen por Nicolás Ríos/VICE News

Sonia Navarrete, the owner of a small forestry business in Chile, was on her way home one day in June 2015 when she and her husband were ambushed by a group of five hooded men. The attackers tied them up and held them captive for an hour, after which they burned the couple's house to the ground.

Five months after that incident, Belarmino Curipán, an indigenous Mapuche farmer, was plowing a plot of land he had illegally taken over when he heard a helicopter approaching. Shortly after, he saw a drone and a group of 150 policemen. Curipán fled to the forest, and when he returned, he saw his house had been demolished with chainsaws.

Both the Navarretes and Curipán live in the outskirts of Collipulli, a town located in the central Chilean region of Araucanía, 335 miles south of the country's capital Santiago.

They both lost their homes, but they're on opposite sides of a long and seemingly endless conflict over land rights between the indigenous Mapuche and Chileans of mostly European descent.

The conflict, which has grown especially heated in recent months, has its roots in the 19th century, when the Chilean army invaded the Araucanía region, which at the time was autonomous Mapuche land. The Chileans gave the land to private owners, leaving Mapuche tribes in poverty. Police repression of Mapuche activists has also fed the conflict, as well as tensions between impoverished indigenous peasants and large landowners.

Belarmino Curipán next to the remains of his house. (Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)

In 1992, two years after the end of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's iron rule, the Mapuche issue was rekindled. The year marked the 500th anniversary of the so-called "discovery" of the Americas by Columbus, and indigenous people across the continent took the opportunity to remind the world that their ancestors were there long before the conquistadors. For the Mapuche that year kicked off the current cycle of tension, clashes, and conflict.

The conflict grew even bigger in 1997, when the Chilean government approved the construction of the Ralco Hydroelectric Plant , located in Alto Bio Bio, right in the middle of Mapuche land. This led to the first guerrilla-like attacks against police and private property in the area.

'The Mapuche people are mostly peaceful...There's only violence during specific situations'

The situation escalated over the past two years when former right-wing President Sebastián Piñera and current President Michelle Bachelet's left-wing government began using an anti-terrorist law imposed under Pinochet's regime against the Mapuche. Mapuche leaders and international NGO's have criticized the law, which according to the Inter-american Court of Human Rights, restricts some fundamental rights, such as freedom of movement and due process, because the law allows prosecutors and judges to lengthen preventive detention and use anonymous witnesses.

The situation got so bad that Bachelet visited the Araucanía area on December 29, 2015 in an attempt to calm the situation. Two days later, Interior Minister Jorge Burgos also travelled there, and spent the new year in the outskirts of Collipulli, a town located in the conflict's "red area."

"We expect this year to be calmer, for the sake of all the peaceful Chileans who live in this area," said Burgos.

So far, things have not worked out that way.

Related: Chile Is Locked in a Drawn-Out Battle with Its Indigenous Population

Two days after Burgos' visit, authorities found a bomb outside the Temuco prison in the contested area with an attached note demanding freedom for indigenous prisoners.

In the first months of 2016, agriculture and forestry businessmen have filed at least 20 complaints of arson attacks. The worst incident ocurred on March 2, when 12 trucks from a forestry company were ambushed by a group of hooded men, who shot at them and burned six vehicles.

The Mapuche were widely blamed for these acts.

Sonia Navarrete stands next to her burned house.(Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)

Domingo Namuncura, a Mapuche who serves as Chile's ambassador to Guatemala, insists that members of the indigenous group are not needlessly violent.

"The Mapuche people are mostly peaceful," he said. "There's only violence during specific situations."

Namuncura said other issues exacerbate the underlying problem over land, such as social and cultural discrimination, political marginalization, and the widespread perception in Chile that "indigenous things have less value."

There are also allegations that the police are targeting the Mapuche unfairly — and brutally.

Related: Wrongly Imprisoned Indigenous Leader Says Chile's Mapuche People Are Being Victimized

The Mallekoche Mapuche community accused the police of stealing their belongings during a violent raid on January 3.

A month later, police detained Daniel Melinao, an indigenous leader who had also been arrested under dubious circumstances and held for a year in 2012. This time, Meliano is accused of arson, damaging private property, injuring police officers, and theft.

The heavy-handed police tactics against the Mapuche are not new.

In November 2002, Mapuche leader Víctor Ancalaf was walking through the streets of Temuco, the capital city of Chile's Araucanía province, when he was brutally beaten by a group of at least 10 men. The attackers were plainclothes policemen sent to arrest him it was later discovered.

Ancalaf was the first indigenous man charged with terrorism, and he was sentenced to five years in prison for arson.

'I will defend this land with my life. I am 53 years old and I have nothing to lose... I want to die fighting. I want to make history'

His case eventually found its way to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ruled against the Chilean state in 2014, forcing authorities to cancel his sentence and pay him millions of dollars in compensation. But the court's decision came too late.

"I was already out of prison. I had fulfilled my sentence," said Ancalaf.

Ancalaf insists that his ordeal will not stop him from continuing to pressure Chile to return 81.5 million acres of land that were taken away from the Mapuche in the 19th century. The Mapuche also want constitutional recognition for indigenous people, and political and economic autonomy.

"I will defend this land with my life. I am 53 years old and I have nothing to lose," he said. "I want to die fighting. I want to make history."

An abandoned house says "Mapuche Resistance". (Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)

Many Mapuche also see the economic conditions of indigenous people as another key part of the conflict. Araucanía is the poorest region in Chile, with close to a third of the population living below the poverty line, according to official figures.

Large estate owners like Juan de Dios Fuentes are the Mapuche's main enemies. The 43-year-old businessman and his family control more than 494 acres of land, which is mostly used for farming.

VICE News spoke with Fuentes two days after he was attacked by armed men. He was unharmed, but he said it was the latest in a long line of similar incidents.

'Being a victim all your life is not an option'

"The first attack happened in 2003, and we have been attacked 240 times ever since, even with an M16 rifle," he said. "We have never been robbed, because the attacks are aimed at generating fear, so that we go away and leave these lands for them. That's why we call them terrorist attacks."

The businessman estimates he has lost $2.7 million because of the attacks against him. He is now the head of the Paz in Araucanía Foundation, and has told his story hundreds of times at public events across Chile.

"Being a victim all your life is not an option," Fuentes said. "I don't like it."

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Fuentes said that he does not support the idea of the government buying land and giving it to the Mapuche because, he claims, it puts current landowners at risk. He thinks it would be better to pay the Mapuche compensation instead.

"If we don't sell to them, the Mapuche begin to threaten us in order to make us leave. This state policy is creating a wicked incentive for the attacks against us to continue," the landowner said.

Juan de Dios Fuentes claimed the trucking driving past his property had attacked him days earlier. (Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)

There are also plenty of small landholders who feel they have been victimized by the Mapuche.

On August 8, 2008, 53-year-old farmer Marilí Vallejo felt scared. People had been throwing stones at her house for several days and she felt threatened, so she decided to spend a day in her parents' house. She says that a neighbor knocked on the family's door that night and told her that her house and land were on fire.

"When I got there, half of my house was burned. I lost it all," Vallejo told VICE News. With no home or job, she took her 17-year-old daughter to live with her elderly and disabled mother. Now, she said, she is struggling to sell her land to the government, and she said visiting her former home is very risky.

"I can't even work on my property," she said. "It's wasted land that I cannot use."

'For me, this is terrorism'

Vallejo now leads the Association of Rural Victims, an organization that groups 43 people who, like her, have lost their belongings or are under threat. Most of the group's members do not have enough money to hire lawyers.

"They can't say that we are state owners. The group has poor members that own less than two acres of land, and that are threatened by the Mapuche," she said, while showing a photograph of her charred land. "For me, this is terrorism."

Marilí Vallejo sits in her mother's living room holding a picture of her abandoned house.(Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)

Both sides consider themselves victims, but one man is trying to reconcile the situation. Francisco Huenchumilla became the first man of Mapuche origin to be appointed as an Intendant of Araucanía in 2014, making him one of 15 government-appointed regional leaders throughout the country. In his inaugural speech, he asked Mapuches and landowners for forgiveness in the name of Chile.

"If the Mapuche want their original territories back and these lands are now occupied by private landowners, neither the Mapuche, nor the big or small landowners are to blame. The state is the one who brought these people to a conflictive territory," Huenchumilla told VICE News.

Related: Pope Francis Tells Mexico's Indigenous Peoples: 'Sorry Brothers'

"The first thing that the government must do to solve this problem is to diagnosis correctly. They have to believe it's a political conflict, not a criminal one. Police repression has been used since the 1990s and it has yielded no results," he added. "If we continue to live with a police repression policy, no solution will arrive."

'The state is the one who brought these people to a conflictive territory'

Just 17 months after taking office, Huenchumilla was removed from his post. He was about to submit a plan to end the area's violence that included parliamentary representation for Mapuche, buying land for indigenous people, and an economic compensation for the victims of the conflict. Andrés Jouanne, the new intendant appointed by President Bachelet had a very different view of the situation.

"There's no Mapuche conflict," Jouannet said. "These people are criminals that are committing violent crimes that are highly publicized and they are trying to link them with the Mapuche cause."

Police guard one landowners property.(Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)

Meanwhile, those affected by the violence still live precariously. The Navarretes, whose house was burned down, and Belarmino Curipán, the Mapuche squatter who lost his home to chainsaws, have been left in limbo.

Sonia Navarrete and her husband now live in an emergency house provided by Chilean authorities. It is four times smaller than their original property, and is under police surveillance 24 hours a day. In addition to their home, they also lost 44.5 acres of pine trees that were their only economic support.

After finding out his house had been destroyed, Curipán realized his kitchen amenities and mattress had also been stolen.

"A truck of the forestry company came with the policemen. They demolished my house and took my things away. I saw them from my hiding place in the forest," he said. The farmer went on to rebuild his house, but he fears it might be destroyed again.

Related: Indigenous People Say Oregon's 'Domestic Terrorists' Are Just Fighting Over Native Land

Follow Nicolás Ríos on Twitter: @nicorios

land rights
indigenous rights