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Death of a Mapuche

Only after Jaime Mendoza died did the government spill the beans on the actual situation concerning land ownership in southern Chile, where Mapuche indigenous communities have resorted to land occupations and acts of violence, and severe police repression has followed.

Mendoza, a 24-year-old Mapuche who had participated in an occupation of lands the Mapuche claim as theirs, was killed by the police earlier this month when special forces went in to evacuate. Witnesses say the police fired their weapons on the fleeing Mapuche; the autopsy report confirmed that Mendoza had been shot in the back. According to a first-hand witness, Mendoza was left on the ground face down and handcuffed for an hour and a half while three police officers watched over him, making no effort to bring him medical care.

The government sent a high-level delegation to the area. This week, President Michelle Bachelet presided over a cabinet meeting to analyze the conflict over ancestral indigenous lands and the government program to restore some of them to Mapuche communities. After the meeting, government spokeswoman Carolina Toha told reporters that a major part of the problem is that ever since the government announced a year ago that it would buy lands for 115 Mapuche communities, large landholders shot the price of their lands up by almost 300 percent.

Toha said what landowners in the Araucania region were doing was a “fraud for Chilean society,”

“It is unacceptable that a few people speculate and profit from a historical demand that counts with public policies and resources to be met,” she said.

The large landowners say the lands the Mapuche are claiming as their ancestral territories are legally theirs, and they can put any price they want on them. But this has made it next to impossible for the government to purchase the lands to hand over to the indigenous communities. The only option left seems to be expropriation, which the government said it would not resort to.

But something has to be done, and the government finally seems to be coming to terms with a historical conflict over lands that has been dragging on for a long time. Now, it has announced it will review and correct its land program, implicitly admitting that whatever it was doing wasn’t working well.