When Chile’s ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet died four years ago, he was facing numerous criminal charges related to horrific human rights violations carried out during his 1973-1990 rule. But laws instated by his regime remain in force—and are being used against the Mapuche indigenous people, who are struggling to regain ancestral lands in the southern Andean zones of the country.
On June 9, four Mapuche prisoners being held at Victoria, in Araucanía region south of Santiago, ended a hunger strike after 86 days without solid food. The decision was taken after Chile’s Supreme Court agreed to reduce their sentences to a maximum of 15 years each—down from between 20 and 25—and leading Catholic church and human rights figures pledged to convene a commission to review the use of a harsh Pinochet-era “anti-terrorism” law against indigenous activists. Two of the hunger strikers had been hospitalized before the deal was struck.
The case against the four men was controversial in several ways. The four—Héctor Llaitul, Ramón Llanquileo, Jonathan Huillical and José Huenuche—are considered by the government to be leaders of the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM), a group dedicated to the recovery of ancestral Mapuche lands in the Malleco area of Arauco province, Bio-Bio region. The four were accused of being behind an October 2008 shotgun ambush on the police convoy of a public prosecutor, Mario Elgueta, which left five lightly injured near Tirúa, Arauco. Initially charged with “terrorism” and tried in a military court in Valdivia, the four were acquitted—only to face the charges again in a civilian court in Cañete. These seeming irregularities—the use of a military court for civilian defendants, and their subjection to double jeopardy—are already holdovers from the Pinochet era. But the most disputatious element of the case was the prosecution’s use of “faceless witnesses” under the Anti-Terrorist Act, Chile’s Law No. 19.027
Enacted in 1984, in the closing years of the Pinochet dictatorship, Law No. 19.027 allows the use of unidentified witnesses, who cannot be cross-examined by counsel for the defense. It has only been used against Mapuche activists. Although the four defendants were actually acquitted twice of the “terrorism” charge, their conviction by the Cañete court on attempted homicide charges was secured through the use of anonymous testimony obtained under Law No. 19.027. Additionally, Elgueta testified that violence and timber theft in the region had escalated since the CAM began its campaign of land recovery.
Elgueta, whose left hand was injured in the attack, is known for his aggressive prosecutions of local Mapuche activists involved in land reclamation efforts.
The four began their hunger strike on March 7, after their convictions, to protest the use of the faceless testimony. After the especially harsh sentences were imposed on March 22, this also became a grievance in the strike.
Law No. 19.027 treats any attacks on the equipment or personnel of a private company as acts of “terrorism”—a critical point in a region where Mapuche communities have repeatedly staged occupations of the lands of ranchers and timber companies. In addition to allowing “terrorism” defendants to be tried in military courts and with faceless witnesses, it contains provisions for the indefinite detention without charge of those named as suspected “terrorists.” The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the UK-based Minority Rights Group International have all issued strong statements against the law as violating international norms.
Last year also saw a hunger strike in protest of the law, involving a total of 34 Mapuche prisoners at several facilities in south-central Chile. Some of the hunger strikers held out for 82 days. They ended the strike when the government agreed to amend the Anti-Terrorist Act, and end its application against Mapuche leaders. The government especially pledged to halt the use of military courts against Mapuche civilians, a key demand. The use of Law No. 19.027 against the four charged in the attack on Elgueta, and their initial trial before a military tribunal, was seen as a violation of this agreement.
The new agreement between the government and the four defendants gives Chile a second chance to respect its commitment to the Mapuche. “We are going to work together in a process of dialogue, reflection and action to make an improvement in accord with international standards,” Fernando Chomali, the bishop of Concepción who brokered the talks between the defendants and the government, told Chile’s Emol news service after the deal was reached.
The underlying issue of Mapuche land rights is one which will certainly continue, however. “No Chilean government has ever fully recognized Mapuche territorial claims,” states Minority Rights Group International. “Throughout the twentieth century the state encouraged European immigration into Mapuche areas and under General Pinochet, forestry, agribusiness companies and other firms were offered land and subsidies to operate in those regions. This has resulted in indigenous communities continually being forced off their ancestral lands.”
The Minority Rights Group estimates that since the 19th century, the Mapuche have lost 95 percent of their lands—their territory shrinking from 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres) in 1883, to about 500,000 (1.2 million acres) today.