Chile: Mapuche anti-Columbus march ends in clashes with police

Mapuches march in Santiago, Chile, against Columbus Day celebrations.

Mapuches march in Santiago, Chile, against Columbus Day celebrations.

Merco Press, October 14th 2014

Chilean police fired tear gas and water cannon on Sunday to break up thousands of indigenous protesters demanding land rights and condemning Columbus Day, after masked demonstrators began throwing stones.

The march in Santiago began festively, with demonstrators decked out in colourful clothing and playing traditional indigenous music from around the country. But some protesters turned violent, throwing stones at police, who responded by firing water cannon and tear gas.

That broke up the demonstrators, who police said numbered about 6,000.

The march in the capital came as Chile commemorated the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492; an event many in the country’s indigenous communities argue should not be celebrated with a holiday.

The protest also drew together activists for a number of indigenous causes, including the fight by the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, for property rights over their ancestral lands in the south.

”We’re sending a clear message to President (Michelle) Bachelet… We’re not going to stop fighting to get back our land,” said Freddy Melinao from the Mapuche village of Kuyen Mapu.

Rights groups in Chile have accused the police of using excessive force against indigenous activists.

Hundreds of indigenous people have been jailed in the past decade for occupying or setting fire to buildings, and about a dozen have been killed in police operations, according to rights groups.

Chile applies to indigenous uprisings and protests a very strict anti-terrorist legislation, with some lenient modifications, which was drafted during the time of dictator Augusto Pinochet and has been strongly criticized by human rights groups, UN and Amnesty International, among others.

Mapuche columbus 2014 2Chileans Celebrated Columbus Day By Fighting with Cops

By George Nelson, Photos: George Nelson and Cat Allen,,

On the 12th of October, the New World celebrates Columbus Day, but this Sunday, Chile’s special police were too busy having street fights with thugs to party. The country’s indigenous Mapuche people had stormed into Santiago for a demonstration and all hell broke loose.

Indigenous rights supporters came to Santiago riding a wave of fury after the murder of a Mapuche activist called José Mauricio Quintriqueo Huaiquimil, on the 1st of October. They surged up from the south of the country to demand the return of ancestral lands stolen by the young Republic of Chile over a century ago. Columbus Day is as good a day as any on which to protest about this, as the Mapuche view the arrival of Columbus to South America as the beginning of their colonisation.

Last year’s march exploded in a blizzard of tear gas, arson, and mayhem as opportunist hooded vandals known as “encapuchados” unleashed carnage. These hooligans are a common feature of protests in Chile and often appear towards end of student and indigenous rights demonstrations to carry out arbitrary attacks on police in an effort to bait confrontation. This year was no different.

Militant throwing brick at armoured police vehicle during anti-Columbus Day protests in Santiago, Chile, 2014.

Militant throwing brick at armoured police vehicle during anti-Columbus Day protests in Santiago, Chile, 2014.

Huaiquimil’s death – “run over two of three times” by a tractor-riding farm worker during conflict between Mapuches and landowners – was untimely to say the least. Two policemen were seriously injured after authorities descended on the Bío Bío Region to quell the violence that followed the murder. One copped a slug in the leg while another’s face was severely disfigured by a shotgun blast.

Given these recent events, there was a tangible undercurrent of hostility as the march formed up. There was an ominous inevitability to proceedings underscored by a heavy police presence.

Chile has been in a protracted battle with its indigenous inhabitants since the 1882 annexation of Mapuche land in Araucanía. The government promised to return much of the territory but progress is slow, leading to occasionally fatal exchanges between indigenous communities and authorities. Many Mapuches are incarcerated as a result. “We are here to rise up against the government and claim back land rightly belonging to us,” one Mapuche demonstrator told me. “We are here to secure the immediate release of all indigenous political prisoners.”

Thousands gathered in Providencia’s Plaza Italia and despite the march starting peacefully, simmering tensions soon boiled over as the procession rumbled down Liber Bernardo O’Higgins towards La Moneda: the Presidential Palace.

Mapuche columbus 2014 4Armoured “Carabineros” – Chile’s uniformed police – and heavily reinforced riot waggons awaited protestors a few blocks before the government building. Seemingly out of nowhere an angry hoard of people wearing masks attacked, pelting police with anything they could get their hands on including jagged hunks of concrete and homemade Molotov cocktails. A scrum of gas-masked photographers instantly gravitated towards the ruckus as police retaliated with a hailstorm of teargas and muscular jets of water laced with irritant. This was the first of many skirmishes.

One guy picked up a metal barrier, hurling it at the police. As he did so, his friend was telling me to, “Get that fucking camera out of my face.” With stinging bloodshot eyeballs and a throat full of teargas, I bolted up into a doorway where a charitable Chilean handed me a premade shred of vinegar soaked cotton wool to sooth my irritated eyes – it was agony.

Meanwhile, the majority of Mapuche protestors stayed out of trouble and continued to chant the names of fallen activists and dance to the dull, heavy thud of drums. One of them confronted the encapuchados for sullying the indigenous cause, only to be bombarded with stones and bottles. The encapuchados soon turned their attention to defacing public property leaving uprooted traffic lights, shattered shop windows, and burning bus stops in their wake.

After two hours of fighting, the authorities swarmed the area in front of La Moneda, dispersing crowds with water cannon and yet more tear gas bellowing from armoured vehicles. Police also arrived on foot from all angles to break up the party.

The Mapuches were going nowhere though. They had set themselves up in front of the palace, commanding President Michele Bachelet to hurry up and give them back their ancestral land, much of which is occupied by large timber companies.

Previous governments have vowed to return indigenous land only for these promises to stagnate. In June, Bachelet announced a plan to buy disputed ancestral land from forestry companies and local farmers and return it to better incorporate indigenous communities into Chile’s political and economic development.

Meanwhile, when conflict flares up, the Mapuche – who make up roughly 10 percent of Chile’s population – continue to be charged under the controversial 1976 anti-terrorism law, which allows for the use of secret witnesses and prolonged prison sentences. Following a 39-day hunger strike by indigenous prisoners in May, politicians pledged to review the legislation.

For the Mapuche, this is only a first step, and they will continue to fight to get their land back. “Columbus Day is not a reason to celebrate,” the protestors shouted. “We defended our lands against European invaders and now we will defend them against the government.”

Posted on October 14, 2014, in Decolonization and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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