On Tuesday, October 16th, President Piñera visited Ercilla and, more generally, the Araucanía Region of Chile. His visit was met with much protest even before his arrival, when Mapuche leaders told the press that Piñera “would not be welcomed” in the region. Despite these statements, Piñera arrived with a heavy police contingent and gave a speech denouncing Mapuche violence and calling the current Mapuche hunger strike “illegitimate and ineffective”. As expected, the Chilean President was met with many protests and his speech was interrupted at times by them. By the end of the day, at least eight Mapuche individuals had been arrested.
Piñera announced his intention to come to Ercilla just 24 hours in advance and his announcement was immediately met with some backlash. Several Mapuche leaders went to the press and stated that the President was not welcome in the region unless he was willing to discuss their land claims and a call to organize protests went out. In response, the President brought a heavy police force with him, and, as expected, was met by many protestors.
In his speech, Piñera spoke out against the Mapuche hunger strikers. He referenced a protest that occurred the day before in Santiago and reminded the people that they were protesting over four individuals who had been charged with attempted murder — two of whom have already been convicted for those crimes. The President said: “Are we going to let attempted murders go unpunished? The justice system came to a final decision and I believe that if they committed a crime, the hunger strike is not legitimate nor effective.” Piñera went on to state that if the hunger strikers got their demands, it would mean the end of the rule of law.
The President was, of course, referring to the four imprisoned Mapuche individuals who have been on hunger strike for over 50 days to draw attention to their alleged innocence and to alleged injustices in the Chilean legal system. These four individuals have lost much weight and have been taken to the hospital in recent days. The Chilean legal system has also given the hospital permission to force-feed the prisoners in the event that it is necessary to save their lives, something that Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have spoken against.
In addition to mentioning the hunger strike, Piñera continued his speech by talking about the violence that has torn apart Ercilla for a long time. The Chilean President said that he is deeply concerned about ensuring that citizens living in the region who are subject to constant harassment and violence “can live in peace.” Furthermore, he said: “Unfortunately, I cannot guarantee that there will be no more attacks, but I can assure you that I will do everything in my power to make the rule of law prevail in Araucanía, because the rule of law is the protectorate of the weak.”
Piñera’s arrival to the Araucanía Region came just slightly over a week after the President declared — in a ceremony — that a new Indigenous Development Area (Área de Desarrollo Indígena or ADI) was going to be created in Ercilla. The creation of the ADI, according to the government, sets aside nearly 100,000 acres in the region for development to benefit indigenous peoples. At the time of the ceremony, which took place on Monday, October 8th, Piñera stated that “violence will not prevail in Araucanía” and that, as President, he would “grant opportunities for people to share their concerns, to listen to the voice of the Mapuche people, and also to reiterate my promise to fight with all weapons of the rule of law, against the criminals and violence that harm” both the Mapuche people and Chile itself.
According to the President, 37 of the 42 Mapuche communities in the comuna of Ercilla supported this development, although some Mapuche leaders have questioned whether that claim is accurate. For example, Freddy Marileo Marileo, the spokesperson for the Mapuche community of José Guiñón de Ercilla, not only questioned whether Mapuche communities were cooperating with the government in the numbers stated, but also indicated that the large contingent of fully-armed police officers in the area “demonstrates the opposite of the Government’s call for dialogue.”