Connect to share and comment

Claiming ancestral lands

A KKK-like group is threatening to kill indigenous Mapuche as part of a pitched battle over land rights.

A Mapuche stands guard during the burial ceremony of Jaime Facundo Mendoza Collio, who was killed during clashes with riot police near Temuco city, some 422 miles south of Santiago, Aug. 16, 2009. Land disputes are ongoing in the Araucania region, where the indigenous Mapuche population claims ancestral lands. (Jose Luis Saavedra/Reuters)

SANTIAGO — A Ku Klux Klan-like group believed to be made up of large landowners in southern Chile is vowing to kill as many indigenous Mapuche as it can in retaliation for land occupations by the Mapuche.

In late July, a gun-toting anonymous spokesman for the “Hernan Trizano Commando” announced his group had a stash of weapons and a list of Mapuche leaders it would proceed to assassinate “so they stop messing around with our lands.”

“The main Mapuche leaders are going to disappear from the face of the earth with the dynamite we will put in their belts if they insist on their demands for lands,” said the commando spokesman in a press interview.

Large farmers and industrialists currently hold much of the land that the Mapuche claim as ancestral territories. Frustrated by the slow and inefficient government program that would return some of those lands to them, and feeling rebuffed by the authorities, dozens of Mapuche communities are resorting to simultaneous land takeovers, meeting with fierce police repression.

Some Mapuche organizations have increasingly adopted radical tactics in recent decades, turning to arson and other acts of violence against those they accuse of usurping their lands. Those arrested are often tried under controversial Pinochet-era antiterrorist legislation, which international rights groups say violates due process. The Mapuche is the largest group of indigenous peoples in Chile, making up about 10 percent of the total population, and is concentrated largely in the Araucania region, more than 420 miles south of the capital. The ongoing conflict over land ownership is rooted in the loss of ancestral lands during the Chilean military occupation in the 19th century.

Special police forces from the capital have been sent to the region to evacuate occupied territories and last week they killed 24-year old Mapuche Jaime Mendoza during a forced evacuation, further fueling the conflict. Autopsy reports revealed that the unarmed youth had been shot in the back as he tried to escape police persecution. Mendoza is the third Mapuche to die over the past seven years at the hands of police in similar circumstances. Dozens of others have been injured.

“The government’s response has been more repression. The use of force is completely disproportionate. Just in Temucuicui, where 80 families live, there are 300 police agents posted there permanently,” said Richard Caifal, a lawyer of Mapuche origin who provides legal assistance to the Temucuicui community that has been spearheading the occupations this year, and whose leaders were targeted by the Trizano commando.

The Catholic Church's subcommittee on Mapuche affairs condemned the repression, saying it stems from discrimination and racism. The church has traditionally acted as mediators between the government and Mapuche. “We are concerned about the progressive criminalization of Mapuche demands, reducing it to an issue for the police. The Mapuche are not criminals or terrorists," it said in a public statement.