Democracy Lab

The Skeleton in Chile's Closet

Chile has made progress toward democracy. Why do its indigenous people still feel left out?

On May 12, the Chilean Supreme Court upheld an 18-year-long prison sentence for Celestino Córdova, a Mapuche machi (shaman), for setting a house ablaze last year, killing an elderly couple. The case has sparked anger among his supporters since he was first sentenced by a lower court in late February. The couple, Werner Luchsinger and Vivian McKay, had been involved in a dispute with a local indigenous group over land they owned in Chile's Araucanía region, an area historically inhabited by the Mapuche indians.

On Feb. 28, Mapuche protesters gathered outside the Temuco courthouse to protest. "Thousands of us were slaughtered by Chileans and none of them went to jail," one of the Mapuches explained. But even despite this 130-year-old conflict, the machi's supporters were convinced of his innocence and insisted that the trial was staged. And they have good reason to believe that the state security and justice system is not treating them fairly. Over recent years, a number of Mapuche leaders have been arrested on trumped-up charges, only to be released after months in prison on absence of proof. In February, an undercover police agent, Raúl Castro Antipan, confessed that he had infiltrated a Mapuche community and lit fires to implicate the community's leaders on more than one occasion. The Mapuches argue that in convicting Córdova, the state is attempting to quell their demands for the return of their ancestral territories in the south of the country.

The Mapuches lost most of their land when they were incorporated into Chile at the end of the 19th century. But the conflict didn't end there. Over the years, much of the land they had been left with and that had been registered in their names was usurped from them and ended up in the hands of timber companies and private landowners. After the end of Pinochet's dictatorship, the state pledged to begin a new relationship with indigenous people, based on their fair treatment. The return of disputed territories to the Mapuches was a fundamental part of it.

However, the efforts at land restitution have been half-hearted. None of the democratic governments has been willing to jeopardize the interests of forest plantation owners, who are significant players in Chile's economic growth. Timber is the country's second largest export commodity, worth almost $6 billion a year. Moreover, the political elite is deeply invested in the industry. For example, the former governor of Araucanía, Andrés Molina Magofke, has a 42 percent share in a small timber company Santa Laura, worth $600,000.*

The government has neglected to give the necessary expropriation powers to the body in charge of buying back the disputed land, the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI). As a result, it has been locked in protracted negotiations with landowners, who, knowing that law requires the state to buy the land back, have been demanding exorbitant prices, according to CONADI's regional director Julio Anativia.

Meanwhile, the Mapuches struggle to survive on tiny plots of land. Neighboring pine and eucalyptus plantations are making their situation worse, as these water-demanding plants are causing droughts. Araucanía, where almost a third of the population is Mapuche, is Chile's poorest region, with the poverty level of 22.9 percent in 2011.* During Sebastián Piñera's presidency, the government worked on a proposal called Plan Araucanía, which was meant to stimulate economic growth in the region -- but it looks as though the new governor of Araucanía does not intend to continue the program.

It's no wonder tensions are rising. As Jaime Huicahue, a CONADI councilor, explained: "The government has been warned many times of the situation at the Luchsinger estate."

Unable to find a solution to the land conflict, previous governments turned to repression instead. Countless carabineros (uniformed police) were sent to remove Mapuche's "illegal" land occupations. Human rights activists reported that these evictions have come with indiscriminate violence against women, children, and the elderly. A 17 year old, Alex Lemun, was shot dead in 2002 while his community was occupying private land. Matias Catrileo (22 years old) and Jaime Mendoza Collio (24 years old) were killed under similar circumstances in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Under existing Chilean legislation, all complaints of abuse by carabineros are heard in military court procedures that are largely secret. Many complaints are rejected or left unresolved. The officer who killed Alex Lemun evaded prison and continues to serve in the police force. 

The de facto impunity enjoyed by law enforcement officers is in a stark contrast with the vigorous prosecution of the Mapuches who break the law. Under the Pinochet-era anti-terrorist legislation, Chile's democratic governments -- including President Michelle Bachelet's -- have held Mapuches in pre-trial detention for months, and handed out tough prison sentences based on the testimonies of secret witnesses. In one of the most emblematic cases, five Mapuche leaders were sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004 for "terrorist arson" at the Poluco Pidenco estate of the timber company Mininco. In another case, three Mapuche leaders were sentenced to five years in prison for threats of arson against the estate of former agriculture minister Juan Agustín Figueroa in 2003.

Last year, a U.N. human rights investigator, Ben Emmerson, warned that the Araucania region was "extremely volatile" partly due to the misuse of this counter-terrorism legislation within the context of "an inexcusably slow" process of ancestral repatriation. He urged the government to make the resolution of this conflict a political priority.

Luckily, Chile's new president, Michelle Bachelet, seems to have the will to address the Mapuche's grievances -- some of them, at least. During her campaign, she pledged to never again use the anti-terrorist laws against indigenous activists, and to investigate abuses caused by the use of these laws in the past. She also promised to strengthen CONADI by turning it into a ministry, and to include recognition of indigenous peoples in a new constitution. Until now, Chile's principal law has insisted that there is only one nation in the country.

The new governor of Araucanía, Francisco Huenchumilla, also plans to help. Just a day after he took office on March 11, he apologized to the Mapuche people for the land grabs and acknowledged that the Chilean state owes them a debt. Himself a half-Mapuche, Huenchumilla is determined to persuade the timber companies to take part in resolving the conflict, asking them to leave the most critical zones. However, it seems like he shouldn't count on the good will of the investors. They have made it clear that they are not ready to join the governor's apology, saying that they, not the Mapuches, are the victims of the land conflict. At the moment, Huenchumilla doesn't have any tools on hand to force them to cooperate. Despite his experience and resolve, he is only a designated representative of the president and he, too, will have to follow orders.

The president's program looks good on paper. But how much of it will she be able to implement? All proposals have to be approved by the congress and many of them have crashed there in the past. This time around, Bachelet's left-wing block has the majority in both chambers of the congress -- but unanimous support for the president's proposals is difficult and unlikely. And given Bachelet's own record of using antiterrorism laws against Mapuches during her first term, the Mapuche aren't letting their hopes fly too high. Recognition in the constitution was already promised to indigenous people during Bachelet's first government -- to no avail. Moreover, the Mapuches won't be appeased by token recognition in a new constitution. They want it to include certain, specific rights, such as the right to self-determination, the right to land, and the recognition of ancestral territories and Mapuche parliaments.

The huge challenge for the new president will be to win the Mapuches's trust, lost during years of ill treatment. Rural communities, for one, have very little confidence in politics. "The state is using laws to protect the interests of the rich. It favors the right to property over the right to life. There is a law on indigenous people, but not a half of it has ever been respected," Kelv Tranamil, a leader of the protest supporting Córdova, said. "The little we have achieved, we have achieved because our people fought and died."

Mapuche intellectuals believe the political class has a very limited understanding of indigenous people. As Mapuche anthropologist Rosamel Millaman Reinao explained: "The government's policies are not at all addressing the fundamental problems. Land is not the only problem. There are historical, economic, political, and ideological problems, as well." In addition, the Mapuche feel that the government does not fundamentally care about indigenous people. "We have no economic power, no cultural power, no political power, and as such, we are irrelevant," says Mapuche journalist Pedro Cayuqueo. "The indigenous problem does not exist -- there is only the problem of public safety. In the government's eyes, we are penniless terrorists."

To be fair, in some ways Chile has gone further than many well-established democracies to protect the rights of its indigenous peoples. It is one of only 22 countries that has ratified the ILO Convention 169, a legally-binding treaty that covers a wide range of rights, including land, education, health, employment, natural resources and participation in public affairs. However, previous governments failed to fully implement the convention within its domestic legal system, especially when it comes to the indigenous people's right to consultation on legislation or investment projects that directly affect them. As a result, Chile is not only violating its international legal obligations, but is also perpetuating the Mapuche's distrust of the government and fuelling conflict between the two, and undermining the integrity of its own democracy.

It is crucial that Bachelet start delivering on her promises. The sense of injustice among the Mapuches is quickly turning into violence. As protesters in front of the Temuco court threw rocks at carabineros in February, they chanted: "We don't want peace, we want our land!"

*Correction, May 19, 2014: Andrés Molina Magofke is the former governor of Araucanía. The original language suggested that he is the current governor. (Return to reading.)

*Correction, May 19, 2014: Araucanía has the highest proportion of Mapuche people of any Chilean state. This article previously misstated that most of Chile's Mapuche live in Araucanía. (Return to reading.)



I Spy a Frigate … or Two

Pyongyang's military is in decline? Think again. New satellite images show that nukes aren't the only thing on North Korea's mind these days.

While the world is focused on the threat of more North Korean nuclear tests, Pyongyang has been busy on yet another military front. Satellite imagery from December 2013 and January 2014 has identified two new helicopter-carrying frigates -- the largest surface combatants constructed by the North Korean navy in 25 years.

Although the new weapons may be Pyongyang's attempt to counter what it sees as a growing threat from South Korea's submarine fleet, these vessels also could have an important secondary role: protecting fisheries, located in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan (East Sea), which have important security implications for South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. They may also represent a step toward developing a naval strategy to include helicopter anti-submarine operations. 

With construction beginning in 2006 and 2007, the first ship was launched in 2011 and the second in 2012. It is unclear, however, whether they are ready for service. Nevertheless, should the KPN, as North Korea's navy is called, push aggressively to commission these new vessels, it will still likely take several years to fully integrate their new capabilities into fleet operations. 

But these developments aren't exclusively about the addition of these frigates. What's notable is that Pyongyang has modernized its military during a period of prolonged and expanding international economic sanctions against North Korea as well as regular media reports about the country's economic and industrial stagnation and its reliance on outdated conventional military weapons.

North Korea's deployment of new helicopter-carrying frigates may be an important wake-up call not only about the overall effectiveness of sanctions in constraining Pyongyang's military programs, but also the need to carefully and realistically re-evaluate reports of its conventional military decline. 


During the late 1990s, as North Korea emerged from a prolonged period of famine, floods, and economic collapse, the KPN initiated a modest but wide-ranging modernization and shipbuilding program in an effort to address growing ship obsolescence and decreasing serviceability. Among the many components of this program was the replacement of old weaponry with Gatling-gun weapon systems on a number of patrol vessels, the KPN's first attempt to incorporate a degree of stealth technology in the design and construction of the patrol vessels; the construction of at least two new subclasses of stealthy fast patrol craft; and three new classes of very slender vessels, including a high-speed infiltration landing craft.

Another key component of this program was the construction of a new class of helicopter-carrying frigates. The KPN first became interested in these vessels during the late 1970s when it designed and then built the helicopter-carrying Soho-class guided-missile frigate (known by the designation FFGH) that presented an unusual mix of military options -- a choice that hinted at the service's possible indecisiveness as to the vessel's mission. The frigate had a catamaran-type hull, a flight deck that could accommodate one Mi-4PL ASW helicopter, four RBU-1200 anti-submarine warfare rocket launchers, depth charges, four SS-N-2 Styx anti-ship cruise missiles, a 100 mm gun for surface warfare, and various air-defense weapons. The hull was laid down in June 1980 at the No. 28 Shipyard in Najin, launched in November 1981, and commissioned in May 1982.

Location map.

Ultimately, the design was unsuccessful. The frigate was difficult to handle in rough seas. Consequently, it spent the majority of its career in port, only occasionally venturing out to sea and never far out into the Sea of Japan. During the 1990s, Pyongyang moved the frigate to the Singyo-ri Patrol Base on North Korea's east coast, where it spent most of its remaining career until the summer of 2007, when it was moved back to Najin and finally scrapped in mid-2009.

Soho-class FFGH, No. 823, seen at the Singyo-ri Patrol Base on North Korea's east coast, Nov. 5, 2006.

The failure of the helicopter-carrying Soho-class guided-missile frigate -- combined with the South Korean Navy's aggressive long-term expansion of its submarine forces, begun in the early 1990s -- presented the KPN with serious challenges, given its declining anti-submarine warfare capabilities. The bleak economic realities in the North at the time made it hard for the KPN to address the South's challenge. But by the end of the 1990s, the North initiated a new modest modernization program that eventually included a new class of helicopter-carrying frigate. The organization in charge of North Korea's defense industry, the Second Economic Bureau, oversaw the design of the new ship, and the plan was implemented by the Academy of National Defense Science's Nampo Ship Design Institute in cooperation with its Maritime Research Institute.

The Nampo helicopter-carrying frigate is seen berthed at the Nampo Shipyard in a satellite image on Dec. 27, 2013. Visible are the flight deck with the "H" helicopter landing zone and four probable RBU-1200 rocket launchers on the bow. Adjacent to it is one of the KPN's new 30m-class VSV (very slender vessel) stealth patrol craft. 

Satellite imagery from December 2013 of the Nampo Shipyard and from January 2014 of the No. 28 Shipyard in Najin provide the first clear details of the KPN's two new helicopter-carrying frigates, including the status of their construction and details of their armament. The vessel at Nampo was laid down in early 2010 and launched in about October 2011. The one at Najin was laid down in early 2011 and launched by June 2012. It's unknown whether either vessel has been commissioned.

Another Nampo helicopter-carrying frigate is seen berthed at the No. 28 Shipyard in Najin in a satellite image on Jan. 17, 2014. Visible are the flight deck with the "H" helicopter landing zone and four probable RBU-1200 rocket launchers on the bow.

Both measure approximately 249 feet by 36 feet, with an approximately 95-by-36 flight deck, and they're armed with a suite of four RBU-1200 anti-submarine warfare rocket launchers. The configuration of the superstructure forward of the flight deck is suggestive of a small helicopter hangar, but this remains to be confirmed. Future additions to the weapon systems carried by these vessels most likely will include a close-in weapon system to defend against anti-ship missiles, small anti-aircraft missile mounts, and depth charges. Additionally, given the KPN's tendency to mount anti-ship missiles on its larger combatants, these vessels could be armed with a variant of the Chinese C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles in the future.

Although it is too soon to assess the capabilities of these two vessels, their greatest potential weaknesses likely are in radar, sonar, and electronic warfare capabilities as well as anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense because the North's defense industry is known to have serious shortcomings in these areas. This suggests that, at a minimum, Pyongyang may reach out to external partners, such as China and Iran, for technology or equipment to address these shortcomings. Regardless, should the KPN push aggressively to commission and operate these new vessels, it will still likely take several years to fully integrate them into fleet operations.

When operational, these vessels will represent a new capability with which North Korea could project its military presence deeper into the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea -- adding a further element of risk to an already tense situation around the Korean Peninsula.

This article is in cooperation with 38 North, which published the original analysis on its website.

Top Image: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Map: Natural Earth Data

Satellite images: DigitalGlobe, 38 North via Getty Images