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SANTIAGO, Jan 3 2008 (IPS) - An indigenous Mapuche university student was shot and killed Thursday in southern Chile in a confusing incident with the police. In the meantime, an imprisoned activist who is on a hunger strike for the Mapuche cause is at death’s door after 82 days of fasting.
The violent incident occurred early Thursday morning at a rural estate in the region of Araucanía, 670 km south of the capital.
The estate, which the local Mapuche community claims as part of its traditional ancestral lands, was under round-the-clock police protection because it has suffered a number of attacks in the last few years.
The young man who was killed, 22-year-old agronomy student Matías Catrileo, trespassed on the estate with a group of fellow activists and set fire to several bales of hay.
The incident is the most serious reported in the area since the 2003 murder of a 19-year-old Mapuche man, Alex Lemún, who was shot in the head during a clash with the Carabineros militarised police. The case, investigated by the military justice system, was closed without anyone being held accountable for the killing.
In statements to the Bío-Bío radio station in southern Chile, the indigenous activists said Catrileo was shot in the back with a machine gun and that they decided to hide the body because they were afraid that the police would tamper with the evidence. For that reason, they asked the Catholic Church to receive the young man’s body.
The region of Araucanía has been in the headlines in the last few weeks because of a series of incendiary attacks against trucks and land belonging to forestry companies and agribusiness interests.
After Catrileo’s death was reported, Under-Secretary of the Interior Felipe Harboe urged the Mapuche activists to hand over the body and allow the justice system to act. However, he did not confirm the death.
He said the police had reported an armed confrontation between agents guarding the estate on court order and community members who were setting fire to bales of hay.
Given the gravity of the incident, ruling coalition Senators Alejandro Navarro and Nelson Ávila called on Organisation of American States (OAS) secretary general José Miguel Insulza to take a hand in the Mapuche conflict.
Simultaneously, on Thursday several human rights groups and personalities called a press conference to complain about the “silence” of the government of Michelle Bachelet with respect to the hunger strike that has brought activist Patricia Troncoso to the verge of death.
The news briefing was held by Amnesty International Chile, the Observatory of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Chilean Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (Acción), and retired Judge Juan Guzmán, who prosecuted the late former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).
Catrileo’s murder “is a very unfortunate event that must be condemned. But it was also predictable, because the police brutality and the state’s repressive use of force against indigenous, and especially Mapuche, communities has been well-documented and denounced by human rights groups over the past decade,” said the co-director of the Observatory, José Aylwin.
“This is the result of the current government’s silence and complicity with the Carabineros,” he maintained.
“Three weeks ago we held a meeting with Carabineros chief General Alejandro Bernales…and called attention to the need for the state to develop a policy for investigating incidents in which force is disproportionately used against the indigenous communities. These incidents are marked by violence and often racist taunts,” said the activist.
In one such incident, according to Amnesty International’s annual human rights report 2007, Carabineros police raided a Mapuche indigenous community in Temucuicui in Araucanía in July 2006, purportedly looking for livestock stolen from local ranchers. The community denied that any stolen animals were being held on their land.
“Police reportedly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at members of the community, who were unarmed. Several people were injured and a number of homes destroyed. Children were affected by the tear gas and several escaped to nearby hills. Women and children were ill-treated,” said the report.
Several days ago, the Carabineros announced the creation of a special police unit to deal with the violent incidents in Araucanía.
“Violence begets violence,” said Aylwin. “What we have here is historical violence, which began with the occupation of Mapuche territory by the state (in the 19th century) and continued with the policies of usurpation promoted throughout the 20th century, which continue today, through, for example, forestry plantations of exotic species planted on the lands of the indigenous communities, and the expansion of investment projects.”
“There have been violent reactions by the communities, but it is the state that must put a stop to the spiral of violence,” he said, adding that incidents like Thursday’s “indicate that this situation could stretch out into the future, with unpredictable consequences.”
Troncoso, meanwhile, is on the 82nd day of her hunger strike and says she is prepared to die to secure the release of Mapuche self-described political prisoners and to obtain the demilitarisation of the indigenous communities which are fighting for their ancestral lands.
The four Mapuche prisoners who were fasting with her gave up after they passed the 60-day mark.
The 37-year-old activist is serving a 10-year sentence on charges of terrorist arson.
In 2001, the courts found her and several Mapuche activists responsible for a fire that burned 100 hectares of pine plantations belonging to the Mininco forestry company, near the city of Temuco in the region of Araucanía.
To try the case, the Ricardo Lagos administration (2000-2006) invoked a controversial anti-terrorism law dating back to the Pinochet dictatorship.
The law, which allowed some 100 witnesses to conceal their identity while testifying, has been criticised by organisations like Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), and by the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights, through its rapporteur on indigenous issues, Rodolfo Stavenhagen.
Local and international human rights groups consider the sentences far out of proportion to the activists’ actions, and argue that protests by Mapuche people for the protection of their traditional lands and in defence of the environment are not acts of terrorism.
Although socialist President Bachelet promised not to invoke the anti-terrorism law to crack down on Mapuche protests, human rights groups are demanding a review of the sentences handed down under that law.
In Thursday’s press conference, the groups criticised the passive stance taken by the government, which had committed itself to setting up a negotiating table with the prisoners’ defence lawyers and representatives of the Catholic Church.
“Only one meeting was held, on Dec. 17, and the other was scheduled for Dec. 19, but the lawyers are still waiting to be called,” former judge Guzmán told IPS.
He added that the government had delayed the granting of prison privileges, like home visits on Sundays, for which the Mapuche prisoners and Troncoso are eligible because of the number of years they have been behind bars.
Aylwin pointed out that several weeks ago, Socialist Senator Alejandro Navarro sent a letter to Bachelet, urging the government to ask parliament to give fast track treatment to a legal reform that could lead to the activists’ release.
But the government did not take that step.
“The situation is extremely serious, one of life or death, without exaggerating,” said Guzmán.
The governments of the centre-left Coalition for Democracy that have ruled Chile since the country’s return to democracy in 1990 “have rightfully criticised the abuses, the delays and the judges’ failure to enforce the law during the dictatorship. Now the government itself is being criticised for failing to act in the face of a situation that involves the life of a person,” said the former judge.
The Mapuche, who number 600,000 in this South American country of 15.6 million, are the biggest indigenous group in Chile, making up 87 percent of the total native population. One-fifth of them live in the region of Araucanía.
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