The following article is a column from CR’s cross-wall, bi-lingual newspaper The Abolitionist, Issue 39’s the Inside-Outside Fishing Line–this time featuring a conversation between Mapuche political prisoners on house arrest in Argentina after being targeted by the state when defending their land. Their conversation, facilitated by Débora Vera and CR’s Susana Draper, focuses on the impacts of house arrest as a form of imprisonment on Mapuche women’s lives, families and children, and Indigeneity.

Since completing this article for The Abolitionist, these Mapuche women have been freed from the state’s custody earlier this month– a victory for abolition & anti-colonial struggles in Argentina and internationally! Issue 39 on reproductive justice printed in June 2023. Check it out online for free here.

“Everything that exists, we are its keepers”

By Mapuche Political Prisoners on Reclaiming Land, Culture and Resisting Repression with Débora Vera

Editors’ Note: On October 4, 2022, as part of an ongoing attack on the Mapuche struggle to defend their territory which encompasses parts of what is currently the states of Chile and Argentina, there was a raid by a “unified command” made up of four federal forces—the Federal Police, National Gendarmerie, Naval Prefecture, and the Airport Security Police—to destroy and evict the Mapuche people from their land, the Relmu Lafken, currently named Mascardi Village by the Argentinean state. Seven Mapuche women were arrested along with their children. For this issue’s Inside-Outside Fishing Line, CR’s The Abolitionist Editorial Collective contacted Débora Vera, one of the Mapuche women arrested to learn more about their struggle to reclaim their land and culture and how they are resisting repression. Weeks after being released, Débora became the spokesperson for the four Mapuche political prisoners who are still under house arrest in the city of Bariloche. Since police burned down and destroyed their homes during the raid, they are now imprisoned at a borrowed and overcrowded Mapuche center. We hope this interview can spread awareness and enhance solidarity with the Mapuche struggle.

Comrades, lamuen (the word for “sisters” in Mapudungún, Mapuche language), we thank you for reaching out to us in such a difficult moment. We offer our solidarity with the struggle for your freedom and the reclaiming and demilitarization of your territory and the Mapuche identity. We know very little here about your struggle, and we would like you to tell us about it and the current situation.

We are Mapuche political prisoners. According to the justice system in Argentina, the fabricated charges of trespassing used to make a case against us does not require time served in prison. A person may be placed under detention for a day at most, but we are still here, just for being Mapuche. We want to reclaim our own being as Mapuche people, our identity, our culture, reclaim our ancestral knowledge, our language, our territory. All this involves putting up a fight, to reclaim everything that the establishment of the Argentine state sought to strip away, murder, and disappear. This is the struggle we are engaged in and the banners we are fighting under: freedom to the lamuen and the twelve children, the return of the rewe to the Machi and the community, a halt to persecution, because there are people with arrest warrants, in clandestinity, who have experienced the same just because they are Mapuches. We are also fighting for the dissolution of the Unified Commando, a provincial and national task force set up by the state to clamp down and militarize the territory.

We were part of a community, and in that community our Machi used to live. The Machi is the ancient spiritual authority of the Mapuche people on this side of Puel Mapu; that is, on the Argentine side of the territory. She is the first Machi that has risen to authority in more than a hundred years. In other words, before the infamous “Conquest of the Desert”—when the Argentine state carried out a genocide against the our people through a military campaign led by the infamous General Roca to decimate the Indigenous population across the Patagonian Desert, establishing dominance and control over the territory there used to be many Machis and many spiritual authorities. This is why it is so important for our people that the Machi be in her rewe, a ceremonial space that exists in this community, in the territories. That rewe is with her and she is with that rewe. Being far away from that rewe, she becomes ill, her health deteriorates to the extent that she may die. It is the same with children, who are also part of the community and very sensitive when away from their territory, also becoming ill. Here in the South, in Argentina’s Patagonia, there are many communities that have also recovered their territory. We say recovered because these are territories that historically belonged to the Mapuche since ancient times, which private actors have sought to take away from us and do business in. Even the National Parks agency, which is part of the state, which allegedly preserves these places, is open to real estate brokers. We, as Mapuche people, preserve not only the place, but also its biodiversity, our ixofill mongen, as we say in our Mapudungún, our language: everything that has life within it—lakes, rivers, animals.

Mapuche women standing tall. Courtesy of Débora Vera.

Everything that exists, we are its keepers. Each territory has a community, and that community is the guardian of those places—we are with the place. We are with our mapu; we are with our land and so she is with us. There are people who go against that—businessmen in collusion with the state—because, no matter who is in office, they are always against us. They dub this biodiversity “natural resources” and want to do real estate business, mine, and extract from the land. This is why it is so hard; the struggle of reclaiming our territory, of our identity, is one hundred years old.

On October 4, 2022 there was an eviction attempt—and we call it an eviction attempt because, a group of wenchu, of men, resisted and are still resisting across the territory, while the Unified Commando is after them day in and day out. After being detained the following day, the pregnant lamuen was forcibly taken to a hospital. Four of us were transported to Buenos Aires—some 900 miles away—on a Prefecture plane, (the same Prefecture that murdered Rafael Nahuel in 2017, a weichafe, a warrior, who was also part of that community). We were separated and taken to three different places: Buenos Aires, the hospital, and two of us were left at an outpost at the airport in Bariloche. We were completely unable to communicate with our babies for three days, and those of us transferred to Buenos Aires remained “disappeared.”

What are the challenges of house arrest? Sometimes people speak of house arrest as if it were a sort of “softer” punishment, but it’s actually a way of extending a system of control and surveillance that is seldom spoken about.

House arrest is nothing but control and surveillance. Custody was supposedly imposed to not obstruct the investigation, but the investigation ended a month and a half after our arrest. Soon after, the space for a dialogue between state officials and a delegation of Mapuche authorities who represented the community started. The judge, and even the president of Argentina, says that continuing house arrest is an act of arbitrariness.  And so, the only reason we are still here is because we are Mapuches.

House arrest is more similar to being in jail than a house. Whose house, anyway? We used to live in the territories, and the houses and belongings were destroyed by the commando. This space, which is a Mapuche community center in the city of Bariloche, was given to us so that house arrest could be implemented close to our children. In actuality this is not being at home, and the conditions are very poor. When you are in house arrest, you can’t go out to work and there is no income. We used to sustain ourselves with our animals and the farm, not with money. Here, in the city where we are under house arrest, we cannot survive without money. In solidarity with our struggle, other Mapuche and non-Mapuche people created a community fund for us to sustain our daily life.  It’s not even like a prison, where you get some food or clothes; under house arrest, nothing is provided to you and the children. All in all, it’s a difficult situation.

We would like to know more about the effects of house arrest on children, mostly considering the repercussions that the long and sustained colonial violence may have on upbringing, both for childrearing and for communicating and keeping the history of the Mapuche alive for future generations.

In regard to children, it is a very difficult situation because they are very sensitive, and they get ill being far away from the territories. This is reflected in “winka illnesses”, as we call Western illnesses, and which are also spiritual illnesses.  They cannot understand why they are unable to reach back home, back to their territory where they used to walk around and be free.  They have grown up in the countryside with a Mapuche worldview (cosmovisión), so they are not used to being in the city. Let’s just say there’s another upbringing down here. Everything’s so violent. We have experienced many violent scenes since our detention, but the truth is that this violence continues and you see that reflected among children. Those most affected by this are children, and the Machi, in this particular case.

It is also difficult to keep and communicate Mapuche history when we are in an overcrowded setting. Very difficult. We must share spaces a lot. Around this time, the school period begins. Some individuals related to education have come to us, wanting to lend a helping hand, but it’s tough to be constant. Children used to go to class and, even though they couldn’t attend every week because of work in the countryside and so on, they did go, and now their school term has been disrupted.

They used to go to a school about two miles away, and it took a lot for our kids to adapt to school and for the school to adapt to them because they were discriminated against by their own peers, and not all teachers treated them well either. They experienced a lot of discrimination and persecution for being Mapuches. State officials have come to request children be schooled here in the city, but if they used to be discriminated against out there in the countryside at a rural school, just imagine what it’d be like for them here in the city. Cycles and spaces that were being developed with children in the countryside have also been disrupted a lot, along with the ways of attempting to communicate history, which is so important to protect as a part of the continuation of our people. Children represent all that: the continuation of our people. There are twelve imprisoned kids, among them three babies, one whom was born with their mother in custody. If these children were not Mapuches, the story would be different—they’d perhaps be free with their mommas—but discrimination is so huge, and society naturalizes it so much that they are still locked away.

The arrest of women and, among you, the Machi, is a direct attack against those who sustain the community, life, the wisdom of the people. What daily forms of resistance give you the strength to keep fighting?

Our strength comes from our ceremonies, from our feientum, our beliefs, our faith, from the newen that we have as Mapuches, as people in connection with earth, in connection with the nien, with biodiversity. Also, communication among us and with other Mapuches who come seeking advice keeps us strong. It becomes difficult, of course, but determination is still on our side. We, Mapuche women, will never give up on what we are. That’s what they want to silence, what they want to disappear. We will never renounce what we are. We’ve never done it when we were under arrest, forcibly transferred, or tortured; neither have the mothers, who have been separated from their children. We have never been broken, never kneeled down; we have always remained steadfast, so we won’t back down now. We are still strong, still have our convictions, our conviction of keeping our culture alive, of being the guardians of biodiversity. We are still strong with our feientum, our beliefs.

We appreciate this space a lot—we hope something is understood about our struggle. We know it’s hard and we hope those who read this are also resilient, have the conviction of what is, and understand that this was not just an attack against a Mapuche community alone or against the Mapuche people; it is also an attack against all peoples who preserve the water, the earth, and the life we look after. It is an attack on the resistance against the assault of extractive businesses, the real estate businesses, and the mega mining companies. This is a breakthrough for these companies, for these scheming businesses, and an advance for the right-wing. All conscious society must also understand that winning this fight also may set a precedent for the preservation of biodiversity, of the water we all drink, and for these scheming businesses to stop, for the only thing they want is to destroy it all. Strength to everyone all the same. Newen tuleymun, as we used to say.

At the moment, we feel the state has abandoned the dialogue roundtable, and we still have the will to establish a dialogue despite the different kinds of violence we have gone through, and still hope the state is willing as well, that National Parks is also willing, that they stop prioritizing profit and political and economic interests over our lives. We shall remain steadfast. If the dialogue roundtable does not move forward, the state and its accomplices will have to bear responsibility for whatever may happen if the community takes another turn or if the Machi’s health deteriorates further, or that of the children or any of the lamuen. We will remain determined in our identity, in our culture, and in reclaiming the territories.