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

CHILE: Mapuche Detainees Say They Were Framed

Daniela Estrada

TEMUCO, Chile, Nov 20 2009 (IPS) - “This lie has got to end,” said a sobbing Luisa Marilef, a 55-year-old Mapuche woman who says her son’s arrest and prosecution under Chile’s anti-terrorism law was part of a set-up by the police and prosecutors.

Such claims, which the authorities deny, are commonly heard in southern Chile, the homeland of the Mapuche people, who complain about being framed for things they did not do, in the context of the ageold dispute over land.

“My son (Sergio Catrilaf, head of the ‘Juan Catrilaf II’ community) works in his fields, growing lettuce, and growing spinach and chard in the winter. He sits down at the negotiating table with the government and takes part in the dialogue, but now they have put him in prison. We have never had any problems with the carabineros (police). This is so painful,” said Marilef, hardly able to talk through her tears.

The Mapuche number nearly one million in this South American country of 16 million people and make up close to 90 percent of Amerindians in Chile. Although around half of all Mapuche now live in Santiago, their ancestral territory stretches from the region of Bío-Bío to the region of Los Lagos, over 500 km south of the capital.

The “Juan Catrilaf II” community, located in the district of Padre de las Casas in the region of Araucanía, is comprised of 113 families who live on a similar number of hectares of land.

For a decade, the community peacefully negotiated with the Chilean government its claim to around 500 hectares of land, which were to be transferred to it on Oct. 5.

The land transfer was held up by red tape, and the locals began to lose hope on Oct. 25, when the police stormed into the community to arrest Sergio Catrilaf and other men accused of recent arson attacks on two trucks and an attack on a passenger bus heading from Santiago to Puerto Montt in the south, which was stoned by a group of hooded men, who also spray-painted it with Mapuche demands.

Around 20 members of the community were injured in the police raid.

“My son was framed,” Marilef told a group of foreign correspondents who visited the community, a hospital and three prisons in Bío-Bío and Araucanía Nov. 12-14. In the prisons, several Mapuche Indians, like the 33-year-old Catrilaf, are facing charges under the counter-terrorism law that was decreed by the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

“Unless it is proven that they were framed, we do not accept such allegations,” President Michelle Bachelet’s chief of staff José Antonio Viera-Gallo, who is also coordinator of indigenous affairs, told the foreign press this week.

Besides the supposed set-up by the police and prosecutors, allegedly aimed at undermining the Mapuche movement and blocking the ongoing handover of land to native communities, the Mapuche accuse the landholders and companies that own the land in dispute of staging “self-inflicted attacks” to implicate members of the indigenous community.

They also claim paramilitary groups are operating in the area. But according to Viera-Gallo, there is no evidence that such groups exist.

There are also constant complaints of police brutality and physical and verbal mistreatment of women, children and the elderly during searches of communities, when the police burst into houses seeking activists wanted by the justice system.

The foreign media outlets that visited the area, including IPS, were shown bruises on people’s bodies, caused by rubber bullets used by the police.

Mapuche Indians in preventive detention say that in their raids, the police do not identify themselves as police or show arrest warrants. The detainees also say they have been subjected to physical and psychological torture.

Temucuicui, a traditional community in the district of Ercilla, region of Araucanía, which is active in the struggle for ancestral Mapuche lands, accused the police of lobbing tear gas canisters near the local school, causing respiratory problems among more than 30 children – an incident that triggered expressions of concern from UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund).

“But we mustn’t exaggerate,” said Viera-Gallo. “There might be a few regrettable isolated cases, but they are not widespread.” In the case of Temucuicui, “the kids were coughing and choking, like any of us do when a tear gas canister is thrown near us. But that’s all that happened,” he said.

In his view, the at times excessive use of force by the police is a response to attacks launched by the communities that are about to be searched. “I don’t think there’s any police sadism…I don’t believe the Chilean police are trying to cause harm to the communities,” the official argued. “For us, the ideal would be for no violent incidents to occur at all.”

According to the police, ammunition and fuses for explosives have been found in some communities. But the Mapuche residents deny such allegations.

“The police even seized children’s toys as evidence,” said Luisa Marilef.

Counter-terrorism law

Liberar, a local non-governmental organisation that provides legal support to the Mapuche activists facing charges, says there are more than 50 Mapuche political prisoners.

The Bachelet administration says that only nine out of the more than 2,000 Mapuche communities have engaged in violence in the land reclamation movement. But it acknowledges that the demand for the recuperation of ancestral land is widely shared.

This year, national officials have invoked the anti-terror law in three cases involving Mapuche Indians, despite the government’s initial promise that it would not turn to the draconian law, in line with recommendations by international human rights organisations.

Under the dictatorship-era law, prosecutors may keep their evidence secret, anonymous witnesses can testify for the prosecution, prosecutors may apply for powers to tap telephones and intercept correspondence, emails and other communications, suspects can be held for up to ten days before formal charges are brought, and detainees often face long periods of pretrial detention and lengthy sentences.

Another danger is double jeopardy, because some Mapuche detainees are tried for the same crime by the civilian and military justice systems, with the two sentences served consecutively, which is considered a legal aberration.

Pablo Ortega, an attorney who is representing several Mapuche defendants, said some of his colleagues have faced reprisals because of their work on behalf of the indigenous group. “What worries me the most is the extreme level of violence used by the police in the communities,” the lawyer told the visiting correspondents.

But Viera-Gallo says the government “does not consider the indigenous organisations as terrorists, even though some of the actions of their members would fit that definition.

“That is why the law is invoked,” but it is up to the judge to decide, said the official, who added that Chile’s anti-terror law would probably “fare pretty well” if a comparative study was carried out regarding similar laws from other countries, which were stiffened after the 9/11 terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in 2001.

“The United Nations has no internationally-agreed definition of terrorism,” he pointed out.

Difficult solution

The Mapuche people have kept their traditions and customs alive for centuries, despite the fact that they do not follow one single leader or organisation – something that has stood in the way of a common position aimed at recuperating the land that was taken from them since the late 19th century.

Tired of the slow pace at which the centre-left Coalition for Democracy governments have returned land to the communities – 650,000 hectares since 1994 – dozens of communities joined together in the Mapuche Territorial Alliance launched another wave of land occupations in late July, leading to a new escalation of the conflict.

During one of the occupations in August, 24-year-old Jaime Mendoza Collío was shot dead by the police. And in January 2008, 22-year-old Mapuche agronomy student Matías Catrileo was shot in the back by the police while trespassing on private land with other activists.

The deaths further exacerbated the tension.

The Mapuche Territorial Alliance has marked differences with other native organisations, such as the more radical Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM), which has claimed responsibility since 1997 for a number of actions of sabotage such as arson attacks on logging company machinery as part of what it calls its “political-ideological” struggle for the reconstruction of an autonomous Mapuche Nation.

The diverse range of strategies followed by different Mapuche groups once again became evident on Nov. 5, when indigenous leaders and members of the business community presented Bachelet with their “Araucanía Plan”, a proposal aimed at resolving the ongoing land disputes by boosting production in the region.

But the Territorial Alliance rejected the proposal.

The Mapuche “are a people with a strong identity, but they are geographically dispersed and are a minority everywhere,” which makes coming up with a solution very complex, said Viera-Gallo.

“The idea that Wallmapu (Mapuche territory) could be reconstructed as a kind of autonomous area is a utopia, it has no foundation in reality, unless there was an ethnic conflict in that area of a magnitude that no one wants, like the one in the former Yugoslavia. Everyone who isn’t Mapuche would have to leave; it would be an ethnic cleansing. That cannot happen.

“The only solution here is to live in diversity, under a ‘new deal’, Mapuche and non-Mapuche side by side, respecting each other and progressing together. But that will involve a slow, difficult learning process,” because of the strong racism that persists in Chilean society, the official added.

Despite their differences, the Mapuche organisations agree that their movement has been gradually growing in strength in recent years. The demand for the return of their traditional lands, they say, is growing stronger as the Mapuche communities in the south expand in size.

As part of its indigenous policy, the government has promised to restore the lands of 115 top priority communities by the end of 2010, despite the difficulties caused by the artificial increase in the price of land. It is also creating a ministry of indigenous affairs and a council of indigenous peoples.

But it does not rule out further use of the anti-terror law, if new violent incidents meriting it occur in the conflict zone, Viera-Gallo responded to a question from IPS.

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