Chile’s indigenous Mapuche population has long suffered discrimination, both during and after the country’s colonisation from Spain. However, recent events have demonstrated that high levels of hostility towards the group remains.Operación Huracán, an investigation conducted by the Carabineros (Chile’s police force) and the Chilean National Intelligence Agency (ANI), has shown many of the issues and prejudices that the Mapuche population face. Convened to investigate supposed links between Mapuche groups and illicit terror organisations in the southern Araucanía region, it led to the arrest of eight Mapuches in September 2017.
Following Chile’s Prosecutor General subsequently establishing that some Carabineros involved in the operation had manipulated evidence, a wide-ranging investigation into the affair began. The Prosecutor’s Office later found that the eight Mapuches arrested were charged based on evidence which the Carabineros themselves had planted on the mobile telephones of the community members. It has also been reported that the eight Mapuches arrested were never issued with a formal detention order, receiving merely a ‘verbal detention warrant’ instead.
After a series of court hearings, the affair has now reached Chile’s Supreme Court. The eight Mapuches detained took their case to the country’s highest judicial authority after the Appeals Court in Temuco ruled in favour of reviewing the decision to permanently dismiss the case against them. Thus effectively reversing an earlier ruling by Temuco’s District Court.
Operación Huracán forms part of a wider backdrop of oppression towards Mapuches in recent years. Many have long protested to demand the restoration of ancestral land and regional autonomy, which they assert was taken away from them during years of mistreatment suffered under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and during Chile’s colonial expansion in the late 1800s. Some Mapuche figures continue to campaign for the return of all land taken from them during the colonial era so that a separate nation of Wallmapu will be established in the Mapuches’ ancestral territory – much of which has now been consumed by the logging industry.
Many people from Mapuche live in poverty, and despite making up nearly 10% of Chile’s population, only two seats in the Chilean Congress are held by Mapuche representatives. Consequently, some Mapuches say they have no choice but to resort to actions, including the looting of trucks carrying lumber and the burning of farmland in attempts to preserve their traditional way of life – actions which some politicians and officials view as terrorism.
In Operación Huracán, and other similar previous incidents, it’s been reported that the Chilean government has held Mapuche comuneros (community members) in preventative custody whilst the charges against them are investigated. On some occasions, comuneros have been imprisoned for up to two years only to be later acquitted of their crimes.The legal instrument permitting this is Chilean Law 18.314 – better known as the Ley Antiterrorista (Anti-terror Law). Originally enacted by Pinochet’s regime in 1984 to combat political dissidence against the dictatorship, many Chilean governments following its transition to democracy have utilised it. Article 21 allows for evidence relating to terror offences to be kept secret and withheld from the accused for up to six months if there are deemed a risk to the witnesses, specialists and consultants involved in the investigative process. Those accused of terror offences can also be legally convicted solely on the basis of anonymous witness testimony.
The dialogue on Mapuche rights, especially regarding land reform, has been overwhelmingly absent from recent political discourse. While Piñera’s predecessor as President, Michelle Bachelet, pledged during her 2013 election campaign to find a ‘durable solution’ to the decades of land disputes affecting the Araucanía region, hostility toward the Mapuche seems to persist in many government departments.