Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-CHILE: Stop Violence Against Indigenous Children – UNICEF

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 27 2009 (IPS) - Reports of police violence against Mapuche children in the southern Chilean region of Araucanía prompted the country's UNICEF representative, Gary Stahl, to express the agency's deep concern at a meeting with three government ministers.

Three months ago, several village communities belonging to the Mapuche Territorial Alliance began to "take back" the ancestral lands they claim by illegally occupying private estates in Araucanía, more than 600 kilometres south of Santiago, sparking a string of confrontations with the police.

The Mapuche are the main Amerindian group in Chile, numbering around one million people in a total population of over 16 million.

Acts of vandalism have taken place in Araucanía against public and private property, including setting fire to trucks loaded with logs from local forests. The radical Mapuche organisation Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM) has claimed responsibility for most of these incidents.

"We are calling for a halt to the violence involving children, whichever side is responsible for it," Stahl announced after his meeting with Carolina Tohá, spokeswoman for the government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet, Planning Minister Paula Quintana, and the president's chief of staff José Antonio Viera-Gallo, who is also coordinator of indigenous affairs.

Last week a Mapuche delegation visited the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) headquarters in Santiago to complain about police violence against children and teenagers, which they say is constantly being committed during raids on communities suspected of having had a hand in crimes under investigation by the justice system.

Asked whether the police might be violating the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Araucanía, the UNICEF representative said "some of the accounts we have heard" raise that possibility.

"The problem is that we have not seen any impartial investigation to clarify exactly what has happened," Stahl stressed.

"UNICEF calls on the government and all parties in the conflict to seek to improve the conditions for reporting incidents, because if people are afraid of making a complaint, no investigation is possible. And unless an investigation is carried out, we cannot find out what really happened, and what we have now is completely contradictory reports," he said.

Stahl said UNICEF would work with the government "at a technical level" to establish improved investigation mechanisms for such incidents.

For over two years UNICEF, together with other institutions, has been carrying out training courses on children's rights for Carabineros (militarised police) in Araucanía. "But (we do) not necessarily (train) all the Carabineros who come to the region" as police reinforcements, Stahl said.

Mapuche villagers have reported, for example, that a 14-year-old boy who was collecting herbs for a traditional healer in the village of Rofue was forced onto a police helicopter, taken aloft and threatened with being thrown out unless he confessed to taking part in a land occupation.

The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) issued a communiqué stating that on Oct. 16 "a large group of police, for as yet unknown reasons, began to fire pellets and tear gas canisters" in a school in Temucuicui, in Araucanía. Several children suffered pellet wounds and had trouble breathing.

Another serious case is that of a 17-year-old Mapuche youth with a badly injured leg, who was wounded by about 100 pellets allegedly fired by Carabineros in the area where the land disputes are raging, on Oct. 20. After being shot he was not seen for a week, nor did he contact health services. At his village he was given up for dead.

However, he reappeared Monday and was taken to the Traumatology Hospital in Santiago, where the damage to his leg was being assessed, according to local press reports. He said that he had been rabbit hunting when he was shot, that he did not know who shot him, and that he had gone into hiding because he was afraid.

These violent incidents prompted a former presidential candidate, Senator Alejandro Navarro of the left-wing Broad Social Movement (MAS), to travel to Buenos Aires Oct. 22 to ask the International Red Cross to send a delegation to the area. They will do so within a few weeks, Navarro said.

After meeting with Stahl Monday, Minister Quintana promised the government "will take all the necessary measures to safeguard the children's physical and psychological safety."

Quintana emphasised the decision of the Carabineros high command to dismiss one of their officers who savagely beat a villager who had already been immobilised, after the Catholic University's TV channel broadcast footage of the incident.

But the tensions are running as high as ever. The Mapuche communities were not satisfied by the Oct. 9 announcement made by Minister Viera-Gallo, who said the government hopes to finalise the purchase of nearly 30,000 hectares of land for 115 Mapuche villages, at a cost of close to 181 million dollars, in 2010.

A huge march took place Oct. 23 in Temuco, the capital of Araucanía, with Mapuche and non-Mapuche alike protesting against the militarisation of the indigenous villages and the excessive force used by police.

In two provinces of Araucanía alone, Malleco and Cautín, some 90 estates are under permanent police protection, according to Sunday's edition of La Tercera, a local newspaper.

To curb the violence, the Bachelet administration has invoked the draconian anti-terrorist law passed by the dictatorship of the late general Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), a move that has been criticised by several human rights organisations.

Deputy Interior Minister Patricio Rosende confirmed Monday that "worrying items" were found during violent raids on Sunday in a number of villages. Among them were ammunition for M-16 rifles, shotguns and fuses for explosives.

"We think they have been planted for political reasons, not by the ordinary police force but by the intelligence service," said Mijael Carbone, a spokesman for the Mapuche Territorial Alliance.

"What is happening here is a flagrant violation of human rights and of the rights of the Mapuche people," said Fernando Díaz, a Roman Catholic priest who coordinates the Southern Area Mapuche Pastoral Commission of the Chilean bishop's conference.

"(The police) charge into the villages as if they were terrorist hideouts, hitting out right and left and shooting. They are really provoking these communities. The present climate of tension in the communities is the fault of Carabineros and prosecutors who are using disproportionate violence," he said.

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