Chile’s Mapuche people have seen genocide and political repression for more than half a century. In spite of a new special police unit designed specifically to stamp out the Mapuche, they remain dedicated to the struggle for land. In the mix are 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) of Mapuche land—an area approximately the size of Rhode Island.
Sixty Carabineros have been “graduated” to the ethnic division of Chile’s police force, having learned the mapudungún language and been trained in cultural practices. The Carabineros will try to reach out to the Mapuche, according to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization—particularly in the Araucanía Region, where conflict between police and the Mapuche are most frequent
In the most publicized incident of violence, two elderly people died in an arson allegedly carried out by two Mapuche militants about five months ago. It was night when the militants approached the house of the settlers, which was built on land that the Mapuche currently claim as their own. The couple fired shots, striking one of the militants in the neck. The house was set ablaze, and the elderly couple died in the flames.
Strikingly, the family of the elderly couple killed in the arson blamed the state for the tragedy. “We’re the ones paying a high price for something that the state failed to solve in time,” said Jorge Andres Luchsinger. “My parents have already been murdered.” Jorge Andres Luchsinger remains the only person detained by police as a suspect in the arson.
Although 800,000 Mapuche live in the area, comprising one-fourth of the total population of one of the poorest regions in Chile, much of the land is currently leased to timber companies. The Mapuche are calling for expulsion of the timber companies and autonomous rule.
A Mapuche leader stated the problem simply: “We’re not trying to kick anybody out. We’re not asking for more roads or more seeds. We’re asking for our own government because this is our land. It’s not anti-Chilean, it’s pro-Mapuche.”
In the past 5 years, violence has escalated by 10 times in the Mapuche conflict. One of the more well known Mapuche groups, the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM), is labelled a terrorist group by Chilean authorities using a Pinochet-era law that gives the state the ability to arrest activists without bail and convict on the basis of anonymous informants.
According to Cristóbal Lira, an Interior Ministry official, “[The special squad is] for people who know the language, who are close to these communities. What we’re realizing is that we need interaction between the community and the police, we need people to feel close to them.”
This strategy is often considered to be part of Human Terrain Systems, and is deployed in counterinsurgency operations to learn more about insurgent networks and organizations, as well as the population’s attitudes and support for the insurgency. The usage of counterinsurgency illustrates the state’s desire to understand how much the population supports the Mapuche, as well as how the Mapuche are able to gain popular support, and how to bring more legitimacy to the state’s operations.
By “humanizing” the police force through cultural training, the state believes it will gain more legitimacy in its more aggressive counter-terrorism operations, while learning how to gain even more legitimacy through policy initiatives that will cement government hegemony over Mapuche land.
Policy initiatives deployed to sieze indigenous lands can be seen in neighboring Peru, where in 2009, President Alan Garcia utilized a recently-signed Free Trade Agreement with the US, to cede indigenous lands for resource extraction. The ensuing indigenous blockade of the Amazon, which culminated in a massacre of indigenous peoples by state forces known as the Bagua Massacre, led to international outcry and Garcia’s eventual ouster.
Using more advanced techniques of policing population and territory may be Chile’s attempt to resolve the Mapuche conflict once-and-for-all. It will likely serve as a smoke screen for more brutal repression techniques to come.