SANTIAGO – Several individuals wearing hoods attacked and burned a truck early Sunday in the southern Chilean region of La Araucania, where Mapuche Indians have been battling forestry companies and large landholders for years, police said.
The attack was carried out around 3:00 a.m. at a truck stop outside Collipulli, a town located 577 kilometers (358 miles) from Santiago, by individuals armed with shotguns.
The assailants, who eyewitnesses said numbered at least eight, surprised truck driver Jose Pereira Gajardo, took him into some nearby woods, doused the truck with gasoline and set it on fire.
Two other truck drivers who saw what was happening managed to get away while the assailants fired shots into the air.
The incident happened about 200 meters (nearly 220 yards) from a police checkpoint established to prevent these types of attacks, but the officers apparently did not notice what was going on.
The prosecutor responsible for the area, Ricardo Traipe, said police had recovered some stolen lumber last Friday and were harassed by Mapuches.
“We are talking about a recent date, when they seized wood stolen in a complicated sector. The police officers were attacked and the trucks carrying the seized lumber were similar to the one burned today,” Traipe said.
The attack, moreover, came four days after the arrest of Hector Llaitul, known as “Commander Hector” and considered the military chief of the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco, or CAM.
Llaitul has been linked to several attacks on farms and forestry companies in recent years.
Llaitul was arrested in the city of Osorno in connection with the attack last October on prosecutor Mario Elgueta and five police officers in the southern Bio Bio region, officials said.
The 41-year-old Llaitul was “one of the most-wanted fugitives in recent times,” Deputy Interior Minister Patricio Rosende said.
Investigative Police, or PDI, agents found Llaitul on Wednesday at a house in Osorno, the capital of the Los Lagos region, located some 940 kilometers (584 miles) south of Santiago, “after several months of fruitless searches,” Rosende said.
Prosecutors allege that Llaitul planned and recruited other Indians to carry out the attack on Elgueta last October.
Eleven other Indians have been under arrest since April in connection with the attack.
Seven of the suspects were arrested in an operation on April 11 involving 130 police officers in the towns of Puerto de Choque and Cañete, located some 600 kilometers (373 miles) south of Santiago.
Jose Huenuche, Javier Navarro, Ramon Llanquileo and Luis Menares, along with brothers Norberto, Cesar and Juan Parra Leal, were detained in the operation.
Four other suspects, identified as Richard Muhuel, Segundo Ñehuen, Carlos Muñoz and Elcides Huiqueman, were already in custody for allegedly stealing wood from property owned by lumber company Mininco.
Regional prosecutor Ximena Hassi charged the 11 Indians with attempted murder and criminal conspiracy.
The suspects, who are all CAM members, will be held in prison for nine months while prosecutors complete the investigation.
On Oct. 15, the vehicles carrying Elgueta and the police officers were ambushed by hooded assailants in the strife-torn Indian-populated southern region of La Araucania.
The police officers engaged the assailants in a gunbattle that lasted about 30 minutes and managed to repel them.
Elgueta, who sustained minor wounds in his left hand and head, was investigating previous violence blamed on Mapuche Indian militants.
The five police officers all sustained minor wounds in the incident.
The CAM, the most militant of the Mapuche organizations, usually issues statements after mounting attacks against the land barons and timber companies the Indians accuse of illegally usurping their ancestral territory.
Southern Chile has been the scene of long-running land disputes between Mapuche communities and farmers and lumber firms, with the conflicts often turning violent.
Mapuche Indian activist Matias Catrileo was shot in the back during a clash with police on Jan. 3, 2008.
Catrileo was trying to occupy a ranch with several other activists in La Araucania, a region located some 670 kilometers (416 miles) south of Santiago, when police opened fire on them.
The Mapuches, Chile’s largest indigenous group with slightly more than 600,000 members, demand the constitutional recognition of their tribal identity, rights and culture, as well as ownership of the lands that belonged to their ancestors.