Prolonged conflict likely in Chile’s La Araucanía

Forestry workers were ambushed, and a police base attacked in La Araucanía, Chile last week. The attacks, the latest in a series of violent incidents allegedly perpetrated by extremist indigenous groups, make President Gabriel Boric’s peace plans for the region increasingly untenable.

President Boric came to office in March 2022 promising to demilitarize the south-central region of La Araucanía and begin talks with the indigenous Mapuche land rights groups operating in the area. True to his word, a phased withdrawal of troops began on 26 March 2022, marking an end to an emergency decree introduced by his predecessor late last year. However, a spate of attacks in April forced Boric into a policy reversal, prompting the Army’s redeployment on 17 May 2022.

The latest of these attacks both occurred on 24 May 2022. In the municipality of Lumaco, a bus carrying 30 forestry workers was ambushed, leaving one dead and two injured from military-caliber gunshot wounds. On the same day, nearly 16 hours drive to the west, some 50 masked men attacked a police base in the commune of Quidico. Shots were fired, but no injuries were reported.

Our analysis

Persistent violence in La Araucanía began in the late 1990s, but has become worse in recent years. A grinding mix of poverty and government inaction over Mapuche land claims has contributed to the deteriorating situation. Organized crime, which includes drug trafficking, lumber theft, arms smuggling and extortion, is now commonplace in the area. This has increased violence and made it difficult to distinguish which attacks are made by Mapuche extremists and which are motivated by illicit financial gain.

Whether the Army’s redeployment to La Araucanía will escalate or deescalate the situation depends on whose figures you believe. According to the Boric administration, violent crime increased by 400% between October 2021, when the first emergency decree was issued, and late March 2022, when it ended. However, local business group Multigremial de La Araucanía claims the troop withdrawal in March this year saw violent crime increase 171% over a 49-day period between 27 March and 15 May 2022 versus the preceding 49-day period ending 26 March.

What is certain is that the redeployment of security forces puts the government’s plan to resolve the conflict on hold, perhaps for years to come. This is partly because public opinion is fast hardening against a more nuanced solution to the violence. A survey by Chilean pollster CADEM on 23 May 2022 found:

• Just over 77% agreed a state of emergency should have been called and the armed forces deployed (up 20% from when it was first introduced in October 2021 by former president Sebastián Piñera).

• Some 85% thought President Boric should have called a state of emergency sooner.

• About 76% believe there is terrorism in La Araucanía.

• Over 44% want the “Armed Forces” used to confront “terrorism” in the region, versus 25% who favor resolution by “political dialogue”; and 24% who prefer the “judiciary and police.”

Opposition political parties are keen to cement the public’s perception that terrorists are at work in La Araucanía. “Dialogue cannot be had under any circumstances with terrorists,” Felipe Kast, Boric’s main rival in last year’s presidential election, recently told Chile’s Radio Pauta. He accused the government of amateurism and prolonging the conflict through the premature withdrawal of troops.

Violent actors operating in La Araucanía have done little to help Boric’s efforts. When Interior Minister Izkia Siches visited the region to kickstart negotiations in March 2022, she was greeted by gunshots and route barricades. Her trip had already been preceded by a series of attacks and threatening messages.

Incidents like these have proved deeply embarrassing for the government. This is clearly reflected in Boric’s plummeting approval rating, which dipped as low as 24% in April 2022.

However, the conflict in La Araucanía is far from President Boric’s only problem. Like many leaders in Latin America, he is faced with double-digit inflation and low GDP growth — global macroeconomic issues his government can do little to control. Meanwhile, an increasingly unpopular constitutional rewrite, which he championed, is eating deep into his political capital. In other words, Boric is unlikely to add to his list woes and revive dialogue over La Araucanía anytime soon. This points to a prolonged conflict in the region with no prospect of a multifaceted resolution in sight.

How we can help

La Araucanía has long been a difficult environment for many of the companies with operational bases and other investments in the area. Southern Pulse provides strategic advisory services for clients operating throughout Latin America. In La Araucanía, our work has centered around providing privileged information through monitoring and reporting focused on community conflict, political risk, and organized crime, three areas in which projects leverage our extensive network of on the ground sources.

Find more about where we work, the products we offer, and the solutions we provide here.

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