Chile: Hunger Strike Starved for Attention

By Fernando Garabito

“Freedom for all Mapuche political prisoners”

While the world followed the dramatic accounts of 33 miners trapped more than 700 hundred meters deep, a group of 34 Chilean Mapuche prisoners who started a hunger strike a month earlier, still struggled to appear on the local news.

“Arauco has a pain and cannot heal it…”, go the lyrics of a song by iconic Chilean folk singer, Violeta Parra. Written decades ago, the song still strikes a chord over the moral and legal debt Chile owes to its most prominent indigenous group, the Mapuche.

Arauco – currently Araucania – was once the name used to denominate all the territories south of the Malleco River (569 km from Santiago). Chile won its independence in 1810, yet it would be another 70 years until it would effectively claim Mapuche land as part of its national territory. Progress has little tolerance for those who do not share its creed, and like so many other indigenous groups in other corners of the world, Mapuche people have been forced to comply with a state and a culture that are both invasive and reckless.

This process of annexation, ironically called “the Pacification of Araucania” in the history books, was in fact a war of extermination and destruction lasting twenty years, at the end of which the Mapuche population was left decimated, and their lands expropriated. The Mapuche were then forced into Chilean sovereignty and confined to inhabit a territory amounting to five per cent of the land they managed to defend from Spaniards for more than three centuries. Thus, the Mapuche (literally meaning “Men of the Land” in their native tongue) have been deprived of the most essential element of their existence.


On August 5th, outright negligence and lack of regulatory oversight catapulted 33 miners to worldwide fame after being buried in the country’s north while 34 imprisoned Mapuche activists were about to complete a month of hunger striking in several prisons in the Araucania zone. The strike’s purpose was to denounce that, in a country where the maximum sentence does not exceed 40 years of imprisonment, many of them risked being sentenced between 70 and 100 years or more. The reason: their alleged participation in so-called terrorist acts ranging from torching trucks and highway toll booths, to attacks against lumber companies that operate on disputed Mapuche lands.

Chilean legislation (most of which was crafted under Pinochet’s military dictatorship) includes a special anti-terrorism law. Together with extremely long incarceration periods, this law allows the government to detain people for up to two years without charges, and ponders whether alleged terrorist crimes and their perpetrators are liable to be tried by both civil and military courts. Essentially, this means being subjected to a couple of parallel laws and eventually receiving double punishment. Mapuche strikers also criticized the use of undercover witnesses that are able to accuse them anonymously.

At first, the monopolized right-wing Chilean media could not care less about the strike. Even if international media outlets like BBC and AlJazeera were already covering the story, it remained non-existent in national papers, or radio and television waves. However, many Chilean citizens did realize the importance of the events taking place in these southern prisons, as well as the suspicious absence of the subject in the media.

The lack of coverage also caught fire on social networks. As government officials insisted that efforts to rescue the 33 miners was proof that all Chileans were equal, the 34 Mapuche continued risking their lives, demanding a fair trial, and were still being ignored.

On August 22nd, as the world learned that the miners were alive and that their rescue was imminent, public campaigns led by citizens in many cities mushroomed in solidarity with the strikers. Forty-one days after quietly beginning their hunger strike, the Mapuche prisoners received media attention at last. The communication void had finally broken down, and the government no longer had excuses to avoid addressing the problem.

A roundtable brokered by Catholic Archbishop Ricardo Ezzatti seated all the parties involved. However, the Mapuche and the government positions weren’t at all compromising. President Sebastian Pinera insisted they halt the strike and start conversations, however, the Mapuche spokespeople asked that negotiations begin first. As the strikers’ health continued to deteriorate, and through escalating reactions and declarations from all parts of the political spectrum, the opposition sided with the Mapuche’s wishes. The government’s initial reticence to even touch the issue gave way to the recognition of “inadequacies in the anti-terrorism law.” The National Congress suddenly became aware of the urgency of the indigenous affair and started working in double session. For several weeks, the national consensus on the legitimacy of the Mapuche demands failed to find an echo in Congress, and dialogue between the Mapuche and the government remained at a standstill. When many began fearing for the safety of the activists because of the prolonged fast, the first hints of an agreement emerged.

Earlier this month, after 91 days of striking, all Mapuche activists finally brought their protest to an end. The government agreed to stop invoking the anti-terrorism law in regards to Mapuche activists; reforms to the military law and its attributions are underway, and seven of the strikers, whom were kept in prisons without being charged, have been released. A plan of action has been announced by the government in order to advance consistent treatment of the indigenous groups and their demands.

However, many feel that apart from the specific points concerning the Mapuche prisoners, there’s little hope for genuine improvements in the overall treatment of the Mapuche in Chile. Enrique Calfucura, a Chilean of Mapuche origin and current McGill student, is one of them. “Unfortunately, I am not very confident any significant changes are going to occur in the short run,” he said. “There have been many incidents in recent history where the Mapuche have been led to believe a new deal was on the rise and the injustice of centuries were to be partly redressed, just to see everything vanish later on.” A former activist for the Indigenous cause in Chile, Calfucura criticizes the lack of organization of Mapuche communities under one strong banner. “I don’t think the hopes of autonomy or self-determination for the Mapuche people are realistic,” he continued. “Personally, I would rather put the emphasis on education and the integration of the indigenous peoples as citizens of a country that respects them and acknowledges their rights to exist and preserve their culture.”


Recently, Chilean documentarian Elena Varela premiered her long-awaited documentary Newen Mapu (The Strength of the Men of the Land) on the Mapuche struggle during the last decade. Varela has also suffered the effects of the Chilean anti-terrorism law herself. In May 2008, while making Newen Mapu, she was arrested due to her alleged involvement in two hold-ups and supposed funding of terrorist activities. However, many suspected that the real reasons behind her arrest lay somewhere else. All the material she had produced in the last three years was seized. Among the seized was hundreds of hours of interviews with members of Mapuche communities and their thoughts on the escalating violence and repression they suffered in their conflict with lumber companies occupying and exploiting Mapuche ancestral lands. Much of this material was lost and her journalistic right to protect the sources was violated.

After a two-year process and several months in prison, all charges were dropped, and Varela was finally able to resume her work. Six years after she decided to make a documentary on the conflict between the Mapuche and the Chilean state, Newen Mapu has finally been presented in Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. “The hunger strike obtained just limited benefits,” she said. “The Mapuche’s underlying problem, which is their dignity as a people, still goes on.”

Varela is currently working on the English version of the documentary.


This battle is just another chapter of the long conflict between the Mapuche – Chile’s most prominent Aboriginal group – and the Chilean state. For several weeks, along with the government’s reluctance to touch the subject, there was a noticeable communication void on the Mapuche strike by the national media. The former contrasted heavily with the 24/7 coverage of the 33 miners trapped in a mine in the north, demonstrating the Chilean media’s failure to provide a truthful portrait of all important events occurring at a given time.

In the face of this flagrant omission, the whistleblowers on the Mapuche hunger strike were the civil society and Human Right organisations, whose increasing pressure through social networks and demonstrations across the country in solidarity with the Mapuche activists eventually succeeded in breaking the communication void. The government no longer had any excuses not to address the problem. So far, seven of the Mapuche strikers have been liberated and the government has announced that the anti-terrorism law will no longer be invoked in cases concerning the Mapuche activists.

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