In a country long seen as an island of stability in the region, Chile suddenly finds itself facing a growing terrorist problem, one that critics say President Michelle Bachelet has been reluctant to confront for fear of dividing her shaky Socialist governing coalition that includes Communists involved with violent groups.
Chile’s vulnerability to terrorism has been demonstrated in recent days by intentionally caused forest fires that have resulted in over $200 million in damage and about a dozen deaths. No terrorist organization has claimed responsibility, but some investigators suspect anarchists and indigenous militants who have conducted extensive arson attacks in the past and who have even threatened to set entire towns alight.
Security investigators have described a “strengthening network” between extremist groups conducting acts of violence throughout the South American country and a budding indigenous movement gaining ground in Chile’s southern regions.
Francisco Ljubetic, the former chief prosecutor for the central province of Araucania and now a law school dean, said the various groups “could eventually integrate into a nationwide armed struggle movement,” advised and assisted by foreign terrorist groups.
Gonzalo Yuseff, a former head of Chile’s national intelligence agency ANI, said a letter bomb that exploded at the home of a state-owned copper company executive this month was the work of “the same group of persons who have a certain ideological anti-systemic orientation and have been causing damage for some time.” He linked the latest attacks to the 2015 bombing of the Santiago Metro system.
An “eco-terrorist” group called Individualists Tending Toward the Wild claimed responsibility for last month’s parcel bombing, which left the chairman of Codelco with superficial wounds on his arms, legs and torso.
Mapuche community leaders, in turn, accuse the police of provoking incidents and “militarizing” their homeland, often working with logging companies and local landowners who covet Mapuche lands.
Since democracy was restored to Chile in the late 1980s, the country has been widely seen as a model success story, experiencing a degree of political and economic stability with few parallels in Latin America. It has become one of the most reliable U.S. partners in the region, enjoying a steady flow of American tourism, investment and a privileged visa waiver program for Chileans traveling to the U.S.
But a recent economic downturn caused by falling copper prices and Ms. Bachelet’s failure to deliver on promises to cut college costs and implement other reforms have contributed to a rise in far-left activism, leading to tensions between Social Democrats and Communists in her government.
Small-scale bombings, arson attacks and other acts of vandalism in Santiago and other cities usually would be deemed insignificant, but an expanding insurgent base formed by Mapuche Indian rebels in some rural regions of southern Chile are creating no-go areas for law enforcement.
Armed cells associated with the Arauco Malleco Coordinator (CAM) headed by Communist militant Hector Llaitul have conducted an annual average of about 300 attacks over the past five years, according to the Araucania business association. Mr. Llaitul participated in a guerrilla struggle against the military dictatorship installed by dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Forestry companies, farms, roads, communications infrastructure, law enforcement personnel and even Christian churches have been the targets of firebombings and other assaults in an unrelenting campaign to reclaim southern Chile for descendants of its original Mapuche Indians who lived there. The Mapuche now make up about 40 percent of the local population.
Mr. Ljubetic said he headed police investigations in which leftist ringleaders of a 2010 Security Bank truck heist and other attacks in Santiago were found hiding in the Mapuche community of Temucuicui. Some were identified as members of the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, to which CAM’s Mr. Llaitul originally belonged, according to the former prosecutor.
“I cannot answer for all who pass through this community,” said Temucuicui community leader Victor Queipul, who presides over 57 families occupying just over 6,000 acres of land appropriated through government-subsidized transfers to Mapuche activist groups.
“Mapuche territory in recovery,” reads a sign over the dirt road into Temucuicui.
Police officers said they can enter Temucuicui and a growing number of similarly “radicalized” Indian communities only in tanks for fear of encountering gunfire.
In a raid last week, police found an arsenal of weapons including automatic 7.62 caliber rifles and videos of military training.
“Most members of our community have been persecuted or accused of some crime,” said Mr. Queipul, whose son has been jailed for firebombing a truck.
Terrorist groups links
A delegation of Spain’s Basque separatist ETA visited Mapuche communities in Chile before traveling to Argentina, where they also met with Indian activists joining calls for an independent Mapuche nation, according to Chilean security officials who denied them re-entry.
Mapuche activists also have maintained extensive contacts with Colombia’s longtime leftist guerrilla FARC movement, according to the ANI. Intelligence reports have traced the travels to Colombia of 10 militants accused of murder and other crimes through passport and border records obtained with assistance from Interpol.
Information on FARC’s international connections extracted from the captured computer of a FARC leader killed in 2008, includes emails between FARC commander Raul Reyes and Chilean Communist Party operative Manuel Olate, discussing training for Mapuche militants and other far-left groups.
“Give me precise details on the type of interest the Mapuches have in our experience,” Mr. Reyes replied to a message from Mr. Olate requesting instruction for “Mapuche comrades waging a struggle for the devolution of lands.”
“They have ambitious plans about liberating part of southern Chile,” the Communist operative tells the FARC leader.
Ms. Bachelet, who was president from 2006 to 2010 and won the presidency a second time in 2014, never officially acknowledged receipt of the 700-page dossier with the incriminating emails sent to her by the Colombian government.
A lawyer who was handled the Colombian report said the president was afraid of upsetting senior Communist Party officials mentioned in the emails, including lawmaker Lautaro Carmona, a member of the Chilean parliament’s security committee who joined the leadership council of a group calling itself Mapuche Revolutionary Left.
Ms. Bachelet’s administration also has resisted police requests to implement counterterrorist measures that would give police direct access to ANI files, speed up prosecutions, protect witnesses and facilitate the use of undercover informants and drone technology to enhance intelligence operations in Araucania.
At a recent Senate hearing, Interior Ministry officials said such measures were unnecessary because levels of violence have been dropping, from 298 attacks in 2015 to 262 in 2016.
The government is also sensitive to allegations about police brutality and wrongful prosecutions leveled by the United Nations and the Organization of American States. The OAS human rights court ruled in 2014 that violence committed to recover ancestral Mapuche territory could not be considered terrorism.
Under growing pressure from the business community and some trade unions, the government recently announced the deployment of additional police units. But there are fears that a security crackdown in the south could trigger retaliations elsewhere in Chile.
The Inter Press Service reported that a presidential advisory commission presented Ms. Bachelet with more than four dozen proposals to deal with the violence in areas where the Mapuche — who represent 5 percent of Chile’s 18 millions people — live. Among the recommendations: constitutional recognition of indigenous people and their representation in parliament; creation of a national registry of victims of violence; compensation for those targeted by violence; programs to return disputed land to Mapuche claimants; and a “public apology” from Ms. Bachelet on behalf of the government for the sufferings of the Mapuche and other indigenous groups, the news agency reported.
Among the proposals of the commission, created in July, are the creation of a national registry of victims of violence and compensation, support for the economic development of the Mapuche people — the largest native group in Chile — and solutions to return native land to the Mapuche people in land disputes.
But the extent of coordination between rural and urban groups was dramatically illustrated recently when the son of a couple killed in a fire set by Mapuche militants was assaulted by leftist protesters outside the presidential palace when he tried to deliver a letter to Ms. Bachelet.