In a case that heavily echoes the death of environmental activist Macarena Valdes in 2016, two Mapuche women, a mother and her daughter, were discovered dead in their home in Ercilla, southern Chile. Iris Rosales Quiñilén and Rosa Quintana Rosales were declared to have committed suicide by hanging, in a country where it is becoming a trend to find environmental activists allegedly committing suicide in the same manner and under similar circumstances; that is, resisting the exploitation of indigenous territory.
The Araucania region in Chile, targeted by President Sebastian Piñera for modernisation – in other words, exploiting the land and its natural resources – has seen an increase in violence against the Mapuche population, who are the main obstacle, from the government’s point of view, impeding industrialisation. The alleged suicide of these two Mapuche women, like that of Valdes, occurred in a political context where resistance in terms of land rights in criminalised by the Chilean state.
Militarising a region to placate the multinational companies seeking to exploit Chile’s resources is governmental priority. It is in this context that the Mapuche people are demanding a through investigation in the death of Quiñilén and Rosales, which have not occurred in a vacuum but as part of a widespread targeting of the Mapuche, including the human rights violations of Mapuche political prisoners.
In her community, Quiñilén was at the helm of mobilising against the militarisation of the Araucania. In 2016, Valdes was taking part in demonstrations against the development of a hydropower plant on the Tranquil River – a project of the Austrian company, RP Global. The only witness to Valdes’s death, or possibly murder, is her son, who was only two years old at the time. The power plant was set up without further interruptions, yet many questions remain unanswered regarding how Valdes died. Forensic expert Luis Ravanal has discredited the official version of events – Valdes had been murdered prior to hanging.
Quiñilén and Rosales have died under similar circumstances – mobilising against government and multinationals’ usurpation of land. The possible murder of these two Mapuche women is a stark reminder to the community that as long as there is resistance in the Araucania, there will be impunity in terms of violence against the Mapuche people.
Chilean governments since the democratic transition following the fall of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship have upheld the anti-terror laws and the criminalisation of Mapuche resistance. Through this narrative of resistance as alleged terror, governments have cultivated impunity for the perpetrators of violence against the Mapuche, as was recently seen in the escalation of violence against the indigenous by right-wing groups and the Chilean police.
A case which resonated internationally and prompted the UN to send a fact-finding mission to the Araucania was the hunger-strike initiated by Mapuche spiritual leader Celestino Cordova, jailed for 18 years for allegedly killing a landowner couple in 2014 during an arson attack. It is highly unlikely that the UN will intervene in Chile to protect the rights of the Mapuche people; the institution is, after all, built upon the remnants of colonialism.
Yet the discrepancy in the UN’s scant attention towards the Mapuche people is evident. A case which has attracted international attention and which also involves diplomatic overtures due to the humanitarian aspect will take momentary precedence. The same cannot be said for Quiñilén and Rosales, and other Mapuche and environmental activists found dead by hanging immediately after their involvement in resisting the industrialisation of their territory.
The Chilean government has much to answer for, and not only regarding the application of Pinochet’s anti-terror laws exclusively to the Mapuche. The patterns of these possible murders have become all too predictable. By issuing statements that contradict the sequence of events, the Chilean government is protecting perpetrators and providing an environment where violence and murder can thrive unabated.