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Disappeared, dead, injured and detained: why does the Argentine state repress the Mapuche people?

Recent events in Mapuche territory in Argentina suggest a growing spiral of repression and violence towards the country's indigenous peoples. 

Image: Paco Freire/SOPA via ZUMA Wire/PA images

On Saturday 25 November 2017, Rafael Nahuel, 22, from the city of Bariloche in Río Negro province, was murdered in an ongoing territorial conflict between the Argentine state and organisations of the Mapuche people. He was killed by a 9mm bullet that entered through the gluteus and lodged in his lung.

While the circumstances are being investigated, the accusations point to the Albatros Group, a special command of the Argentine Naval Prefecture, whose officers, armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 automatic submachine guns (using 9mm caliber ammunition) allegedly opened fire on "15 or 20 people who attacked them with spears and bolas." 

The Mapuche had recovered the territory, located in a national park, about two months ago. They made it public on 11 November and were evicted on Thursday 23 November. The event in which Nahuel died and two others were injured took place two days later. 

Since March 2015 – when a group of Mapuches recovered the territory of Pu Lof en Resistencia, in the department of Cushamen, from the hands of the transnational Benetton – state action in response to territorial conflicts in the Rio Negro and Chubut mountain ranges has produced one disappeared person (Santiago Maldonado, who ultimately was found dead), one dead man (Rafael Nahuel), at least twenty wounded, and a similar number of detainees and defendants.

The context: Mapuche territory

The historical territory of the Mapuche people (mapu = ‘land’; che = ‘people’) is located in southern South America, in the area known as Araucanía by the Chileans and as Patagonia by the Argentines.

The Mapuche resisted two invasions before the constitution of modern national states: one by the Incas, who could never advance beyond the Bío-Bío River, in present-day Chile; and that of the Spanish conquerors, who were forced to recognise Mapuche autonomy in the 17th century, through the treaties of Quilín. 

In the late 19th century, however, the states of Argentina and Chile advanced systematically into Mapuche territory. The military intervention of modern armies was followed by the occupation of the territory, the extension of large estates and the consolidation of the borders between the two countries, which split the Mapuche land in the middle, dividing this people into two. One was under Chilean sovereignty, the other under the Argentine flag. 

The genocide against the Mapuche population was not limited to military violence. It also involved attempts at political, economic and social disarticulation. And the expropriation of their resources, lands and institutions in the form of exile, forced labor (as in the sugarcane harvest in the Argentine province of Tucumán or military service in the Navy), the separation of families, or the appropriation of women and children for domestic service. Even the Mapuche language, the Mapuzungun (the ‘language of the land’), suffered bans at the institutional level, including schools. 

In Argentina, throughout most of the 20th century, the situation of the Mapuche population was not only one of marginalisation and poverty – with a fate marked by rural-urban migration – but also of negation and invisibility. The Argentine national narrative was built around an ‘imported’ population, of Italian or Spanish origin, and on the notion that there were no longer ‘Indians’ in the territory. And so, the idea was drawn up that the Mapuche were a foreign population, coming into the country from Chile, and that they were responsible for the supposed disappearance of another local ethnic group, the Tehuelches.

Stigmatised, invisible, blamed. In addition to the precarious living conditions they endured in the countryside and the city, the Mapuche progressively became one of the scapegoats of regional and local conflicts. The invention of this ‘internal enemy’ was created after decades of elaboration.

Mapuche territory in Argentina. Image: Roblespepe/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

From words to action: the Mapuche Ancestral Resistance

For some time now, the Mapuche Ancestral Resistance (Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche, RAM) –a small group that supports direct action, sabotage and confrontation – has been identified as the source of all ills in the area.

Little is known about the RAM. Other Mapuche organisations disregard it and reject its methods. Some people claim the organisation is a creation of the state intelligence services. In other sectors, it has generated sympathy for its supposed vocation for confrontation.

A few hours after the death of Rafael Nahuel, the governor of Río Negro, Alberto Weretilnek, made the following statements to a radio station in Buenos Aires:

“The RAM is a violent group. Negotiation is impossible, dialogue does not interest them.”

In addition, he took it upon himself to delineate the group’s alleged attitude toward the state:

“The Mapuche community is one thing, recognised by the Indigenous Development Council, which has a voice in the province's budget, bilingual schools etc. And another thing is this group that is not interested in dialogue; that puts the Argentine state and the meaning of ownership in discussion, and uses violence.”

And to also point out the origin of their ideology:

“[It is] an ideological conception from Chilean Patagonia that has infiltrated parts of Argentina [...] and that calls into question the Argentine state, that does not recognise laws, nor the constitution, nor authorities.” 

From his perspective, it was clear that to be a ‘true’ Mapuche you have to put aside all your demands

But Weretilnek is not the only one to make such statements, nor was he the first. The late governor of Chubut province, Mario Das Neves, previously said of the RAM

“They are criminals who are not Mapuches at all.”

From his perspective, it was clear that to be a ‘true’ Mapuche you have to put aside all your demands:

“Look at who they are and look at those who are against the law [...] the Mapuche community is integrated; they work and are part of our community.”

This perspective asserts that the danger that the RAM represents is what justifies treating them harshly:

“What they have done is a savagery, an outrage. They have put a lot of people in danger. They worry us because they appear just as fast as they disappear. They appear on the roads and break into cars, burn trucks, break into property and burn machinery, tie down, beat and rob the Mapuches themselves.” 

And that the danger of the RAM begins to spread to other social sectors, not necessarily Mapuche:

“What is it that they are defending? A homeland based on blood, the violation of the constitution, a free pass to do what they want? What is it that these people who live 1,500 kilometers away, and some from here too, defend? Even some professors of the National University of Patagonia are involved.” 

And, finally, Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, at a press conference with the minister of justice and human rights, made the following statements

“We are facing violent groups that have escalated this situation. Groups that do not respect the law and do not recognise Argentina, the state, the constitution, the symbols, and consider themselves a de facto power that can resolve matters with laws other than those of all Argentines.” 

To conclude, regarding the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof, the security minister said:

“The judge will need evidence, not us. The government has defined that this [the repression that cost Rafael Nahuel his life] took place in the context of a judicial order by Judge Villanueva. The burden of proof regarding what the (security) forces do in the framework of a judicial order is not on us.” 

So, while the state pushes the notions of "dangerousness" and "criminality", it is the state itself that goes against the constitution and the law. 

Legislative strides – so why the continual tensions? 

In the last 30 years, the legislation regarding indigenous peoples made great strides in Argentina. National law 23.302 led to the creation of the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI). The constitutional reform of 1994 included article 75° section 17, which recognises the ethnic and cultural pre-existence of ‘Argentine indigenous peoples’. The International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 on ‘Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ was endorsed and ratified. 

However, none of these tools provided concrete solutions for the problems of the native populations. Not even the Territorial Survey undertaken by the INAI between 2006 and 2016 (which has been extended for four more years) brought relief: it only covered a small percentage of lands, it did not contemplate granting community property deeds (a demand widely disseminated among indigenous populations throughout the country) and it also failed to suspend evictions, despite the fact that this was explicitly ordered under law 26.160.

"They left us to live on the rocks", a Mapuche friend once told me. "But now they've discovered that rocks also have value." 

The indigenous communities of Argentina continue to live on what the state considers government-owned lands, in peripheral areas, from which they are also repeatedly expelled because of oil, soy or mining activities. "They left us to live on the rocks", a Mapuche friend once told me. "But now they've discovered that rocks also have value". 

That is why Mapuche organisations do not ‘take’ or ‘occupy’ land. From their perspective, they recover territories. They return to their places of origin, from which they were violently displaced.

But in Argentina – a country with a clear agro-exporting profile and a powerful ruling class linked to the countryside – calling into question the ownership of land and territory (which are the central demands of the Mapuche population and all indigenous peoples) is nearly impossible. Recent history in this regard exhibits the dynamics of a cauldron: the accumulation of tensions has been dealt with using little politics, and the full force of the criminal code. That and much more.

Carte blanche for repression

Current events in the region suggest a growing spiral of violence that has little chance of being contained. The seriousness of the situation not only stems from the use of repression, but from the state’s unconditional endorsement of security forces’ disproportionate responses to the Mapuche protests. Harassment, rubber bullets, lead bullets, persecution, unjustified arrests – the list is long.

For the state, extending the supposed danger of the RAM to the whole Mapuche people is a step very easily taken. And then to the sympathisers. Or to political opponents. The current climate allows for a selective repression to be exerted on the whole of society.

Added to this is the resurgence of other earlier tensions, older than the current recuperation of lands. Private landowners, in disputes with dispersed inhabitants, today feel that they have carte blanche to continue to use, with impunity, the tools they have always used: threats, harassment, aggression. These are conflicts that take place in distant mountain ranges that will never make the front pages of newspapers. The government's endorsement of the use of violence with impunity has opened a great umbrella of possibilities for them. Now, they can adopt as their own the maxim of Louis XIV: in this desolate spot, “I am the state”.

About the author

Hernán Horacio Schiaffini is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centro de Investigaciones Esquel de Montaña y Estepa Patagónicas-CONICET.


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