SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chilean police fired water cannons at indigenous protesters armed with sticks and rocks on Tuesday during a visit by President Sebastian Pinera to the restive Mapuche homeland.
Pinera received a cold greeting from some Mapuche leaders in the south-central Auracania region who say he's ignored their demands for land rights and autonomy. Leaders of the indigenous group also demanded the release of four Mapuches have been on a hunger strike for 51 days after they were accused of the attempted murder of Chilean police officers and carrying weapons illegally during a raid.
Mapuche leader Jorge Huenchullan said that 15 members of the Temucuicui community were arrested Tuesday morning for putting up posters in the southern city of Ercilla against Pinera Chile's most unpopular leader since dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
"We're protesting because this president is in Mapuche territory and comes to stroll by without offering an effective solution to our demands," Huenchullan told The Associated Press.
The Mapuches resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years and their desire for autonomy remains strong. It wasn't until 1881 that they were defeated militarily and forced into Araucania, south of the Bio Bio river, about 600 kilometers south of the capital. Most now live in deep poverty.
Mapuche demonstrations have flared up in recent months in Auracania. Logging trucks were burned by unidentified attackers earlier this year and small radical groups of tribesmen have periodically attacked police. But police officers are also accused of violent abuses in the indigenous communities.
Pinera visited the area to review a recently announced government plan to help Mapuche communities. In a meeting with Mapuche leaders, one of them asked him to release the four members of the community accused of violence, but Pinera rejected the request. They have been sent from jail to a hospital for treatment after losing between 8 and 13 kilograms since Aug. 27 when they started the hunger strike.
"The hunger strike is not a legitimate or efficient mechanism," Pinera said. "Those who have committed crimes and who have been sentenced by the judicial system, regardless of their ethnicity or origin, must respond before the law.