Chile hunger strike puts focus on Indians' plight

The case of a jailed indigenous-rights activist who has been on a hunger strike for more than 100 days has galvanized support for restive Mapuche Indians seeking the release of prisoners and recovery of ancestral lands in central Chile.

Mapuche activists and their allies have converged on this town in the Andean foothills, where Patricia Troncoso is being held in a hospital. Authorities intervened against the prisoner's will last week and provided Troncoso with intravenous nutrition to prevent her from dying.

Her plight has drawn renewed attention to charges that Chile's much-lauded economic growth has not lifted the Indian minority, which is largely landless, disenfranchised and the victim of police repression. Supporters have staged demonstrations in the capital, Santiago, about 230 miles north, and other cities and have circulated petitions.

"Don't lose hope," Troncoso, 38, urged in a letter read on Thursday, the 107th day of her hunger strike.

Troncoso is calling for authorities to release her and imprisoned Mapuche activists, whom she calls "political prisoners." She also wants the withdrawal of a heavy police presence from traditional Mapuche zones in Chile.

The Mapuche militants are incarcerated mostly for arson strikes against land and trucks belonging to forestry and agribusiness interests. Mapuche leaders say much of the territory was stolen and should be returned to them. Troncoso has served about half of a 10-year sentence for setting fire to a forestry plot -- a charge she denies.

Sympathizers have called on the center-left government of President Michelle Bachelet, who was a political prisoner under the Pinochet dictatorship, to help resolve the hunger-strike impasse. Deputy Interior Minister Felipe Harboe expressed sympathy for the Mapuches, while condemning violence.

"I defend the Mapuche community," Harboe told reporters in Santiago. "But there is a minority that perpetrates acts of violence and stigmatizes the entire community."

The dispute has raised tensions in the region and resulted in periodic confrontations.

On Jan. 3, police shot and killed a Mapuche activist, Matias Catrileo, 22, an agronomy student, as he and others allegedly trespassed on a farming estate.

Three days later, authorities said, shots were fired at a car carrying a hydroelectric executive in Santiago. No one was injured, but officials suspect the shooting may be linked to Mapuche objections to hydroelectric projects.

Human rights groups have assailed the prosecution of Troncoso and others under anti-terrorism laws dating to the former dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

"What these activists have done may represent crimes under the penal code, but certainly could not be characterized as acts of terrorism," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, who heads the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.

In her statement last week, Troncoso declared, "Pinochet for us has not ended," and cited police checkpoints and other alleged acts of repression. "We keep experiencing him in the country roads, in the house searches, in the persecution, jailing, torture and death."

The case has resonated here and elsewhere in Latin America, where indigenous issues have taken on a higher profile, especially since the election in 2005 of Evo Morales as Bolivia's first Indian president.

But Chile has a much smaller indigenous population than neighbors Bolivia and Peru.

Mapuche Indians in Chile number 600,000, about 4% of the country's population of more than 15 million, according to census figures.

Studies have shown many Mapuches feel discriminated against in a nation long dominated by lighter-skinned Chileans of mixed-race and European origins.

Troncoso, known as La Chepa, is not a Mapuche and was raised in a middle-class family in Santiago. She gravitated to the Indian cause while studying theology at university, said her father, Roberto Troncoso.

"La Chepa is Mapuche in her heart," said Juan Pichun, a Mapuche leader who is among the many holding vigil outside her hospital.

Supporters have set up tents at the hospital gates and strung up cardboard signs denouncing Chilean officials as "murderers." Sympathizers include many students, left-wing activists and environmental advocates who cite a legacy of ecological ruin on former Mapuche lands.

Last week , doctors acted to prevent Troncoso from developing potentially fatal kidney damage, said Dr. Gaston Rodriguez, the police physician who is overseeing her care. Her vital signs have improved since she began receiving an intravenous mixture of vitamins and other nutrients, he said.

Troncoso had to be restrained with straps, Rodriguez said. The restraining procedure resulted in bruises on parts of her body, her friends said.

"Her body is full of marks," said Valentina Peralta, a friend who visited Troncoso in the hospital. She described the prisoner as "physically depleted" but lucid, tranquil and determined to continue to refuse solid foods.

Troncoso has lost more than 50 pounds as her only intake has been liquids such as water, juice and mate tea, sometimes with sugar. Doctors say Troncoso has survived in part because when she launched her fast Oct. 10, she was in robust physical shape, weighing about 185 pounds.

"My daughter has promised me she will live," said Roberto Troncoso.

"I want her to come home alive, not in a coffin."

[Source: By Pactrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, Chillán, 28Jan08]

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