President Sebastián Piñera is considering declaring the state of emergency in the Araucanía region, in southern Chile, where six arson attacks which cost the lives of two people took place since Friday, Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick said.
The Chilean president is also holding a round of political talks with all parties with congressional representation to form a united front against what he described as “terrorist violence”.
One of the first measures was to put Carlos Carrasco, a top official within the Carabineros police, in charge of coordinating security in the region, plus sending 400 well armed riot police to ensure law and order.
Houses, trucks and agricultural machinery were torched down in six separate attacks since Friday, in a conflict that has affected the regions of Biobío, La Araucanía and Los Ríos.
A 75-year-old businessman and his 69-year-old wife were burned alive inside their home, which was attacked by around 20 people on Friday. Their family’s vast landholdings had long been targeted by Mapuche Indians who claim ancestral rights over the land.
Demands for land and autonomy by the Mapuche date back centuries. They resisted Spanish and Chilean domination for more than 300 years before they were forced south to Araucania in 1881. Many of the 700,000 Mapuche who survive among Chile’s 17 million people still live in Araucania.
A small fraction have been rebelling for decades, destroying forestry equipment and torching trees. Governments on the left and right have sent in police while offering programs that fall far short of their demands.
“The rise in demonstrations by our Mapuche communities are due to the lack of justice and the rejection of any type of productive dialogue on the restitution of our territory,” Mapuche leader Juana Calfunao wrote in Mapuexpress, an online site that reports on the issues of the Mapuche.
Chadwick said “the government believes the timeliest, useful and necessary decision is the implementation of the Anti-terrorism law” though he did not rule out the use of “any other legal instrument provided for by the Constitution and the law”.
Several ruling party lawmakers and businessmen demanded that the government declare the state of emergency.
Chadwick said Carrasco will be in charge of the “actions against terrorist violence” in the three regions affected by the conflict and that Piñera will meet Monday with the leaders of the opposition to discuss the handling of the crisis.
The president will also meet Monday with the head of the National Intelligence Agency (ANI) and the intelligence leaders within the armed forces.
The goal, Chadwick said, is to seek a “solid unity” against violence. Chadwick’s statement followed a meeting between Piñera and Ministers Cristián Larroulet and Joaquín Lavín.
Under Chilean law, a state of emergency can be declared in instances of internal war or serious local strife. It allows the president to ban meetings and demonstrations and restricts movement of citizens for 15 days.
Piñera inherited the conflict in Araucania from successive administrations that, like his, have also been unable to successfully address land claims that have erupted in clashes with police.
Human rights and Mapuche groups criticize the use of the anti-terror law, calling it an abuse of power and say the government should instead focus on reaching out to the Mapuche.