3 keys to understanding the centennial Mapuche conflict in Chile and why Piñera decided to send the army to the south of the country

The president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, decided this week to declare a state of emergency in four provinces located in the so-called “southern macrozone” of Chile, for “serious disturbance of public order.”

The announcement – released this Tuesday, October 12 – comes amid an escalation of violence in the “red zone” of the Mapuche conflict, between the Biobío and La Araucanía regions, located about 600 kilometers south of Santiago.

Arson attacks against churches, burning of houses, armed attacks against drivers on rural roads and the death of both Mapuches and farmers and police are some of the serious events that concern the Chilean authorities.

Under a state of emergency, now the security management in the area will be in charge of the Armed forces of the Latin American country for 15 days (extendable for another 15 in case the president decides to extend it).

armed forces chile

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Security in the southern macrozone of Chile will be in charge of the Armed Forces for 15 days.

In practice, this means that the army will be able to carry out surveillance and patrol tasks together with the police, provide technological and logistical support in the territory, and control social gatherings in public places, traffic and the entry of people to these provinces. .

“The serious acts of violence related to the drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime that armed groups commit in the provinces of Biobío, Arauco, Cautín and Malleco ”, said Piñera when announcing the measure.

According to government figures, and collected by the newspaper El Mercurio, this year there have been 1,475 acts of rural violence in the territory, which represents a 46% more than those registered in the same period in 2020.

Likewise, during 2021 there have been 462 detainees, which corresponds to 53% of arrests in the last 4 years in the conflict zone, according to the Piñera administration.

The president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera.

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The president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera.

The president’s decision also comes after the Comptroller General of the Republic of Chile reject a decree sent by the government at the end of September that precisely sought to ensure the presence of the Armed Forces in the area.

Controversial decision

The measure generated a strong controversy in Chile.

While right-wing politicians and parliamentarians supported the decision – pointing out that the government had “finally” listened to them – other sectors of the left and Mapuche groups assured that the presence of the army will only increase the conflict.

Elisa Loncón, President of the Constitutional Convention, said that “what citizens need here are political solutions, solutions around carrying out economic processes that allow overcoming the poverty that affects communities.”

Elisa Loncón, president of the Constitutional Convention.

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Elisa Loncón, president of the Constitutional Convention, criticized the measure.

Meanwhile, the Mapuche leader Aucan Huilcamán affirmed the state of emergency “will lead us to a dead end, because neither the military nor the police in any part of the world have established peace.”

“The South Macrozone and the Wallmapuche need peace and no more military,” he added.

On the other hand, from the multigremial of La Araucanía (an entity that promotes business development and private investment in the area), they indicated that they hope that the measure “will bring peace to the region and prevent new aggressions, attacks and crimes.”

Along the same lines, the president of the Southern Agricultural Consortium (CAS), Jose Miguel Stegmeier, indicated that it is a “concrete and correct measure.”

What’s going on?

Intense conflict and violence is experienced almost daily in the area that the Mapuches, the original inhabitants of these lands, define as part of their territory or Wallmapu.

It is the same region where the Spanish conquerors were forced to parley before the Mapuche resistance and where, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Chilean state established its rule through arms.

Arson attack

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According to government figures, this year there have been 1,475 acts of rural violence in the “southern macrozone” of Chile.

But what are the roots and the keys to understanding the conflictive relationship between the indigenous people and the State? And how much does the historical demand of this town really have to do with the increase in violence in the area?

1. Land and economic interests

Since the formation of the Chilean State in the 19th century, indigenous peoples have been losing their lands, in many cases, through unclear or directly misleading practices.

Over time, the land was passed into the hands of European settlers, especially moved south from 1850, their descendants and, later, forestry, dairy and agricultural companies of great weight in the country’s economy.

An important advance on the indigenous issue occurred in 1993, when during the government of Ricardo Lagos A law was passed that addresses the land problem, one of the key points of the conflict.

Among other things, the legislation establishes subsidies for the acquisition and regularization of land, how to ensure the preservation and dissemination of indigenous archaeological, historical and cultural heritage or the implementation of intercultural programs in health and education, among other aspects.

Mapuche protest

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Among the Mapuche demands is the recovery of land.

The problem is that, since then, the governments have not established a common plan to face the problem while the Mapuche people’s struggle for their ancestral lands continues.

So he assured Isabel Aninat, Dean of the Law School of the Adolfo Ibáñez University, former presidential advisor on indigenous peoples of the first government of Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) and co-author of the book “The Mapuche people in the 21st century”.

“All governments, all campaigns and commissions from the 90s until now, have established their own plan and proposal, without a look of continuity,” he explained to BBC Mundo.

“That is why we have unfulfilled demands for years … And if you analyze them, between the governments of the center left and center right the proposals have been more or less the same. But the conflict is compounded by, as (President) Justin Trudeau described in Canada, this mistrust that is based on promises that are broken over and over again, ”he said.

The economic aspects are also an essential point of the prolonged conflict in Chile.

According to the Mapuche academic from the University of Chile, Veronica Figueroa, “The Chilean model rests on the exploitation of natural resources, and a good part of them are in Araucanía.”


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The Mapuches ask for a balance between economic production and natural resources.

And, according to the historian Fernando Pairican, Among the demands of the Mapuche there is “a balance between economic production and natural resources, because they are finite, exhaustible, and in this area, if they are not regulated, there will be an environmental and food crisis for future generations.”

Despite the large amount of natural resources that the region has, according to the latest National Socioeconomic Characterization Survey (Casen), La Araucanía has the highest poverty rate in the country, reaching a 17.4%.

2. Lack of recognition and racism

There are a number of reasons that explain the Mapuche conflict. And one of them has to do with lack of recognition towards this town since the State of Chile was created.

“From the beginning, the State of Chile is built on an ‘ideal’ of homogeneity that does not consider indigenous peoples, forgetting our culture, our language, our system of representation. And so on for 200 years ”, explains Figueroa.

With an estimated indigenous population in the 12.7% (more than 2 million people according to figures from the 2017 census), Chile, unlike Argentina, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and other Latin American countries, does not explicitly recognize the existence of indigenous peoples in its Constitution.

For the Mapuche lawyer and doctor in sociology, Salvador MillaleoOne of the main problems has to do with “political exclusion”.

Truckers protest

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In the face of escalating violence, truckers have protested blocking roads several times in recent years.

“You have the highest rates of poverty, exclusion, racism, cultural stigmas against the population, and I think that political exclusion is what caused all these problems,” he tells BBC Mundo.

Added to this is the lack of knowledge among Chileans about the Mapuche culture.

“There has never been interculturality in Chile. This Chilean nation knows of indigenous what it learned in a subject in school, but we are not present in anything else. They don’t know us, ”says Figueroa.

“And to that you also add the prejudices, the stereotypes, the ridicules that are made of our surnames, the description of Indians, savages, curiches. There is a hidden racism ”, he adds.

3. Violence

The resurgence of violence in the Mapuche territory ends with radicalize positions and political debate in Chile.

And, although many attacks have ended with the arrest of Mapuches, the truth is that it is not known with certainty how many of these attacks are really in the name of the cause of the indigenous people.

Among other things due to the appearance of other phenomena such as the theft of wood from forestry companies.

“Nobody has accurate information. We don’t know if all the attacks are really related to the Mapuche cause, ”says Millaleo.

truck attack

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According to the current government, the drug trafficking has been directly related to some of these attacks.

“The government alleges that drug trafficking has become the prime mover, but it has not shown evidence of this (…). There is a limbo where one does not know if they are really attacks or setups, so there is tremendous mistrust, “says Millaleo.

The lawyer, however, assures that these problems (drug trafficking and crime) “parasitize” the Mapuche cultural conflict and “make it even more difficult for the greater problem to be resolved.”

According to various surveys, more than 70% of the Mapuches reject violence as the way to resolve the conflict.

Police vans in macrozona sur

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In the southern macrozone it is common to see police vans guarding rural roads.

The problem, says Millaleo, is that the political path is “depressed.” “There is a deterioration of political avenues and an increase in violent actions,” he says.

In any case, the sociologist affirms that the current constituent process that takes place in Chile, and where indigenous peoples actively participate, “is a new hope.”

*This article contains statements and information previously published on our site, in a report by journalist Paula Molina in August 2020.

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