The indigenous village of Villa La Angostura stands on a plot of land which, over a hundred years ago, was given by the Argentinean Government to its long-standing Mapuche inhabitants. Villa La Angostura grew throughout the 20th century to become an exclusive tourist city, and at the same time the land was gradually taken away from the Mapuche families who owned it.
Last month the Paichil Antriao community, direct descendents of the village's early inhabitants, was evicted, and three homes were destroyed. The crackdown continued over the next few days, with intimidation, arrests and police occupation of the disputed hill.
'It looks like a militarized zone, a permanent state of siege,' said members of the Mapuche community, as they attempted to raise awareness of the violation of national and international legislation that should protect their rights. The eviction occured in the context of increasing criminalization of indigenous peoples and a media campaign questioning their recognized rights.
On 2 December, 70 policemen (including troops from the dreaded Special Police Services Department - Despo) arrived at the Belvedere Hill and began to dismantle the community's homes. Local media filmed the action. Their images show soldiers and a group of civilians kicking the walls of the humble dwellings and destroying them, by order of Judge Jorge Videla from the Multifueros court.
In Argentina, Law 26,160 (the Community Property Emergency Law) prohibits the eviction of indigenous communities and calls for a regional survey of their land. The regional government in Neuquén is highly critical of this law, especially after the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI) signed an agreement with a local university to implement the mapping of land in the province.
Neuquén Governor Jorge Sapag told the Río Negro newspaper: 'The university and INAI have to understand that you cannot act unilaterally. Since they have done so, the matter will have to be discussed in court. We have turned the matter over to the chief of staff, Anibal Fernandez, and Minister Alicia Kirchner, who oversees the INAI.'
Last November, Congress extended the law so as to be able to complete the surveys (which were seriously overdue). Neuquén legislators were amongst those who voted against the extension. According to the Neuquén Mapuche Confederation, the reason behind their no-vote was that a land survey would reveal the 'usurpation of lands that were historically occupied by Mapuches'. The Mapuche community historically used the land for grazing farm animals and also as a rewe, a sacred place used for ceremonies.
In this latest case, the Paichil Antriao community were unable to defend themselves against the eviction because they were given no warning of it. Had they been notified, they could have appealed against the court action and called on the International Labour Organization's Convention 169, an international treaty - signed by Argentina in 2001 - which has precedence over local laws.
On 21 December, three weeks after the evictions, three young Mapuche community members were arrested by police. According to the police, they resisted arrest and were unlawfully carrying weapons. The community's version is very different: 'Members of the community were ambushed by William Henry Fisher (a US citizen who claims ownership of the disputed land), police and troops. Three of our brothers were brutally gunned down, beaten, arrested and prosecuted.'
On 2 and 3 January shots were fired again, leading to complaints of abuse of authority and counter accusations from the police, who said they had been attacked with petrol bombs and stones by a group of masked people. The community denied this and accused the troops of constant harassment. The local government subsequently mobilized extra troops to Villa La Angostura, adding to the 75 policemen already positioned on Belvedere Hill.
Last weekend, the Paichil Antriao community called a futa Antriao chrawun (Great Parliament) in order to strengthen their position: 'Progress is needed on the processes of recovery and endurance, without leaving out the context of militarization, repression, evictions, dispossession of our culture and attempts to take away our territory.'