Key Court Ruling Does Little To Ease Tensions Between Chile’s Mapuches And President Piñera

June 20, 2011

Demonstrators continue to lament Chile's treatment of Mapuche prisoners (credit - todosnuestrosmuertos/flickr)

A key court ruling concerning many of the protagonists in last year’s harrowing hunger strike has turned renewed attention to the Chilean government’s complicated – and at times contradictory – handling of the so-called “Mapuche conflict.” The Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, are thought to number some 800,000.

The ruling, handed down this past February by a court in the central Chilean town of Cañete, completed a three-month trial against 17 Mapuche men who – charged and processed under the country’s infamous “anti-terror law” – had spent approximately two years in pre-trial detention before the case even went to court. The defendants were accused of participating in an Oct. 2008 armed ambush against a public prosecutor named Mario Elgueta.

Desperate after so many months in lockdown, the prisoners launched a lengthy hunger strike last July, demanding among other things that Chilean authorities cease applying the draconian terror law to Mapuche cases (NotiSur, Sept. 10, 2010). A relic of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), Chile’s anti-terrorism law stiffens sentences, denies defendants basic disclosure rights and allows prosecutors to submit testimony from anonymous witnesses.

Joined by approximately 20 other Mapuche detainees from prisons throughout Chile’s central Biobío and Araucanía Regions, the strikers kept their perilous protest up for more than 80 days (NotiSur, Nov. 19, 2010). As their health deteriorated, the strikers gained increasing media attention, forcing the initially recalcitrant government of President Sebastián Piñera to negotiate – and eventually offer concessions. The conservative administration, Chile’s first since Pinochet, agreed specifically to withdraw terrorism charges and instead process the striking Mapuche under normal legal channels.

That decision proved to be beneficial for many – albeit not all – of the defendants in the Elgueta ambush case. On Feb. 22, the Cañete decided to absolve 13 of the 17 imprisoned indigenous men. In recent months Mapuche defendants have earned acquittals in several other cases as well.

“In retrospect, the strike was effective,” said 26-year-old Pablo Andrés Muñoz Guzmán, who was locked up for two years pending trial in the Elgueta case. “If we hadn’t kept it up for so long, we would have been convicted and sentenced [under the terrorism law] to more than 50 years in jail.”

“I was in jail for two years after being framed. They threw eight charges at me!” Norberto Parra, another of the acquitted Mapuche, told reporters following the Cañete ruling. “But I leave here content. Knowing I didn’t do anything wrong, I can hold my head up, show my face, just as I’m doing now.”

Justice Or Politics?

But while Feb. 22 may have been a day of redemption for Parra and the other absolved Mapuche, it turned out to be a nightmare for the remaining four defendants in the Cañeta trial. By a margin of 2-1, the court’s judges decided to convict Héctor Llaitul, leader of a militant Mapuche organization called the Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM), along with three of his CAM colleagues: Ramón Llanquileo, José Huenuche and Jonathan Huillical. All four were found guilty of armed robbery and attempted murder.

The Mapuche men are believed to have participated in a rampage that began Oct., 15, 2008, when Llaitul led them to the property of José Santos, a farmer in the Biobío community of Tirúa. After threatening Santos and his family, demanding they abandon the disputed property or face arson attacks, the Mapuche stole guns and other articles and fled. Early the next morning, the same men ambushed Elgueta and his police escort along a nearby road, firing gunshots at the public prosecutor’s 14-car motorcade, the court determined.

“If I don’t duck, my head gets blown off,” Elgueta stated in during his testimony.

Exactly one month after handing down the convictions, the Cañete court sentenced Llaitul to 25 years in prison. Llanquileo, Huenuche and Huillical each received 20 year sentences. “All of the facts on which the Ministerio Público [public prosecutor’s office] based its accusations…were recognized [by the court],” said chief Biobío prosecutor Julio Contardo. “These things happened. This also debunks each and every one of the accusations of [police] framing that came out before and during the trial.”

Not everyone agrees. Rights groups and other Mapuche sympathizers blasted the court’s decision, saying the convictions and “disproportionately” stiff sentences levied against Llaitul and the other three CAM members had little to do with justice and everything to do with politics. It was hardly a coincidence, say critics, that of the original 17 defendants, the only men convicted in the Santos/Elgueta case happened also to be the only four card carrying members of the notorious CAM organization.

Since its founding in the late 1990s, the CAM is thought to have authored periodic arson attacks, land occupations and occasional armed assaults. The attacks tend to target property belonging to large land holders or forestry companies operating in the Biobío and Araucanía, areas over which the Mapuche claim ancestral ownership.

“The trial was openly designed to punish and lock up Mapuche militants,” said Pamela Pessoa, Llaitul’s partner. “The Ministerio Público always had the intention of criminalizing the Mapuche struggle. Thirteen brothers from indigenous communities were absolved. The only convictions fell on my partner and the three other men. There’s no reason for that, except to send a message to the ideological and political organization that takes the most radical approach in fighting against capitalist investments in Mapuche territory.”

Critics also insist that in its zeal to crush the CAM, the Cañete court denied Llaitul and his colleagues their basic due process rights. Under pressure from the government, the court decided in the end to convict the four Mapuche prisoners as common criminals, not terrorists. But for two years prior, prosecutors took full advantage of the anti-terrorism law to ensure lengthy pre-trial detentions, deny defense lawyers normal disclosure rights, and collect the anonymous testimony on which they based their case. The CAM members, in other words, may have been convicted as regular criminals, but they were tried as terrorists.

“We all know that in reality, they applied the anti-terrorism law, which by its very nature is undemocratic in the sense that it was designed during the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship specifically to punish dissidents,” said Gonzalo Taborga, president of a Chilean rights group called La Comisión Chilena de Derechos Humanos (Cchdh).

The Price Of Ambiguity

Early in his presidency, Piñera took advantage of lull in age-old antagonisms to promise a fresh start to the government’s relationship with the Mapuche. Unlike his predecessors in the center-left Concertación coalition, whose appeasement strategy focused on land grants for qualifying families, Piñera announced a development approach, promising to improve overall conditions for Mapuches by improving the infrastructure and the economy of the disputed Biobío and Araucanía Regions (NotiSur, July 9, 2010).

So far, however, that fresh start has yet to materialize – in large part because Piñera, like the Concertación leaders before him, refused to reign in police repression against the Mapuche. The wake up call for Piñera, a law-and-order conservative on record as supporting the anti-terrorism statute, was last year’s high profile hunger strike.

The president made significant concessions in agreeing to lift terrorism charges and modify the law on which they were based. Six months later, however, tensions remain high, perhaps because the government’s approach to the Mapuche conflict – as exemplified by the Canete ruling – appears more inconsistent than ever. Absolving some of the defendants, the court threw the book at others, trying them as terrorists yet sentencing them as regular criminals.

“The policy has been ambiguous, contradictory and very slow,” José Aylwin, director of an indigenous rights group called Observatorio Ciudadano, said in a March 14 interview with Radio Universidad de Chile. “What’s clear is that the government is not overly concerned with the human rights of excluded groups, especially indigenous ones. The emphasis on is development, on Chile’s insertion in global markets. And as long as that’s the case, conflicts [between the state] and indigenous peoples will continue.”

Indeed, the Cañete trial – rather than improve relations – seems to have added more fuel to the fire. On March 22, protesting the court’s stiff sentence ruling, a group of Mapuche occupied Cañete’s main church. Since then indigenous groups and their sympathizers have also carried out protests in Santiago, Valdivia and elsewhere.

In the meantime, Llaitul and the other three convicted CAM members have been carrying out their own protest – once again in the form of a hunger strike, which they launched March 15, a week before their sentencing. They are now asking that the Supreme Court annul the Cañeta ruling.

So far media attention has been scant. The Piñera government – as it did last year as well, at least initially – has tried to dismiss the measure. “We’re always going to have a permanent policy of rejecting strikes as a means of pressuring negotiations, strikes aimed at overturning a legal decision,” said Justice Minister Felipe Bulnes.

The jailed CAM members have proven in the past, however, they are willing to push their bodies to near lethal limits, meaning sooner or later the Piñera could be forced to act.

“It seems that in Chile, unless someone is willing to go to extremes, like a hunger strike, there’s no justice,” said father Fernando Díaz of the Pastoral Indígena, a religious group with a history of mediation between Mapuche organizations and the Chilean government.

“The worst is that in the end, the Church has to intervene, since the state isn’t capable of adequately responding to these types of problems. This is really serious, because what the [Mapuche strikers] are demanding is based on real and legitimate complaints about the legal system. But the state has no response. It’s just silent.”


One comment

  1. its about time!

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