NAISA Council statement on recent evictions and arrests of the Mapuche people in Argentina

Approved by NAISA Council, 2 January 2023

The Mapuche community Lafken Winkul Mapu suffers violent raids and the eviction and arrest of women and children, including their Machi, the Mapuche medicinal and spiritual authority. In response, Indigenous, civil, and human rights organizations challenge the Argentine State to uphold Indigenous, gender, and childhood rights. Raids and arrest warrants continue to be carried out in other homes and properties. NAISA Council call on independent media to raise awareness of the serious situation of persecution, criminalization, and systemic anti-Mapuche racism in Puelmapu, historical Mapuche territory in Argentina.

On October 4, 2022, the Lafken Winkul Mapu community in the rural town of Villa Mascardi, Bariloche – located more than 1,600 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, Argentina – was violently raided by the Unified Security Command of Villa Mascardi, a new special group of Argentine police forces. As a result of the raid, the command detained seven women and their children. Currently, four of them are under house arrest in Bariloche: Machi Betiana Colhuan Nahuel (21), Celeste Ardaiz Guenumil (30), Martha Jaramillo (35), and Romina Rosas (37). The women stand accused of crimes of usurpation of ancestral Mapuche land now managed by the Argentine state, crimes that trace back to legal cases first opened in 2018. To date, three of them have been released: Andrea Despo Cañuqueo was released on October 11 after all charges against her were dropped, whereas Florencia Melo (28) and Débora Vera were released on the same date with some charges still pending. Melo and Vera were detained for three weeks at the Bariloche Airport Police headquarters and, before that, at the Ezeiza Women’s Prison, Province of Buenos Aires. In Bariloche, Melo and Vera carried out a hunger strike for more than 20 days.

The rest of the members of the community, including children, scattered throughout the territory facing food shortages and lack of shelter, which became known thanks to an audio recording sent by a member of the community, dated October 24. The audio calls for visibility and organized protest for the return of the Machi Betiana to her rewe (ceremonial site and sacred space). This return is necessary not only for the well-being and health of the Machi (as a spiritual authority) but also for her patients (including non-Mapuche people) and other Puelmapu communities. To date, the rewe and all of the houses in the community continue to be occupied by the Unified Command. In the early hours of Saturday, October 29, new evictions were carried out on the homes of members of the Lafken Winkul Mapu community. Machi Betiana Colhuan Nahuel and the other three women on house arrest are being denied their liberty while they wait for a trial, even though it is standard procedure for individuals accused of these crimes to await their trial in freedom. Meanwhile, their belongings and money have been seized with a judicial order to accumulate up to $63,000 dollars as reparation for their supposed crimes.

Military repression and violation of children’s rights

The search warrant was imposed by the Bariloche federal judge Silvina Domínguez, setting off a series of violent acts that violate international treaties: Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (1989), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2015), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), as well as other Human Rights declarations, such as: the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish and Eradicate Violence against Women, known as the Convention of Belém do Pará (1994) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987). The raid on the community Lafken Winkul Mapu was carried out by the new Unified Command that includes the Federal Police, National Gendarmerie, Naval Prefecture, and Airport Police, entering the community with military weapons and repressive instruments, including two Hercules planes. According to an October 9 article in Página 12 (an Argentina-based digital newspaper), the order authorized the arrest of all people found on the premises.

As a result of the order, seven women were detained. One of them was pregnant, and she later gave birth while under house arrest. The women were detained with two infants of four months and one month, respectively, in addition to other children. During the raid, the police used shotguns with anti-riot cartridges and chemical gasses in a place where there were children and infants. Six children managed to hide in the forest and were rescued by their relatives during the night, according to a broadcast by Radio Autónoma Piuke. According to a statement from the Mapuche communities of Bariloche (October 5), the imprisoned children were released by the police at 8:00 p.m. on the day of the raid. However, the statement accuses the military and police of the violation of the rights and the physical and mental health of the children during and after the police operation, as the raid was carried out “despite the fact that federal judge Domínguez knew that there were minors in the territory.”

Manipulation of the rewe: violation of spiritual and cultural rights

During the raid, the houses were searched by the police, who confiscated cell phones, notebooks, and clothing. The rewe (sculpted wooden ceremonial figure) and the ceremonial site of the Machi Betiana Colhuan Nahuel were manipulated by the armed forces, violating the spiritual and cultural rights of the Mapuche people. Andrea Despo Cañuqueo, the only woman released at the time, gave her testimony on October 12 at a peaceful demonstration in Bariloche. She said: “Everything that is happening in the rewe is unfair, the winka [invaders], the soldiers of all stripes are inside, in the rukas [houses], in the sacred site, in the rewe (…) we do not know what state all of these things are in and we ask ourselves: Do we go into the church of another religion and start breaking things? Or does the State go and carry out this destruction and this abuse with other religions? They do not, but it seems that they have this great cruelty with our people, with our spirituality and that they know that this is very important to us.”

“The rewe is a sacred space on which physical, mental and spiritual health depends, not only of the machi, but of all the Mapuche, individuals, families and communities that inhabit Wallmapu, and of the entire Itxofillmogen (biodiversity),” explains a letter addressed to the Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Juan Cabandie and the President of the National Parks Administration, Francisco Granato, written by Mapuche communities, organizations and individuals in solidarity with the lof Lafken Winkul Mapu. The letter goes on to say: “Up there [at the rewe] people from different origins arrive who receive treatment for physical, mental, spiritual and community ailments using the traditional Mapuche health system. At this time, and given the serious situation of subjugation, violence, and discrimination against our people suffered due to the raid on that sacred ceremonial space, all of these people, the Mapuche communities linked to the site and our traditional authority, the machi Betiana, are going through a very serious situation of violation of our cultural practices, but it is also affecting the health system of our people and the patients of the machi.”

The lof Lafken Winkul Mapu began its process of recovering ancestral lands, that is, the physical and spiritual Mapuche life relations in this territory, on November 10, 2017. The recovery is carried out following the recognition of the Machi Betiana by various Mapuche communities in the area. A spiritual authority of such magnitude counts on her rewe to carry out her role and strengthen Mapuche physical and spiritual life in the territory. A few days after the land recovery process began, on November 23, the community was violently evicted by order of Judge Guillermo Villanueva of Bariloche. The same as today, women and minors were arrested. Two days later, on November 25, the Albatros Group, a special police force of the Argentine Naval Prefecture, opened fire in the recovered territories, murdering Rafael Nahuel (22), an execution for which justice is still being sought.

Violation of the rights of women in an irregular process

In addition to the violation of the rights of children and the violation of the rewe, a sacred Mapuche space, human rights organizations in Argentina quickly accused the government and police of the mistreatment and violation of the human rights of the detained women. First, the women were imprisoned without being informed of the crimes they were charged with. In addition, there was a series of irregularities in the transfer of the four women who were not breastfeeding to prison complex V in Ezeiza, outside the city of Buenos Aires.

The Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH) of Bariloche and the Argentine League for Human Rights (LADH) filed a habeas corpus before the federal justice Lomas de Zamora, according to an article in Página 12. The article reads: “In their presentation before federal judge Federico Villena, the organizations said that the transfer ordered by Judge Domínguez was illegal, that the magistrate did not justify why she did not decide on other alternatives–for example, leaving them in the PSA [Airport Security Police Headquarters], putting an electronic device on them or letting them go through the process in freedom and, in addition, the transfer prevented them from exercising their right to defense by preventing them from having contact with their defense attorneys.”

The transfer of the women from Bariloche to Buenos Aires was carried out on an Argentine Federal Police plane, which also constitutes an irregularity. The women made the trip handcuffed, not knowing where they were being taken, and were held incommunicado. They were detained for long hours at the Federal Police headquarters. They were then transferred to Unit 28 of the Federal Penitentiary Service, and, two days after their arrest, they arrived at Complex V in Ezeiza on Thursday night. Andrea Despo Cañuqueo recounted psychological abuse, detailing that they were filmed while they slept and while they showered, and that on the same day, they had to undress four times for police searches. “They played with us as they pleased, but we are still standing,” said Andrea Despo Cañuqueo in this testimony. Another serious aspect of the process is that one of the women, Romina Rosas, was 40 weeks pregnant when she was detained and she gave birth in captivity.

The irregularities of the process led the head of the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, to resign from her position, news that was released on October 8, four days after the raid. In her letter of resignation, she wrote: “the imprisonment, the denial of release for all of them and even more so for a woman 40 weeks pregnant, the incommunicado detention and the transfer of more than 1,500 kilometers from their place of residence constitute clear human rights violations.”

Judge Silvina Domínguez ordered the search with secrecy in summary proceedings, so that the detained women only knew what they were accused of 21 days after being taken prisoner.

Anti-Mapuche Command: continuity of a genocidal policy of the State

Judge Domínguez’s order was given the same day that the creation of the Villa Mascardi Unified Security Command was made official. This command, convened by Security Minister Aníbal Fernández and signed by President Alberto Fernández (Resolution 637/2022 of the Boletín Oficial), is made up of the Argentine Federal Police, the National Gendarmerie, the Prefecture, and the Airport Security Police. The Unified Command’s objective is the “management and coordination between forces of crime prevention activities in the locality of Villa Mascardi” and to provide “collaboration in potential judicial proceedings, for the purpose of securing the persons and assets of the location.”

The resolution that created the command, named as justification “the arson of a mobile surveillance post of the Argentine National Gendarmerie” by, according to the document, members of the lof Lafken Winkul Mapu. The resolution also states that the lof is “illegally settled” on private property and that these “settlements constitute usurpations by violent means.” Judge Domínguez’s order, therefore, gives the green light to the newly created Unified Command, under secrecy in summary proceedings, to exercise excessive state violence against the Mapuche lof.

A statement sent by a member of the lof Lafken Winkul Mapu, dated October 24, details a criminalization campaign against the community by Diego Frutos “who is financed by large landowners and supported by economic, political, and judicial power.” The statement asserts that these powers “have generated lies and fraud to install a racist message against our people and our community, through the hegemonic media.” Diego Frutos is the president of the Villa Mascardi Neighborhood Board and, according to the resolution of the Unified Command, one of the owners of the properties recovered by lof Lafken Winkul Mapu.

These state actions represent a continuation of the genocidal policies of the Argentine State against the Mapuche people. This new eviction has raised traumatic memories of the so-called Conquest of the Desert, the military invasion of the Argentine State from 1878-1885, especially the forced transfers of Mapuche people from their territories in Patagonia to the capital without knowing where they were being taken.

Contact information:

The Guild of Lawyers of Argentina leads the cause; among them, Laura Taffetani and Eduardo Néstor Soares. Contact number for the raided communities: 54 9 2944 5322 97