By Benjamin Witte-Lebhar
A key court ruling concerning many of the protagonists in last year’s harrowing hunger strike has turned renewed attention to the Chilean government’s complicated – and at times contradictory – handling of the so-called “Mapuche conflict.” The Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, are thoughtto number some 800,000.
The ruling, handed down this past February by a court in the central Chilean town of Cañete, completed a three-month trial against 17 Mapuche men who – charged and processed under the country’s infamous “anti-terror law” – had spent approximately two years in pre-trial detention before the case even went to court. The defendants were accused of participating in an Oct.2008 armed ambush against a public prosecutor named Mario Elgueta.
Desperate after so many months in lockdown, the prisoners launched a lengthy hunger strike last July, demanding among other things that Chilean authorities cease applying the draconian terror law to Mapuche cases (NotiSur, Sept. 10, 2010). A relic of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), Chile’s anti-terrorism lawstiffens sentences, denies defendants basic disclosure rights and allows prosecutors to submit testimony from anonymous witnesses.
Joined by approximately 20 other Mapuche detainees from prisons throughout Chile’s central Biobío and Araucanía Regions, the strikers kept their perilous protest up for more than 80 days (NotiSur, Nov. 19, 2010). As their health deteriorated, the strikers gained increasingmedia attention, forcing the initially recalcitrant government of President Sebastián Piñera to negotiate – and eventually offer concessions. The conservative administration, Chile’s first since Pinochet, agreed specifically to withdraw terrorism charges and instead process the striking Mapuche under normal legal channels.
That decision proved to be beneficial for many – albeit not all – ofthe defendants in the Elgueta ambush case. On Feb. 22, the Cañete decided to absolve 13 of the 17 imprisoned indigenous men. In recent months Mapuche defendants have earned acquittals in several other cases as well.
“In retrospect, the strike was effective,” said 26-year-old Pablo Andrés Muñoz Guzmán, who was locked up for two years pending trial in the Elgueta case. “If we hadn’t kept it up forso long, we would have been convicted and sentenced [under the terrorism law] to more than 50 years in jail.”
“I was in jail for two years after being framed. They threw eight charges at me!” Norberto Parra, another of the acquitted Mapuche, told reporters following the Cañete ruling. “But I leave here content. Knowing I didn’t do anything wrong, I can hold my head up, show my face, just as I’mdoing now.”
Justice Or Politics?
But while Feb. 22 may have been a day of redemption for Parra and the other absolved Mapuche, it turned out to be a nightmare for the remaining four defendants in the Cañeta trial. By a margin of 2-1, the court’s judges decided to convict Héctor Llaitul, leader of a militant Mapuche organization called the Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM), along with threeof his CAM colleagues: Ramón Llanquileo, José Huenuche and Jonathan Huillical. All four were found guilty of armed robbery and attempted murder.
The Mapuche men are believed to have participated in a rampage that began Oct., 15, 2008, when Llaitul led them to the property of José Santos, a farmer in the Biobío community of Tirúa. After threatening Santos and his family, demanding they abandonthe disputed property or face arson attacks, the Mapuche stole guns and other articles and fled. Early the next morning, the same men ambushed Elgueta and his police escort along a nearby road, firing gunshots at the public prosecutor’s 14-car motorcade, the court determined.
“If I don’t duck, my head gets blown off,” Elgueta stated in during his testimony.
Exactly one month after handing...