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Chile sought U.S. help over 'radicalized' Mapuche Indians

Mapuche wikileaks chile upi

The "increasingly radicalized" Mapuche Indians in Chile became a growing domestic concern for the government of former President Michelle Bachelet, new leaked U.S. diplomatic cables show, prompting Chile at one point to seek help from the United States in investigating whether the indigenous group was receiving funding from "foreign terrorist groups and/or Venezuela."

In a batch of cables from the U.S. Embassy in Santiago released by WikiLeaks and published this week by several websites, the "Mapuche situation" and "Mapuche conflict" clearly worry Chile's government. The Mapuche have sought greater autonomy in recent years over what are claimed as ancestral lands in the Araucania region, about 400 miles south of the capital.

The "low-level conflict" has sometimes resulted in protests, violent confrontations and small sabotage-like attacks against the government and private landowers, the cables said. The indigenous group, Chile's largest, remains mostly marginalized in the broader society.

One leaked cable, dated February 2008, tells of a meeting between U.S. Ambassador Paul Simons and Bachelet's interior minister, Edmundo Perez Yoma, in which officials discussed the possibility that the Mapuche might be receiving aid from the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, or the FARC guerrilla army in Colombia, or even the ETA, the Basque separatist group in Spain.

"While intelligence is unclear, funding of the Mapuche by the FARC 'and Chavez' is possible although, he noted, he wasn't sure some of the monies aren't being funneled off to other activities since Mapuche radicals remain 'weak and disorganized,' " said the cable, referring to the former interior minister.

Other cables so far released from the U.S. Embassy in Santiago do not reveal whether any official conclusion was reached on the possibility of outside aid reaching the Mapuche. Criticism is directed in one cable at the Bachelet administration for being "slow to focus on indigenous issues."

On Tuesday, as the cables' revelations circulated in Chile's political world, Mapuche leader Aucan Huilcaman told the newspaper La Tercera that Bachelet's leftist coalition government "never wanted to solve the Mapuche problem, never." (Link in Spanish).

At least three Mapuche activists have been killed in confrontations with authorities, the cables reported, but one document also argued that Chile's press had "sensationalized" the conflict. The cable, titled "Myth vs. Reality in Chile's Mapuche Conflict" and sent to Washington more than a year after the cable about funding, said that nonviolent forms of protest in the Mapuche region are far more common than incidents of violence.

"Opposition politicians have alleged links between the Mapuche and foreign terrorist organizations FARC and ETA, but government officials downplay these connections as mere 'guerrilla tourism'," the cable said.

Yet during a string of reported confrontations in 2009, the same cable said, then-opposition presidential candidate Sebastian Pinera declared that Araucania was "in flames." Since taking office as the first non-leftist president since the Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1990, Pinera has promised talks to settle the Mapuche conflict.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Mapuche leader Aucan Huilcaman, standing left, with a Mapuche woman in a file photo. Credit: UPI via Terra.cl

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