This week’s police killing of a young Mapuche activist has once again pushed age-old tensions between the indigenous group and Chilean authorities beyond the breaking point.
Early Thursday morning several hooded individuals carried out an arson attack on a ranch near Pailahuén in Region IX, an area also known as the Araucanía, the daily El Mercurio reported. The arsonists, presumed to be Mapuches, burned three sheds housing machinery, grains and other farm implements.

The incident occurred one day after a Carabinero (uniformed police) officer shot and killed 24-year-old José Facundo Mendoza Collío during a confrontation with Mapuche activists near Collipulli, also in Region IX.

The victim was part of a group of some 50 Mapuches who early Wednesday morning tried to occupy an area farm over which they claim ancestral ownership. According to news reports, heavily-armed Carabineros – under orders to remove the Mapuches – advanced onto the property at approximately 3 p.m. During the scuffle that ensued, officer Patricio Jara Muñoz fired his 9 mm pistol, fatally wounding Mendoza Collío in the chest.

The officer claimed self defense, saying he and his colleagues were ambushed. Carabineros say the officer, who was wearing a mask and bullet-proof vest, was struck by buckshot before dispatching his weapon. A witness interviewed by El Austral shared a different version of the story. The witness, Sergio Cabrapán Millape, insisted the victim and his companions carried sticks but no firearms.

The police wounded another of the activists, 20-year-old Juan Mendoza Collío, who was arrested along with seven other individuals, a Mapuche group called the Agrupación Cultural Huillimapu (ACH) reported.

More violence erupted later that night, when community members tried to stop medical authorities from taking away Mendoza Collío’s body. Police confronted the Mapuches with tear gas and bullets. Some eight Mapuches and at least one journalist were injured, La Tercera reported. The ACH puts the number of injured Mapuches and journalists at 10 and two respectively.

Mendoza Collío is the third Mapuche to die at the hands of Carabineros in the past six years. In November 2002, 18-year-old activist Alex Lemún was shot in the head during an attempted land occupation. He died five days later. Police killed 22-year-old Matías Catrileo under similar circumstances in January 2008 (PT, Jan. 3, 2008).

Mendoza Collío, a one-time Army conscript, leaves behind a wife and four-year-old daughter.

Late Thursday morning President Michelle Bachelet spoke out on the matter, describing the killing as “something painful and regrettable.” The president made a call for dialogue, calling it the “only way to resolve the legitimate demands of the Mapuche people.”

Earlier in the morning Officer Jara Muñoz was taken into custody by military authorities. Because the Carabineros are a branch of the armed forces, disciplinary matters are handled internally, by military tribunals rather than civilian courts.

Mapuche activists enjoy no such protections and have, in some cases, been tried under a dictatorship-era anti-terrorism law that squashes many of their basic legal defense rights. The law, first established in 1984 during the Augusto Pinochet military regime, provides prosecutors with special privileges by allowing, for example, testimony from anonymous witnesses. The organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) describes it as the “harshest” of all Chilean statutes.

“It doubles the normal sentences for some offenses, makes pre-trial release more difficult, enables the prosecution to withhold evidence from the defense for up to six months, and allows defendants to be convicted on testimony given by anonymous witnesses. These witnesses appear in court behind screens so that the defendants and the public cannot see them,” notes a 2004 report HRW.

Mendoza Collío’s death has caused outrage among indigenous leaders and human rights groups, who claim this is just the latest example of exaggerated and continual police repression against Mapuche communities.

“As we’ve said over and over, we’re convinced that repression isn’t the way to solve this conflict. Instead it just results in more violence and greater social tension,” the Observatorio Cuidadano, a human rights group based in Temuco (Region IX), said in a press release.

“This new incident is the natural result of a government position that clearly favors police action as a means to downplay both the just territorial demands of the Mapuches and the ineffectiveness of public policy,” the organization added.

Mapuche are Chile’s largest indigenous group. Ever-present tensions between Mapuches and Chilean authorities flared up in recent weeks following the arrest last month of a high-profile indigenous leader named Héctor Llaitul Carrillanca (PT, July 19). Llaitul is reported to be the head of a radical organization called the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco, or CAM.

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