Santiago, Nov 4 (EFE).- Tensions have escalated further in southern Chile after this week’s death of a member of the Mapuche indigenous community in a clash with security forces.
The incident triggered a flood of criticism of conservative President Sebastian Piñera’s decision to deploy troops to that part of the country in mid-October, although the head of state gave a spirited defense of the armed forces Thursday in a press conference at the La Moneda presidential palace and said they had been targeted by a “terrorist group.”
Two military patrols came under attack Wednesday by hooded gunmen on a road in Cañete, a city located 630 kilometers (390 miles) south of Santiago. During a subsequent exchange of gunfire, one indigenous man was killed, three others were wounded and two were arrested, according to official information.
The Attorney General’s Office clarified Thursday that only one person was killed in the clash and that another person initially reported dead is in “serious condition.”
Four southern provinces – Arauco (where the clash occurred) and Bio Bio in the Bio Bio region and Malleco and Cautin in the Araucania region – were placed under a state of emergency on Oct. 12.
Bio Bio and La Araucania have been hit by a recent wave of violence linked to Mapuche militants’ efforts to reclaim lands that were lost during a late-19th-century “pacification” campaign and now mainly belong to large agricultural and logging companies.
“(Wednesday’s) serious incidents, as well as (threats contained in a video released by) heavily armed terrorist groups … only confirm the need to maintain this constitutional state of emergency,” Piñera said alongside his interior and defense ministers.
The head of state was referring to a video uploaded to social media in which 50 hooded and armed members of Weichan Auka Mapu, a Mapuche resistance group, referred to Chile’s security forces as guard dogs of the wealthy and threatened to take up arms against them unless they vacate their ancestral lands.
“The responsibility for the deaths and injuries to civilians and uniformed officers … falls on organized crime, drug-trafficking and terrorist organizations,” said Piñera, who prolonged the state of emergency once by executive order but needs Congress’ approval to extend it once again until Nov. 25.
That measure has been demanded by the president’s most conservative supporters but criticized from the outset by indigenous organizations and the opposition, which say it is only further fanning the flames of the Mapuche conflict.
Several opposition lawmakers have said they will vote against a petition for a further extension that Piñera filed on Wednesday.
“Violence begets more violence, and only dialogue can lead us to a solution. No to militarization,” said lawmaker Gabriel Boric, presidential candidate of the leftist Apruebo Dignidad (Approve Dignity) coalition in the Nov. 21 general election (in which the rightist incumbent is ineligible to run due to term limits).
Also Wednesday, members of Chile’s Constitutional Convention, including the 17 representatives of indigenous peoples, marched to La Moneda to press their demand that Piñera end the state of emergency.
“Militarization is not the way,” said Elisa Loncon, a Mapuche linguist and indigenous rights activist who is the president of that body tasked with drafting a new Chilean constitution. “It’s urgent that we … foster broad-based, plurinational dialogue with respect to human rights.” EFE