SANTIAGO – Groups of armed Mapuche Indian militants set fire to a church and a lumber company truck in the latest outbreaks of violence in the southern region of Araucania, Chilean authorities said Friday.
The Church of Santa Joaquina is located in the town of Padre Las Casas, near the spot where Mapuches set fire to three trucks and an excavator on Thursday.
“Our grandfathers also died murdered by the cross and the sword,” read a message left at the church, referring to a brutal 19th-century “pacification” campaign against the Mapuches, who in recent years have torched vehicles, highway toll booths and lumber shipments as part of a struggle to reclaim the lands they lost then.
The assailants who burned the trucks and earth mover on Thursday also left a message, in their case demanding the release of a pair of Mapuche brothers in custody in connection with the January 2013 arson deaths of an elderly couple.
Celestino Cordova, a “machi,” or shaman, was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison for the deadly blaze, while his sibling was among 10 other Mapuches arrested Wednesday on suspicion of involvement in the Jan. 4, 2013, fire that resulted in the deaths of Werner Luchsinger Lemp, 75, and his wife, Vivian Mackay Gonzalez, 69.
“Concern exists and we are acting in consequence,” Chilean government spokesman Marcelo Diaz said Friday. “There are continuous coordination meetings about the situation in La Araucania, both in the territory itself as here at the level of the Ministry of Interior and Public Safety.”
Security forces supported by helicopters deployed in the area around Padre Las Casas following the attack on the church.
Also Friday, a lumber company truck was set ablaze in another part of Araucania.
The truck was accosted by 11 hooded, armed assailants who forced the driver to get out, police Col. Ivan Bascuñan told reporters.
“Once he got out, they proceeded to set fire to the vehicle and fire at the chassis with shotguns,” he said.
The conflict in Araucania has claimed the lives of Mapuche activists, police and farmers, while dozens of indigenous people have been sent to prison for attacks and setting vehicles ablaze, along with burning agricultural and lumbering machinery, rural properties and forests, among other crimes.
Mapuches make up around 650,000 of Chile’s 17 million people and are concentrated in Araucania and greater Santiago.