Chile’s right-wing government to strengthen anti-terror law, target Indigenous Mapuche

March 15, 2018
The anti-terror law has been used to target activists, particularly the Mapuche, Chile’s Indigenous population of about 1.5 million people.

Chile’s new president, Sebastian Piñera, of the right-wing party National Renewal (RN), has announced that he plans to “modernise” the country’s Anti-Terror Law.

This announcement builds on promises from his 2017 electoral campaign. Piñera said on multiple occasions that his new administration would seek to perfect the law, which dates back to the 1973-90 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship and allows authorities to detain suspects without bail.

This law has been used to target activists, particularly the Mapuche, Chile’s Indigenous population of about 1.5 million people. The likely revamping of this law has worrisome implications for the Mapuche.

Amnesty International’s 2017-18 report accused the Chilean government of abusing the Anti-Terror Law and using excessive police force against the Mapuche.

Such events are not new — since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, successive governments regardless of party have drawn on the Anti-Terror Law, which was enacted in 1984, to target the Mapuche.

These laws allow for longer periods of detention without charge, the interception of correspondence and communication, the use of secret evidence and faceless witnesses in court, which removes the right to cross-examination.

Piñera’s recent comments suggest that an updated version of the law would also increase surveillance capabilities.

Targeting the Mapuche

Chile’s right-wing media frequently refer to Mapuche leaders like Hector Llaitul, a founder of the resistance group Conflicto Arauco-Malleco (CAM), as terrorists. CAM operates under the auspices of secrecy and advocates for Mapuche autonomy.

CAM is also engaged in a sabotage campaign against the forestry industry in resistance to exploitation of Mapuche land. The anti-terror laws could be easily wielded against it.

A week after Piñera was elected, La Tercera quoted RN senator Alberto Espina, who noted three main objectives under the new administration in terms of the Mapuche: creating a program to enhance social and economic growth in the Araucania region, the heart of Mapuche resistance; taking a firm stance against “violent groups and terrorists”; and recognising the traditions and culture of the Mapuche population.

The second goal would increase the criminalisation of Mapuche resistance. Given his electoral promises to refine the Anti-Terror Law, Piñera may take a stronger stance against the Mapuche than he did in his first presidency in 2010-14.

History of oppression

The oppression of the Mapuche has been a constant reality in Chilean history. The Mapuche suffered massacres at the hands of Spanish colonisers. When Chile declared its independence in 1810, the nascent Chilean state expelled the Mapuche from their ancestral territory.

During the “Pacification of Araucanía” between 1860 and 1885, more than 100,000 Mapuche people were slaughtered.

The Pinochet dictatorship sought to assimilate the Mapuche within the Chilean state as a way of eliminating their territorial claims. Pinochet withdrew recognition of the Mapuche as an Indigenous population to emphasise their Chilean identity. He expropriated Indigenous territory, eliminating communal use of land and transferring it to forestry companies.

But it is important to note that repressive practices toward the Mapuche have continued since the democratic transition under governments from both of Chile’s main parties. This includes Michelle Bachelet’s outgoing centre-left Concertacion government and the first Pinera administration.

In a Facebook post republished in El Ciudadano late last year, Mapuche journalist Pedro Cayuqueo declared that a new Piñera government would not be so different from previous Concertacion governments, even though they purported to hold softer stances toward the Mapuche.

In a recent interview, Cayuqueo insisted that the conflict will grow if the new government pushes a contradictory approach that involves contempt for negotiation and political dialogue. He explained: “What we have had until now is state welfare and repression by the Ministry of Social Development and the Interior Ministry, which has only contributed to the worsening of the conflict.”

State policy has exploited and allocated Mapuche land, leaving the community deeply impoverished. As the government talks about creating opportunities in the Araucania region for the Mapuche population, they favour companies over Mapuche autonomy and land rights. This makes self-determination impossible.

Despite claims of enhancing economic growth in Araucania, Piñera’s government may also delay or cancel financial reparations and restored land rights for historic violence committed by the Chilean state against the Mapuche.


Last June, Bachelet issued a formal apology to the Mapuche. Quoted in TeleSUR English, Bachelet said: “I want, solemnly and with humility, to ask for forgiveness from the Mapuche people for the errors and horrors committed or tolerated by the state in our relation with them and their communities.”

In her speech, Bachelet also promised to restore basic rights and return ancestral territory to the Mapuche.

Bachelet’s plan, the Araucanía Law, consists of 12 specific targets to protect Indigenous rights. Among its proposals, it calls for a commission for reparations of Mapuche victims of violence in the Araucanía region, as well as a special commission for Indigenous lands, and constitutional recognition of the Mapuche.

The government stopped short of repudiating its anti-terror laws, which disproportionately criminalise Mapuche resistance.

But as Bachelet’s political rhetoric seemed targeted toward reconciliation, four Mapuche activists accused of an arson attack on a church in Padre Las Casas were being held without charge. They launched a hunger strike.

The hunger strike lasted 118 days, ending in October, after the government announced it would not prosecute the detained Mapuche activists under the Anti-Terror Law.

Around the same time, the government carried out Operation Huracan — a police initiative against alleged arson attacks by Mapuche activists from CAM.

Llaitul was interviewed hours before being arrested in the raid. Referring to the prolonged detention without charge that Mapuche activists frequently endure, Llaitul reminded viewers that Bachelet had promised that the Anti-Terror Law would not be applied to the Mapuche anymore — but had reneged.

As Chile continues to follow the neoliberal model that prioritises profit through industrialisation, Mapuche communities are left vulnerable when it comes to the provision of basic necessities, let alone rights.

Mapuche activist Rafael Railaf explained some of these dynamics: “During Bachelet’s presidency we didn’t have much support from the left wing in Chile. Now that the left is in the opposition again, we expect that we will get more support to create a front against Piñera.

“When they control the government, the left is passive …[but] now that they are in opposition, they will need the Mapuche movement again.”

Railaf also expects that Piñera will increase coordination with Argentina’s president Mauricio Macri, potentially including in targeting the Mapuche.

The mysterious disappearance and death of pro-Mapuche activist Santiago Maldonado last year is just one example of Argentina’s repression of its Mapuche population. In fact, the only police officer indicted in Maldonado’s murder and disappearance received a promotion.

Chile operates with similar tactics, withholding justice and treating crimes against Indigenous activists with impunity.


On January 10, Chilean organisation Comision Funa held a demonstration in support of teenager Brandon Hernandez Huentecol. He was shot in the back by a police officer in 2016 in Carehue, a town in the Cautin province in southern Chile, following a police beating of his younger brother.

More than 100 pellets were found in Hernandez’s body. His lengthy recovery included 16 operations and physical therapy. But 30 bullets remain lodged in his body, and his aggressor has not been charged with any crime.

Another example of such mistreatment occurred during a demonstration in remembrance of the tenth anniversary of the killing of Matias Catrileo on January 4, when Bachelet’s government initiated a harsh crackdown on demonstrators.

Catrileo was assassinated on January 3, 2008 during a protest for land reclamation in Vilcun in Araucania. His killer, police officer Walter Ramirez Inostroza, was sentenced to a mere three years in prison.

On the bright side, there is now Mapuche representation in parliament. Two Mapuche were elected to Congress in last year’s election — Emilia Nuyado and Aracely Lauquen from the Socialist Party and RN respectively, as well as senator Francisco Huenchumilla from the Christian Democratic Party.

It was the first time a Mapuche was elected to public office since 1973.

Railaf expressed cautious optimism about the potential for change via elected Mapuche officials. “If Mapuche representatives get a fair chance, they could make a difference. They understand their people and that’s important for the issues of land grabbing and pollution in our territories.”

Against the grain of history and the challenge of another Piñera presidency, it will be an uphill battle.

[Abridged from NACLA.]

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