While tourists are enjoying the winter break on the snowy ski slopes of Bariloche, simmering unrest between the indigenous Mapuche community and national forces threatens to reach boiling point.
“European” Argentina has a complex and dark history in the treatment of its indigenous people, stemming from Spanish colonization, through to General Roca’s “Desert Campaign,” through to today, where the socio-economic and political marginalization of indigenous communities means that they remain some of the poorest members of Argentine society.
The Mapuche are one of the largest indigenous groups in Chile and Argentina and have long been politically active, leading campaigns to reclaim ancestral lands from national and private interest. That being said, after a relatively quiet period, there has been a marked increase in Mapuche political activity in the past few weeks .
Last week, over sixty groups began protesting the installation of a new US military base in Neuquén, including Mapuche activists, who see this as a further encroachment onto their land by the Argentine government. Mapuche activists also interrupted a service in the Iglesia Sagrada Church in Córdoba, unfurling wenufles (Mapuche flags) and demanding the release of Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche (RAM) leader Facundo Jones Huala and machi Celestino Córdova. This week, the most concentrated area of activity has been Bariloche, where tension has been on the rise since the end of November 2017, when young Mapuche Rafael Nahuel, 22, was shot and killed by a member of the Argentine border control.
Last week, authorities from the Parques Nacionales reported to police that a group of Mapuche activists had occupied the abandoned Hotel Mascardi in Villa Mascardi, Neuquén province, just meters from where Nahuel was shot last year. Parques, led by Superintendent Damián Mujica, told the Federal Justiciary in Bariloche that the hotel had been occupied for a few days by members of the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu Mapuche community, with witnesses seeing strange movements and lights on in the building, as well as footprints and broken windows.
Then on Tuesday, a group of four activists from the same community closed off Route 40 for several hours, blocking it with a large bonfire. This was about 30km from Bariloche and was near a territory occupied by the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu community in the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi; it was also near the scene of Nahuel’s death.
The roadblock began at 9 AM and lasted until nearly 12 PM, with long traffic queues forming as tourists headed toward the famous Cerro Tronador. According to Río Negro there was no violence, and activists allowed cars to pass every 15 minutes. The whole incident took place with no intervention from the police or gendarmería, who instead set up information points along the route where they warned motorists about the situation. Meanwhile, other bonfires were reported on various roads in Bariloche in the early hours of the same day.
La Nación reported that the four hooded youths leading the roadblock said that it was an “informative measure” with the aim of “telling the people what is happening and to deny accusations” over the occupation of the hotel in Villa Mascardi. They also told Río Negro that they were “claiming justice” for Nahuel’s death.
After the roadblock ended, a group of 20 to 30 Mapuche, including Rafael’s aunt María, headed to the admistrative office of Parques Nacionales in Bariloche. There are contrasting stories about what happened, but the Mapuche apparently “took over” the building and occupied it for two hours, demanding to speak to Mujica, with whom they have now set a date to discuss their issues away from the cameras.
The death of Rafael Nahuel is an ongoing source of tension for the Mapuche community, with contradictory stories emerging about what happened that evening. According to the Border Control officers, they were patrolling the area when they were attacked by Mapuche activists with spears, rocks, and handguns. They then claim that they fired back in self-defense. However, the autopsy revealed that Nahuel had been shot in the back, with a state-issued bullet, indicating that he was fleeing when he was killed. His community now claim that authorities are dragging their heels and that the investigation is progressing to slowly.
Another contentious issue is the incarceration of RAM leader Facundo Jones Huala, who has now been in prison for just over a year. The Federal Justice system is currently deciding whether to allow him to be released under house arrest, while the Supreme Court decides whether to allow extradition to Chile, where he has been accused of leading a party of Mapuche in an arson attack during a protest to reclaim traditional lands. Other members of the group have since been freed by the Chilean justice system due to lack of witnesses and concrete proof.
The Governor of Río Negro, Alberto Weretilneck, linked the recent unrest to RAM, but the protestors were revealed to instead be from the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu community and deny all involvement with the group, claiming that their sole intention is to claim justice for Rafael. “We are asking for justice for Rafael,” said María Nahuel. “We have never had weapons. There was never a confrontation.”
They also deny occupying the hotel. Nahuel added, “We did not occupy Hotel Mascardi. Lots of people come and go, day and night, but we never occupied the hotel and we aren’t going to, because we have our own houses.” She went on to criticize security forces for the use of violence against her community. “We are always attacked by the Federal Police and the Naval Prefecture. We are always the ones being attacked.”
Lying behind the current conflict in Bariloche is an economic pressure. While there was no violence in the Mapuche roadblock, they held up buses of tourists on their way to Cerro Tronador, one of the main attractions in the area. Tourism agencies are said to be nervous about how this unrest will affect business. Due to the peso’s spectacular fall against the dollar this year, more Argentines have opted to remain in Argentina for their winter break, with Bariloche welcoming the highest number of tourists in a decade.
Both sides of the argument are locked in a diálogo de sordos where it seems neither party is willing to listen to the other. On the Mapuche side, there is an ancestral distrust of the Argentine state and a long history of political mobilization, but as far as the authorities are concerned, the endemic, institutionalized racism against indigenous communities is very much a reality. Given the historic exclusion of indigenous voices from political and judicial discourse, it is no wonder that they have turned to more extreme measures to make their arguments heard. As tension continues to build, it seems unlikely that an agreement will be reached soon.