Chilean truckers blocked the country's main road on Monday to protest a string of arson attacks, including one that killed an elderly couple in a southern region that Mapuche Indians call their usurped ancestral land.
The couple's death has triggered a national debate on the escalation of a conflict in Araucania, where Mapuche Indians — the fearsome opponents of the Spanish conquistadores 500 years ago— are pitted against timber companies and wealthy landowners.
The attack has also raised questions about the inability of President Sebastian Pinera's government to meet the demands of Chile's largest indigenous group and the administration's vow to use harsh dictatorship-era measures to quell the violence.
State TV showed images on Monday of a long line of trucks clogging Route 5, the north-south highway running more than 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers) in this narrow, coast-hugging country. Truck beds carried lumber trucks and farming machinery that were set on fire in past attacks. Protesters carried banners calling for an end to the violence. One of them read: "No more burned alive," a reference to the killing of Werner Luchsinger and his wife Vivian McKay, who died Friday while trying to defend their home.
The vast landholdings of the couple's family had been long-targeted by Mapuche Indians.
"We knew they would set our house on fire," Jorge Luchsinger, the couple's son told local TV as he joined the protest. "I'd like to ask people who are not here for a stronger support so we can put a stop to this. These are commandos devoted to acts of terrorism."
A radical faction of the Mapuche have occupied and burned forestry farms and lumber trucks to demand the return of ancestral territories. They also protest timber companies that they say damage the environment by planting hundreds of thousands of acres with invasive pines and eucalyptus trees to supply Europe, Japan and the United States.
But police have also been accused of violent abuses including storming into Mapuche homes at night and shooting rubber bullets and tear gas during demonstrations.
"Police stormed in last night without warning, looking for who knows what and being extremely violent against our people," said Jorge Huenchullan, a spokesman for the Mapuche in Temucuicui, some 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of the capital Santiago.
The Mapuche, which means "people of the land" in their native Mapudungun language, resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years and their desire for autonomy remains as strong. It wasn't until the late 19th century 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 Mapuche who survive among Chile's 17 million people, still live in Araucania. Most live in poverty on the margins of forestry companies or ranches owned by wealthy landowners like the Luchsinger family who arrived to the region in the late 1800s, from Switzerland, and benefited from the government's colonization policies since then.
"I don't have the formula (to solve this) but the starting point is recognizing that there's a history of usurpation unrecognized by the state," Carlos Bresciani, a priest in charge of a Mapuche mission in Araucania, told local La Segunda newspaper.
Pinera flew to the scene shortly after the attack on the couple, doubled the number of police agents in the region to 400 and announced tough new security measures.
In a letter to the president, Mapuche leader Juana Calfunao Paillaef said she regretted the violence but criticized the government for ignoring their demands and taking sides.
"My community, family and I have suffered attacks of this nature; unknown elements torched my house three times and the remains of my uncle were found after," she said. "But in my case there were no visits by the Chilean president, a state of emergency was not declared and the perpetrators are not punished under the anti-terror law."
The latest string of arson attacks have led right-wing politicians to demand the government guarantee safety by declaring a state of emergency.
After an emergency meeting on Monday with politicians from ruling and opposition parties, Interior Minister Andres Chadwick said the government will use the anti-terrorist law for now but doesn't rule out the state of emergency.
Members of the Mapuche have gone on repeated hunger strikes lasting more than 50 days to protest the anti-terror legislation that dates from the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship.
Human rights groups say the law is abusive because it allows for suspects to be held in isolation without charge, and for the use of secret witnesses and telephone taps.
Mapuche journalist Pedro Cayuqueo told state TV that the arson attacks don't merit the use of the anti-terrorism laws because they are already harshly punished, with arson that leads to death potentially carrying a life sentence.
"The civil population is not being indiscriminately targeted," Cayuqueo said. "Please, come on, under international law terrorism is the attack on the trains in Spain, the bombing of the AMIA (Jewish community center) in Buenos Aires, the 9-11 attacks. But there's no public Mapuche group that is belligerent against the state."
Associated Press writer Eva Vergara contributed to this report.
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