Chile Suspects Radical Indigenous Group Started Wildfires

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The Chilean government suspects that a radical indigenous group could be behind a deadly wildfire tearing through the rural Biobio, Maule and Araucania regions of central Chile.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera has claimed that his government has reliable information indicating that the fires, which have claimed the life of six firefighters so far, are the work of arsonists. Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter suggested that they could have been the work of the Arauco-Malleco Coordination Group (CAM), a group of radical indigenous Mapuche activists.

As evidence, Hinzpeter pointed to a December 30 arson attack on a fire control helicopter and three forestry vehicles in the area, which the CAM claimed responsibility for in a communique. The minister said that the wildfires began soon after, and appeared to have been set simultaneously as part of a coordinated arson attack.

InSight Crime Analysis

While some drug trafficking organizations are active along its northern border, Chile has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the safest and most law-abiding countries in Latin America.

Thus, the existence of the CAM is atypical for a country which — unlike neighboring Bolivia — has an efficient and highly institutionalized justice system. The group was formed in 1998 with the goal of reclaiming traditional Mapuche lands, and has since carried out numerous attacks on logging companies and non-indigenous land owners in south-central Chile.

In recent years, the conflict appears to have escalated, with the CAM declaring war on the Chilean state in 2009. In response, the government has initiated a crackdown on the group’s activities, occasionally taking advantage of controversial anti-terrorist laws left over from the Pinochet dictatorship.

Still, the December 30 incident illustrates that the group remains a challenge to state institutions. While the CAM’s activities are not likely to cause the kind of destabilizing effects seen in internal conflicts like Colombia’s, it has potential to snowball considering the massive social unrest the Piñera government currently faces in the form of nationwide student protests.

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