Small groups of Mapuche Indians have so rattled Chile by seizing forests, burning buses and attacking police to demand land and autonomy that the leftist government has turned to dictatorship-era measures to quell the violence.
The government of President Michelle Bachelet is prosecuting Mapuche activists with secret evidence, protected witnesses and other tough aspects of an anti-terrorism law inherited from Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who jailed and tortured Bachelet's father and sent her into exile.
The police crackdown has left a stain on Bachelet's otherwise strong human rights record, with UNICEF, the UN Human Rights Commission and other international organizations expressing concern that elderly people and children are being abused.
After police killed a Mapuche activist in August, Bachelet said she understands the historic claims of the indigenous group, which once occupied most of Patagonia. Forced off good land by centuries of discriminatory practices, most now live in impoverished, marginalized communities in Chile's Araucania region or provide low-wage labor in the capital, Santiago.
President urges dialogue
But she said nothing justifies the violence, which so far has left four Mapuches dead and 100 convicted or jailed, at least 34 of whom are being tried on terrorism charges.
"It must be understood that the only way to resolve the legitimate historical demands of the Mapuche people is dialogue," said Bachelet, who despite her 78 percent approval rating has been bedeviled by the Indian conflict as she prepares to step down in March.
Bachelet had promised during and after her 2006 election campaign not to use the terrorism law against the Mapuches. But her government has since insisted that it is a necessary response — and that judges ultimately decide whether it applies.
"These are terrorist acts such as shooting at people, setting fire to buses and factories," Indigenous Affairs Minister Jose Viera Gallo said Tuesday.
The Associated Press and other news agencies toured the conflict zone 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of Santiago last weekend, speaking with jailed leaders and visiting indigenous communities.
Reporters saw women, elderly people and a baby injured with pellet wounds. And while their fear was palpable, so was their shared commitment to keep fighting — either through violence or peaceful means.
The Mapuche resisted Spanish and Chilean domination for more than 300 years, and their desire for autonomy remains strong. It wasn't until 1881 that they were defeated militarily and forced into Araucania, south of the Bio Bio river, about 550 kilometers south of the capital.
Many of the 700,000 Mapuches who survive among Chile's 17 million people now live in about 2,000 communities in Araucania. Of these, about 100 are openly in rebellion against the government, while most of the rest favor peaceful negotiations for land, supplies and equipment.
Violence hurting economy
Activists have occupied the forests, attacked police and pulled people from their vehicles along the Pan-American highway before setting the vehicles on fire, destroying 27 buses worth $100,000 each in the last two years alone. The unrest has created so much risk for outside investors that the local economy has been badly hurt.
The most combative band fighting for autonomy is led by Hector Llaitul, 42, who was arrested on terrorism charges and faces 40 years in prison if convicted of attempted murder, aggravated robbery, terrorist conspiracy and challenging authority.
Llaitul said the Mapuche are ready to sit down and negotiate, but he also rejected nonviolence in the same prison interview, saying "sweat and blood must run in order to reclaim land."
He denied government allegations of getting help from Colombia's FARC rebels or the ETA Basque separatists in Spain. Other jailed Mapuches accused authorities of torturing them and manufacturing evidence.
No autonomous zone
Bachelet has ruled out granting the Mapuche some sort of a politically autonomous zone, and Gallo on Tuesday called that idea "a utopia — it doesn't have the slightest aspect of reality."
"If we are to understand autonomy as how Llaitul and some of the most extreme sectors see it — an autonomy like the Basques or the Catalans — this isn't possible in Araucania, because the Mapuche people are a minority everywhere," Gallo said.
Instead, Bachelet has led an ambitious effort to buy land and clear title to properties Mapuches can share, delivering more than 1.6 million acres (650,000 hectares) to more than 100 communities before the effort slowed as land prices nearly tripled in the last year.
Now she's considering Plan Araucania, a proposal delivered to her last week by a coalition of 100 Mapuche groups and regional business owners that would formally acknowledge Mapuche culture and provide socio-economic help.
"It's a promise from the country to resolve our problems without violence or repression," said Andres Molina, who leads a coalition of unions and worked with business owners and Mapuche leaders on the plan. "The region wants peace — but not the peace of the cemetery."
‘The police don't respect us’
But even Mapuches who favor nonviolence say they are suffering from the police response.
"The police don't respect us ... they come firing their tear gas, their rubber bullets, their iron bullets," said Daniel Queipul, whose majority faction in the village of Temucuicui has tried to work with the government.
While the government has accused Mapuches of using children as human shields, Queipul says the community gave UNICEF and other groups a list of 32 children who had suffered from tear gas attacks.
"My house is been raided about 10 times, and they've never shown me any search warrant, and the raids have always been super violent," said Griselda Alhueque in a typical complaint. "They mistreat the women, the children. They don't hold back — they always come in pointing their weapons."