An elderly couple died in their home as tensions between Mapuche Indians and wealthy landowners spark an increased level of political protests.
SANTIAGO, Chile – An elderly couple whose family's vast landholdings have long been targeted by Mapuche Indians in southern Chile was killed in an arson attack early Friday while trying to defend their home. Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera quickly flew to the scene and announced new security measures, including the application of Chile's tough anti-terrorism law and the creation of a special police anti-terror unit backed by Chile's military.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which some Mapuche Indians repudiated Friday as senseless and abhorrent. But Chile's interior minister said pamphlets condemning police violence and demanding the return of Mapuche lands were left at the scene. The presidentially appointed governor of the remote southern region of Araucania, Andres Molina, called the attackers "savages."
"This attack affects the entire country and causes gigantic damage, for the pain and the delays that it means for thousands of families who want to live in peace," Pinera said. "This government is united in its effort to combat terrorism that affects the region. We will not hesitate to apply the full weight of the law."
"It should be completely clear," Pinera added, "that this fight is not against the Mapuche people. It's with a minority of violent terrorists who must be fought with everything the law allows."
Werner Luchsinger, 75, fired a weapon in self-defense, and struck a man from the nearby Mapuche community of Juan Quintrupil before his home burned to the ground, regional police chief Ivan Bezmalinovic said.
Luchsinger's wife Vivian McKay called relatives for help during the attack, but when they arrived just 15 minutes later the house was already in flames and she didn't answer her phone, according to the victim's cousin, Jorge Luchsinger.
The attack began Thursday night as one of many political protests around Chile commemorating the death five years ago of Mapuche activist Matias Catrileo, who was shot in the back by an officer who later served a minor sentence and then rejoined the police. The Indians scattered pamphlets related to the anniversary while on the Luchsinger property, Interior Minister Andres Chadwick said.
The victims' Lumahue ranch is just 16 miles (25 kilometers) from the spot where Catrileo was killed on Jan. 3, 2008.
Celestino Cordova Transito, 26, was detained near the scene early Friday. Police have him under arrest in a hospital in Temuco, where he was being treated for a gunshot wound in the neck, the chief said.
Gov. Molina said that Werner Luchsinger's gunshot, by enabling police to capture the wounded suspect, may help solve not only the couple's death but previous arson attacks as well.
"I want to thank Don Werner, because probably thanks to him we're closer to finding these savages who have done such damage to Araucania," he said.
Pinera also met briefly with the Luchsinger family as well as other local landowners next to the burned-out home, but Chile's El Mercurio said the meeting was cut short when some fled due to a false rumor that Mapuche activists were targeting their properties even as the president spoke. Other landowners shouted out in anger, asking for tougher security measures, and then briefly blocked the main highway in protest.
Jorge Luchsinger said earlier Friday that masked Indians have repeatedly attacked his and other relatives' properties as well, despite the considerable police presence in the area. "It's obvious that the authorities are completely overwhelmed," he told radio Cooperativa.
Many of Chile's Mapuche activist groups were silent Friday about the murders, repeating instead their complaints about continuing police violence of the kind that killed Catrileo years ago.
But Venancio Conuepan, who described himself as a law student who comes from a long line of Mapuche leaders, wrote an editorial Friday condemning the violence, rejecting the idea that armed conflict can win their demands, and calling for the killers to be identified and tried in court. He said the vast majority of the Mapuche people agree with him.
The Luchsinger family has been among the most outspoken in defending the property rights of the region's landowners against ancestral land claims by the Mapuche. But Jorge said his cousin had taken a lower profile and refused police protection.
Lorena Fries, the director of Chile's official Human Rights Institute, warned Friday against cracking down using the anti-terror law, which allows for holding suspects in isolation without charges, using secret witnesses and other measures that have been discredited by Chile's courts in previous cases of Mapuche violence. Instead, she said Pinera should reach out to the Indians, and honor their demands for self-governance and the recovery of ancestral land. "Something has to be done so that everyone puts an end to the violence," she said.
The Mapuches' demands for land and autonomy 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 Mapuches 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 Luchsinger family also arrived in Araucania in the late 1800s from Switzerland. They benefited from the government's colonization policies for decades thereafter, becoming one of the largest landowners in Chile's Patagonia region. Their forestry and ranching companies now occupy vast stretches of southern Chile, while impoverished Mapuches live on the margins of their properties.