Chile: Lies, dam lies and a Mapuche activist murdered

It has taken nearly a year-and-a-half of fighting the authorities, and a second autopsy, to confirm what the family of Macarena Valdés Muñoz already knew – she was hanged after her death. There was no suicide. 

On the afternoon of Monday August 22nd, 2016 Macarena, a Mapuche environmental activist fighting against the construction of a mini-hydroelectric dam near and over her property in Newen-Tranguil, near Liquine, Los Rios, was found hanged in her home aged 32. A noose was round her neck and for the coroner the situation was obvious: “Death by suffocation and hanging” – a suicide with a technical explanation that baffled her family.

What had actually happened however was murder. A doctor was first to explain to loved ones that key factors for a suicide had not happened. Her cervical vertebra hadn’t been broken, and it was clear, explained her father-in-law, Mapuche political leader Marcelino Collío, she had been killed. Most likely, it had happened in front of her one-year-old child who was with her at the time.

But it wouldn’t be until January 19th 2018, with the trail long cold, that they would have their suspicions confirmed by a government department in a statement that acknowledged Macarena could not have killed herself. She had instead been killed and then hanged to simulate suicide,

Last week, following the second report, the family and supporters from the Health For All Movement made a number of demands of the authorities, who they suspect of effective collusion in what amounts to a racist strong-arming of the Mapuche community in Tranguil to force them to accept damaging mini-hydroelectric dams across the regional river network. They called for:

  • A new statement of intent on the part of authorities and agencies involved in the investigation of Macarena’s death
  • The the results of both autopsies be clarified to show why the first was inaccurate
  • That resources be provided to investigate the murder fully and bring the killers to justice

They added:

We denounce the violence and permanent intimidation suffered by the community of Tranguil, exercised by the State and the hydroelectric companies interested in extracting the riches of the territory, at the expense of the destruction of the natural and cultural heritage of the town.

Through our history in Latin America we know that this crime corresponds to the way in which, both state policies and business groups, repress through terror and silencing the dissidence and diversity of peoples.

There were strong reasons for the suspicions of Macarena’s family and community, which have repeatedly clashed with both the government and hydroelectric companies over the future of development in and around Tranguil, in the mountains of Los Rios.

Fighter for justice

Macarena, a long-time solid supporter of Mapuche resistance networks, had always said that before she grew old she wanted to escape the big city of Santiago and head south, where there was a project she and her partner wanted to work on. Around four years ago they had done just that, upping sticks and heading to Liquiñe with her three young children to live in the Newen-Tranguil community, named for the Tranquil River which flows through the mountains.

The couple were married in a traditional Mapuche ceremony, and soon found they were set for a fourth child. They hoped that their skills would come in useful for the community – she specialised in food preservation while her partner Rubén was an environmental engineer.

They were motivated community activists, and between them they spent time passing on information to locals, including finding ways to allow seasonal crops to provide food all year round. Friends Macarena had left behind in Santiago would have preferred her near, but were heartened when she told them how happy she was with the new direction her life in the south had taken. Her mother and sisters gave thanks “because she was happy there.”

The family’s joy was to be shattered within months.

RP Global’s ‘intense’ relationship

Austrian renewable energy firm RP Global was originally founded as an offshoot of what is now Austrian banking giant Erste, though it has since gone private, involving and run by primarily Austrian, Spanish and Chilean capitalists. In 1991, it bought out assets from a Portugese firm giving it major stakes in wind and hydro projects in Portugal, Georgia, Peru and Chile.

Its corporate blurb is typically bland stuff. The “mini” hydro project at Tranguil would produce energy for 10,000 homes, the firm firm bragged, emphasising the project’s “minimised visual impact” and “intense relationship with residents of the sector.”

Intense is certainly one word for it. Residents have been up in arms since the project got underway in 2012 and clashes escalated in 2015 when the firm broke ground for the plant. Among other things, the firm has been accused of destroying local graves when it bulldozed through a cemetery, a total lack of consultation about the installation of a “central pass,” a failure to undertake basic environmental impact studies and of violations of Mapuche community lands in contravention of ILO Convention 169 (which Chile is signed up to).

The three megawatt plant was, for the firm, a relatively small project in the grand scheme, but with potential threats to water distribution, unknown environmental impacts, potential groundwater pollution and a disregard for Mapuche rights, it sparked a major community kickback which Rubén’s work was particularly useful in combating.

He soon began giving advice to local communities, explaining the technical arguments they needed to make, applying to the Environmental Superintendent, and organising for concrete actions, which would eventually include lawsuits, petitions, street protests and blockades.

The firm and local government chiefs were rattled by the campaign, struggling to find funding after the initial building works and responding, according to activists, with widespread violence and arrests occurring before Banco BICE eventually stepped forward in July 2016 to offer a final tranche of funding.

Confirmation of the cash seemingly locked in resources to crush opposition, but local people refused to be deterred, including Macarena herself, who was involved in direct action against the dam.

On August 1st 2016 Macarena spent the whole day at a road blockade set up by the community to ensure that the company did not install high voltage cables. The action lasted from early in the morning until 4pm, when finally the Valdivia governor Patricia Morano Büchner committed herself to a public meeting and review of the situation, ordering that RP Global withdraw. The meeting was held on August 19th, but the governor vacillated and extended the review deadline to conduct an audit.

It was in this environment on Sunday, August 21st that a vehicle with logo and driver from the company RP Global arrived in the territory. In it were two men, Edgardo Jaramillo and Juan Luengo, who according to witnesses demanded that Monica Painemilla, owner of the land where the Valdés family lived, evict them. When she refused Jaramillo and Luengo are said to have replied that something very bad could happen if they insisted on staying. The next day Macarena turned up dead.

On the Tuesday Monica tried to file a complaint about the weekend’s threats, which she said had been made on behalf of Global PR, but the Chilean Investigative Police (PDI), refused to take action, saying she was not Macarena’s family. That same afternoon, as Ruben was away dealing with the aftermath of his wife’s death, RP Global staff returned to resume construction work on high voltage piping, escorted by members of Chilean national police special forces unit GOPE in armored vehicles under the supervision of Lieutenant Francisco Sánchez.

The people of the community put up resistance, now with more anger and grief than before, there were pushes and police violence. At one o’clock in the afternoon the Interior again gave the order that RP Global withdraw from the land.

On October 13th however the company returned, this time with special forces, more than 50 uniformed officers, police cars and APVs, and managed to install the high voltage cables violating all laws and political agreements with the authorities.

The dam, one of eight to be set up along the river network, is now fully operational producing around 3MW of power – the equivalent of a large diesel generator. The Valdés family is broken, and asks only for the powers that be to deliver something resembling justice for Macarena.