Claiming ancestral lands

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.

Protests have now spread well beyond the Araucania region and the indigenous groups themselves. The violence has also brought once-divided Mapuche communities together again. Days after Mendoza’s death, 60 communities came together to form the new Mapuche Territorial Alliance and announce more land occupations.

“We don’t want any more scraps. We want to recover our original territory, but the government won’t listen. That’s why we’ve united to take action,” said spokesman and leader of the Temucuicui community, Juan Catrillanca, who claims another 60 communities have asked to join them.

By the early 20th century, following the military occupation of the Araucania region, the 10 million hectares of Mapuche territory had shrunk to 500,000 hectares. Lands were handed over to foreign and Chilean settlers, who throughout decades expanded their property with fraudulent purchases and relocation of border fences.

With the agrarian reform in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the state began expropriating lands to hand over to Mapuche farmers, but the 1973 military coup abruptly ended the process and much of the land remained in a legal limbo. Plots were auctioned off cheap to large economic groups, which, thanks to new incentives to foment the lumber industry, wiped out native woods in Mapuche territory to plant pine and eucalyptus. The Mapuche lands were further reduced to a total of 300,000 hectares. “Western culture conceives property through legal land titles, but the Mapuche cosmovision considers that the land belongs to them because they have always lived on it. In their collective subconscious, they believe the impoverishment of their people is due to the usurpation of their lands,” said Hernando Silva, coordinator of the legal department at the Observatory on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Temuco. About 38 percent of Mapuches live in poverty.

Efforts to return the land have progressed slowly. In 1994, the government set up a National Indigenous Commission, CONADI, in charge of complex negotiations with large landholders to purchase a portion of their land to return to Mapuche communities. Since then, the government has bought or regularized 170,000 hectares for the Mapuche.

Last year, President Michelle Bachelet announced a Multicultural Social Pact to ensure their legal, cultural and territorial rights, including the restitution of lands to 115 communities by next year. However, there are hundreds more communities claiming ancestral lands.

What the government fails to understand, said former Temuco mayor Francisco Huenchumilla, of Mapuche origin, is that the conflict over lands demands a political solution.

“There is a permanent sense of injustice in this that can only be solved through dialogue, policies and understanding," he said. "This requires understanding the historical truth, because if the government thinks this is just an issue for the police, it is very mistaken.”

The Hernan Trizano Commando has its own Nazi-like “solution” for the Mapuche: “The final solution to this problem is to create an indigenous reservation between Peru and Bolivia. Building them houses and giving them food and clothing is much cheaper than giving them lands in Temucuicui, which they won’t use to plant anything,” said its spokesman.