Chile Invokes Pinochet-Era Anti-Terrorism Law Against Mapuche Demonstrators

In comparison to other countries in Latin America, Chile boasts relatively stable political institutions, particularly free and fair elections, and a substantial middle class. As a result, this South American country is widely recognized as a model for democratic development and respect for constitutional procedures throughout the region. However, recent government response to escalating violence between the national police and indigenous Mapuche demonstrators indicates that the country remains in a transitional stage of its democratic development, as remnants of Pinochet rule refuse to leave the political stage.

Although President Michelle Bachelet promised not to invoke the Pinochet-Era Anti-Terrorism Law (19.027) against the Mapuche during her presidential campaign, at least seven Mapuche activists have been indicted under the provisions of the law since her election in 2006. Most of the indictments have occurred over the past two months as Mapuche unrest intensified, and protests and acts of rebellion became increasingly violent. Since the end of the dictatorship in 1990, the law has been applied to at least 34 Mapuche activists,according to a report produced by Chile’s Comisión Ética Contra la Tortura. Civil activists argue that an outdated law that predominately targeted members of Pinochet’s opposition should not continue to be implemented in a democratic society. The fact that it is still enforced clearly indicates the enduring legacy of General Augusto Pinochet’s counter-insurgency policies.

A Discriminatory Application of the Law

Dating back to 1984, when it was created under the Pinochet regime, the anti-terrorism law extends the powers of the judiciary as well as those of the criminal justice system. Although the law was later purportedly modified to fit democratic standards, it continues to include provisions that go against international indigenous and human rights standards. The law triples ordinary criminal sentences and those arising under the state security law, meaning that individuals convicted of offenses such as arson and land seizures will serve up to three times the ordinary sentences for such guilty verdicts. Moreover, the law abrogates the accused of the right to due process, while allowing for a protracted period of time before an arraignment must be carried out. Further obfuscating the legal process, the law also allows witnesses to testify anonymously, concealing their identities from defendants and the public. Instead of heeding an ongoing public outcry against the status quo over this issue, the Chilean state has yet to change its anti-terrorism law and enforcement codes in compliance with international legal standards.

Chilean Deputy Secretary of the Interior Patricio Rosende assured the national and international communities that the legislation was invoked not because the perpetrators were Mapuche, but because the accused had committed serious crimes that fell under the umbrella term of terrorism. On this topic, Rosende stated, “We’ve decided to invoke the anti-terror Law to go after these groups of people who are set on perpetrating crimes, disorder and unrest in a region seeking peace and harmony.” In other words, the government argues that it is not targeting these individuals because of their ethnicity but because they have committed crimes against the state. However, the majority of the Mapuche actions cannot be classified as terroristic since their aim is not to instill fear, but rather are committing crimes, such as arson, to make their voices heard.

Human rights activists are concerned that the law, created under an authoritarian regime notorious for vicious human rights abuses, continues not only to exist on the books, but furthermore is enforced by the current Chilean government. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have condemned the use of the law and, additionally, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared the anti-terrorism legislation unlawful under international law. The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racism has urged the Chilean government not to invoke the legislation because it singles out the Mapuche. The Committee released an official statement saying, “the anti-terrorism law has been primarily applied to members of the Mapuche community for acts that have occurred in the context for social demands, related to claims for the rights to their ancestral lands” (translation provided by author). Moreover, the UN claims that the invocation of the anti-terrorism law against the Mapuche is an attempt to de-legitimatize their social demands.

Reasoning for the Invocation of the Law

After years of protests, deliberation, and the exhaustion of measures of peaceful resistance, radical Mapuche activists have resorted to sporadic violence to persuade the Chilean government to address their demands. While less radical groups such as Consejo de Todas las Tierras (Council of All the Lands) stage land occupations and hold peaceful protests, the most radical group, the Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM) publicly claim responsibility for the more violent uprisings. It must be underlined that the only deaths that have occurred during the conflict have been those of Mapuche demonstrators at the hands of the Chilean National Police.

In the most recent government case brought against the Mapuche, authorities invoked the anti-terrorism law under pressure from the Confederacion de los Duenos de Camiones (the national trucking association). The trucking association threatened to suspend transports to Auraucanía because they felt that the route was unsafe. Araucanía, also known as Region IX, is home to the highest concentration of indigenous people in the country and is where the majority of the incidents of conflict involving the Mapuche has taken place. On October 11, twenty masked rioters set fire to two trucks, fired shotguns at three others, and raided a tollbooth. Officials responded to these attacks by arresting five militants upon charges of terrorist actions. As a result, a number of members of CAM reorganized and on October 20 staged a protest at the arrests of fellow activists by setting fire to two additional lorries. On the same day, CAM ”declared war'” on Chile and announced their decision to establish an independent Mapuche nation south of the Bío Bío River, a claim that the government hardly acknowledged.

Although these recent events may seem disproportionately violent, the Mapuches’ persistent frustration with the government is the product of a long history of oppression. Since their forced integration at the end of the 19th century, Mapuche community leaders have been demanding rights to autonomy, equality, and for the return of their previously seized land. After years of peaceful demonstrations, some factions, like the CAM, frustrated by the lack of progress, resorted to violence as a last ditch effort to obtain recognition from the government. To some extent, after staging land occupations and sporadic acts of arson, their demands have been met.

In early October, President Michelle Bachelet introduced an initiative to purchase and redistribute 33,000 hectares (81,500 acres) of land to the Mapuche through the end of her term in March, a plan that conservative Senator Alberto Espina, has strongly criticized. He stated, “The signal that the government is giving is that, in order for indigenous groups to receive property, it is best to burn down farms and equipment, and attack the farmers.” This statement signaled that the government was hearing the Mapuches’ acts of protest. In addition to the land redistribution, initially Bachelet also announced the creation of two government bodies called the Indigenous Ministry and the Council of Indigenous Peoples. These institutions would be constituted of 44 members chosen by popular vote to represent the eight different ethnic groups in the country.

Mapuche groups, however, have not been satisfied with Bachelet’s plan feeling that she has not done enough to fulfill their rights. Bachelet’s proposal for the two indigenous institutions was met with skepticism, if not anger, as native groups stated that they had not been consulted over reforms. Appeals for political self-determination and regional autonomy are far from receiving official government recognition. The government also has failed to respond to additional calls for a new constitution recognizing Chile as a plurinational state that will elevate the status of Mapudungun, an indigenous language, to a national and official language.

Police Brutality Surpasses Mapuche Violence

As mentioned earlier, both violent and peaceful Mapuche acts incited unsparing reactions from the police. One of the most explicit examples of police brutality against the Mapuche occurred in February of this year that singled out activist Miguel Tapia Huenulef and his entire family during a police raid. According to an article in the Patagonia Times, fifty carabineros (police) raided their home, insulted them with racial slurs, and violently mistreated and intimidated the family. For instance, police held guns to the heads of both his sister and his 20-month-old niece.

The police justified this invasion by saying that Tapia Huenulef had stashed an arsenal of dangerous weapons in his house, including a submachine gun, grenades, ammunition clips, and materials for building a bomb. Interior Minister Edmundo Peréz Yoma used this alleged evidence to justify enacting the anti-terror legislation. According to the family and other community members, however, these claims are completely preposterous. They believe that the police planted the weapons in order to validate the arrest of Tapia Huenulef. After the raid, Ida Huenelef, the mother of the accused, recounted how the police searched Miguel’s room thoroughly, and afterwards, without finding anything, walked into the house carrying backpacks, which she believes contained the evidence the police later planted to incriminate Miguel. She states, “There’s a whole family here, with lots of children in the house. There’s no way (Miguel) would have all those weapons they showed on TV in his tiny room.”

This kind of alleged police brutality and discrimination in violation of all regard for human dignity is constant in Araucanía. During a Mapuche land occupation in August, a peaceful demonstrator, Jaime Codozo Cullío, was shot and killed. Although the police claim that he was shot in self-defense, witnesses say that he, in fact, was shot as he was fleeing from the police. The autopsy confirmed this claim, showing that he received a bullet to the back. With the exception of a stick, he was not bearing any weapons.

These two examples of police brutality demonstrate the controversial state of Chile’s law enforcement. While Mapuche protesters face prosecution under the anti-terrorism law, the police search for reasons to intimidate the indigenous community. Under military jurisdiction, police are protected from most of the crimes they purportedly commit against the Mapuche. It is unacceptable that Mapuche be termed “terrorists” while the police are free to terrorize under Chilean law.

Violence Against Children

While police mistreatment and abuse against any individual is unforgivable, recent police-instigated acts of violence against Mapuche children are particularly intolerable. According to a report by the International Federation for Human Rights, on October 16, several carabineros raided a school in the Temucuicui Mapuche community where they fired pellet guns and tear gas at the innocent children present. The reasons behind this raid remain unclear and the government has outwardly repudiated and steadfastly denied these reports. As a result, several Mapuche children were wounded and others suffered damage to their respiratory systems.

The Mapuche nation, as well as children’s and human rights activists, have carried their complaints to the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF), denouncing these attacks against children. In mid-October, a number of members of Mapuche rights groups convened in Santiago to speak with UNICEF representatives. These Mapuche activists argued that police were intimidating and instigating acts of violence against minors, and urged UNICEF to take action. Human rights groups claim that because victims fear retaliation for lodging complaints on such matters, these cases are generally not reported and subsequently easily evade investigation. Gary Stahl, UNICEF’s representative in Chile stated, “UNICEF is calling on the government and all parties in the conflict to seek to improve the conditions for reporting incidents, because if people are afraid of making a complaint, no investigation is possible.” The few cases that do undergo investigation tend to be partial and inconclusively treated.

UNICEF has declared thorough and non-biased investigations must be undertaken because such acts completely violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to Stahl, “some of the accounts we have heard” indicate that police are violating children’s rights. Stahl has also emphasized the importance of working with the government to fully investigate such incidents. Reports of violence against Mapuche children establish an entirely new level of abuse by the police as a result of the Mapuche conflict. However, it is troubling that UNICEF and international children’s rights groups have not sufficiently spoken out against the police. While Mapuche protesters are unjustly being indicted under the pretense of their terrorist actions, the police are violently attacking grown men and children, effectively with impunity.

Lingering Remnants of the Bush Administration’s Anti-Terrorism Ideology

After the horrific events of 9/11 in the United States, counterterrorism trumped all else in the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Similar to the National Security Doctrine that circulated throughout the hemisphere during the Cold War, the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism ideology took root in various parts of the hemisphere, although it is not nearly as apparent in Chile as the anti-communist creed was during the Nixon years. The weight of such US influence can be seen quite clearly in places like Colombia and Mexico under the cover of the “war on drugs” and the immigration dispute. Ricardo Lagos, who was president of Chile from 2000-2006, and his administration repeatedly enacted the anti-terrorist laws against Mapuche activists, and Bachelet has followed in his footsteps. It is possible that their application of anti-terrorism measures against the Mapuche was influenced by the Bush anti-terrorist paradigm as governments within the region fought against any perceived threat to their authority. During Lagos’ presidency, Human Rights Watch stated, “the current international climate has provided support for the Lagos government’s inappropriate use of the Chilean anti-terrorism law. The U.S.-led campaign against terrorism has, unfortunately, become a cover for governments who want to deflect attention away from their heavy-handed treatment of internal dissidents.” Although Obama’s foreign policy ostensibly focuses on dialogue and negotiation as the path to cooperative international relationships, and less on the application of force, fragments of Bush’s anti-terrorism policy continue to linger in the hemisphere.

While it is a stretch to say that Chilean President Bachelet’s employment of the anti-terrorist law is a direct result of Bush’s post-9/11 policy, indicting Mapuche activists under an out-dated vestige of a Pinochet-era law has negative implications for the Mapuche people as a whole. Since the fateful day of 9/11, the world’s conception of “terrorism” has gained an entirely new meaning as a result of the definition promoted by U.S. foreign policymakers. Labeling someone a “terrorist” carries a severely negative connotation, effectively implying that the individual is committing grievous crimes with the intent of instilling fear throughout the population. Therefore, by indicting Mapuche activists under an anti-terrorist law, or at times categorizing them as terrorist for committing crimes that, although sometimes violent, do not constitute as “terrorist,” the Mapuche people are then perceived as possessing violent intentions to infuse fear among the non-Mapuche population.

Evidently, the application of the anti-terrorist law to Mapuche demonstrators, who are fighting for what they believe are their inalienable rights, is entirely unacceptable. Whether or not they commit crimes such as arson and land seizures, does not necessarily give authorities the right to term such crimes as “terrorist.” Like all citizens, arrested Mapuche protesters must be given a free and fair trial, where witnesses cannot be allowed to remain anonymous, and when sentences are not arbitrarily tripled in length. Moreover, the Chilean government must professionally investigate the abuses on behalf of the police as well. The repressive tactics the carabineros use against peaceful protesters and Mapuche children must be investigated to the same extent as the violent acts committed by radical Mapuche activists.