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They Became Terrorists Overnight: The Chilean Government’s Use of Anti-Terrorism Laws Against Mapuche Activists

By: Val Day-Sánchez

“There are no guarantees of due process in these trials manipulated by the state…We are persecuted by state police, and the state appoints both the prosecutors and the public defence lawyers, who operate within a system and comply with a political model that favours vested economic interests in this country.”[1] 

The Mapuche Nation is the largest Indigenous community in the Americas, residing in Argentina and Chile.[2] Unfortunately, even with its high population there is not strength in numbers.[3] The Chilean and Argentine governments view the Mapuche as invaders.[4] Historically, however, the wars inflicted on the Mapuche was that of colonialism. The narrative created by the Chilean government has been the inverse.[5]

The Mapuche people, a primarily agricultural society, were forced onto reservations in 1866.[6] The Chileans revoked the Quillin Treaty, which had declared the Mapuche autonomous from the country.[7] This revocation of sovereignty enabled the Chilean government to take the Mapuche’s ancestral land and, using their discretion, the government would provide the Mapuche with land use but not ownership.[8]  Land removal continued into the 1920’s and 1930s.[9] 

In the early 1970s, the Chilean government passed the “Indigenous Law” which recognized the Mapuche as a distinct culture.[10] This law also enabled the restoration of Mapuche ancestral lands.[11] All of this “progress” was overturned by the infamous dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean government was then legally allowed to take land from the Mapuche and exploit it for monetary gain.[12] The taking of land to develop forestry plantations began in 1973 and was heavily encouraged by way of subsidies until 2013, under Decree Law 701.[13] This resulted in 11 million hectares being taken from the Mapuche.[14]

Pinochet called for the “division of the reserves and liquidation of Indian communities,” and thus the Anti-Terrorism Law or Law 18.314 was adopted. [15] The combination of taking land from the Mapuche Nation and exploiting it has led to protests from the Mapuche, who the government then combats with the Anti-Terrorism law.[16] This has been going on for decades. Imprisoned Mapuche led hunger strikes challenging the harsh prison sentences, police brutality, entire generations lost to incarceration and being viewed as inhuman— has caught the attention of the United Nations. Mapuche children have applied for asylum, believing they will die at the hands of law enforcement. When your country deems you a terrorist and refuses to recognize you, one is pressed to know where someone can feel safe.[17]

The oppression of the Mapuche Tribal members is further reflected in the suppression of their language, the devastation of their land, and in their absence from the Chilean Constitution.[18]  The Chilean State has labeled Mapuche Activists as terrorists while they see themselves as political prisoners.[19] Due to its cruelty towards Tribal members and their children, both the United Nations and UNICEF have told the Chilean government to halt the use of the Anti-Terrorism law.[20]

The law, which was developed during a dictator’s regime, includes secret investigations, anonymous witnesses, indefinite pretrial detention, harsher penalties and stark sentences.[21] It also creates a lack of trust in the justice system, as such practices are directly averse to principles like innocent until proven guilty. Both the police and prosecutors are looked at as untrustworthy and even criminal by their handling of cases involving Mapuche activists.[22]

“There has been no recognition of our people’s political, social and legal structures; our traditional authorities have not been respected, and our territorial rights have not been recognized.”[23]

The brutality of the Anti-Terrorism law challenges due process as Mapuche people charged under this law often remain in custody for up to two years while their case is investigated.[24] The prosecution is allowed to withhold evidence from the accused for up to six months and to add to the injustice, the defendant can be convicted solely on the testimony of a secret witness.[25]

“Despite the controversy embedded in this framework, there is an ongoing national debate unfolding today over whether this already-violent undemocratic process is ‘tough enough’ to fight Mapuche so-called “terrorism.” [26]

General Augusto Pinochet once stated “[t]here are no Mapuches left, because we are all Chilean.”[27] This sentiment has been challenged in recent years as Chile shifted from a Catholic state to a nonreligious government. Its lack of laws protecting other marginalized communities has sparked protests, which perhaps means there is hope for inclusion of Indigenous protections.[28] In 2021 Chile will be re-writing its constitution.[29] This will be the first time since Pinochet was in office.[30] Elisa Loncon, the first Mapuche woman selected by delegates to help draft the new Constitution, will be part of this effort.[31] One can hope this will lead to the Mapuche being recognized as a distinct culture within the Constitution and then receiving the benefits of that recognition.


[1] UNPO: Mapuche: Introduce new Legal System, https://www.unpo.org/content/view/10708/127/ (last visited Sep 13, 2021).

[2] Mapuche, Minority Rights Group (2015), https://minorityrights.org/minorities/mapuche-2/ (last visited Sep 13, 2021).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Mapuche | History, Culture, & Facts, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mapuche (last visited Oct 18, 2021).

[7] The Quillin Treaty was between Spain and the Mapuche Nation. Zia Akhtar, Mapuche Land Claims: Environmental Protest, Legal Discrimination and Customary Rights, 20 Int J Minor Group Rights 551–576 (2013).

[8] Id.

[9] Minority Rights Group (2015), supra note 2.

[10] Patricia Rodriguez & David Carruthers, Testing Democracy’s Promise: Indigenous Mobilization and the Chilean State, Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe / European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 3–21 (2008).

[11] Id.

[12] Mapuche Lavkenche Women’s Resistance to the Chilean Forestry Model | WRM in English, https://wrm.org.uy/articles-from-the-wrm-bulletin/section1/mapuche-lavkenche-womens-resistance-to-the-chilean-forestry-model/ (last visited Sep 27, 2021) [hereinafter Mapuche Women’s Resistance].

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Chile is still using Pinochet’s Anti-Terrorist Law against the Mapuche | Intercontinental Cry, https://intercontinentalcry.org/chiles-still-using-pinochets-anti-terrorist-law-mapuche/ (last visited Oct 18, 2021).

[16] Ever since the Chilean government split the ancestral lands between two families, who developed forestry plantations, the government has worked in a noxious relationship with these companies. It is this relationship which enables the logging company to enter Mapuche ancestral lands. The logging company strategically decimated the forest to plant invasive species like pine and eucalyptus trees, these trees being a lucrative export. This history of colonization and the formation of government subsidized plantations came to a head in 1997. Three truckloads of wood from the forestry company were burned while on the occupied land, and the intensification of the reclamation of the occupied lands led to the increase of police presence and the enforcement of the Anti-Terrorism Laws.Mapuche Women’s Resistance,supra note 12.

[17] Id.

[18] Chile is the only Latin American country that does not recognize Indigenous people in its constitution. Chile – IWGIA – International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, https://www.iwgia.org/en/chile.html (last visited Sep 27, 2021).

[19] UNPO, supra note 1.

[20] OHCHR | UN experts urge Chile not to use anti-terrorism law against Mapuche indigenous peoples, , https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22209&LangID=E (last visited Oct 18, 2021).

[21] Undue Process: Terrorism Trials, Military Courts and the Mapuche in Southern Chile, (2004), https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/10/27/undue-process/terrorism-trials-military-courts-and-mapuche-southern-chile (last visited Oct 18, 2021).

[22] Intercontinental Cry, supra note 15.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] IWGIA, supra note 18.

[28] Mapuche woman to lead body drafting Chile’s new constitution, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/4/indigenous-mapuche-woman-to-lead-body-drafting-chile-new-constitution (last visited Oct 2, 2021).

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

By Tribal Law Journal Blog

The Tribal Law Journal was established in fall 1998 for the purpose of promoting indigenous self-determination by facilitating discussion of the internal law of the world’s indigenous nations. The internal law of indigenous nations encompasses traditional law, western law adopted by indigenous nations, and a blend of western and indigenous law. Underscoring this purpose is the recognition that traditional law is a source of law.

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