By Magnus Course and Fabian Painemilla Ancan
The first time I met Sergio Painemilla Huarapil he looked like he was about to blow away. A slight, slim man, his shirt and trousers whipped around him in the fierce southern wind. His shoes were polished, but he wore no socks, and his pale eyes danced with light and laughter. He had a surprisingly red moustache, the source of his nickname Kelüpayun, “Redbeard” in the Mapuche language, Mapudungun. Sergio was, at that time, president of the Mapuche community of Konoko Budi in southern Chile, and also one of the leaders of the indigenous association Pür Lafken Leufu which sought to bring together various Mapuche communities in the Lago Budi area.
I ended up living with Sergio and his family in their homestead for the next couple of years. He often talked of politics, of racism, and of the discrimination he’d faced while living in Santiago during his time as a union organizer, an activity which led to his rapid return to the south following General Pinochet’s 1973 military coup and the years of repression that followed. I have to admit that, to my shame, I never paid much attention to Sergio’s political tribulations. My interest was always in his deep knowledge of Mapuche culture and history, and in particular, the natural world; we’d go off on long walks or on horseback recording the names of every plant and every bird we came across. I was absorbed in the minutiae of Mapuche cosmology, and his endless political diatribes seemed something else entirely. Indeed, in those days, the communities around Lago Budi seemed awfully remote, both from Santiago and from the full reach of the Chilean state. All of the people living here were Mapuche, and all of the neighbouring communities for miles around were likewise Mapuche. The occasional news reports of Mapuche communities in conflict with ranching or forestry operations that had usurped their lands, seemed a long, long way away.
Now, twenty years later, I see how naïve I was. For Sergio, the land and one’s knowledge of it and rootedness in it were inextricable from one’s political commitment to it. This was brought home to me one morning in April, 2017 when I received an email informing me that the previous day Sergio had been arrested. Over thirty heavily armed police had turned up at his farm before dawn, and burst into his house. Sergio is now in his seventies and had been hospitalized for several weeks with a heart attack a few months earlier in 2016. Upon ramsacking the house, the police uncovered an antique single-bore shotgun, made in the 1930s, that had previously belonged to Sergio’s father, Esteban, who had served the Chilean government as a soldier and had died several decades previously. This old shotgun – the kind of which can be found in pretty much every farming homestead in the Americas – was reason enough for the police to take Sergio away. The public prosecutor decided to pursue a charge of possession of an unlicensed weapon, and Sergio was confined under strict house arrest, a condition under which he remains to this day.
Below, Sergio tells his own account of that day, in an interview carried out by his son, Fabian Painemilla Ancan:
“I still remember that day! It was April 01, 2017 and they arrived around 6:00am. It was still dark, I just heard the sounds of cars arriving. I thought it was my son, Pablo, so without hesitation, I opened the door only to realise then that something else was going on. As I opened the door, I was confronted with a large group of people wearing dark uniforms and who were heavily armed with guns pointed at me. They asked for my son Hernan Painemilla. I explained to them that he lives with us but that he was not home. They told me that they needed to search the house. They entered abruptly and began to turn the house upside down destroying things along the way. They went through every room in our house and under every bed, looking inside my books and again destroying everything. For the most part, I remained calm but internally was scared. I was concerned for my wife more than anything. The situation brought me back to 1973 during the Pinochet regime when I was detained and taken to the National Stadium in Santiago without clear cause and I wasn’t sure if I would see my family ever again. Luckily, I was set free but this forced me to move back to my family lands in Piedra Alta. This abrupt entry into my home by what I would come to find out were Chilean special forces brought all of that fear and uncertainty back. I was concerned for my wife and myself and my son, who is active in the Mapuche cause. I am 71 years old and it is still hard for me to believe that many things have not changed in my country since Pinochet. After searching the whole house and property, they found an old shotgun that belong[ed] to my father, Esteban Painemilla, who ironically served this country as a member of the military when he was young. In short, it was a relic. They took me into custody and the shotgun as well. It was the only item I had from my father as he died when I was a young boy. I felt that my rights were violated and at my age I was made to feel like a delinquent. They sentenced me as a “peligro para la sociedad” (danger to society) because I had an old shotgun in my possession that was not officially registered. By charging a Mapuche elder, such as myself on a minor technicality, it seems that the Chilean government is trying to find any motive to threaten the Mapuche they consider to be terrorist. This coming year, 2019, will mark two years since Chilean special forces entered my home. I have been in domiciliary arrest, then in partial arrest that required me to be at my home at night. And, while I have legal representation, my situation had not been resolved. I am still considered a danger to society as an old man.” (Translated from Spanish to English by Fabian Painemilla Ancan).
Once the dust had settled, it emerged that Sergio’s imprisonment was above all else, an act of spite. The notorious investigative police had been pursuing various charges against one of his sons, a Mapuche activist in the regional capital, Temuco, but a complete absence of evidence (or even crime!) made this fruitless. So the next best thing was to harass his family and in particular his elderly parents. As I write, the repercussions of the assassination of a young Mapuche leader, Camilo Catrillanca, by Chilean special forces continue to reverberate through Chile and beyond. The Chilean State’s continued attempts to portray Mapuche activists as ‘terrorists’ – despite no clear acts of terrorism ever being committed – seems to have backfired and many have united in condemnation of the increasing militarization of the Mapuche heartland. It might seem that the house arrest of an old man in one remote corner of the rural south, pales in comparison to the assassinations, hunger strikes, secret police, and surveillance which are taking many Chileans back to memories of the Dictatorship that they thought were long gone. Yet it is in these banal and everyday processes of confinement, confinement which rarely results in successful prosecution, that a certain kind of psychological warfare is waged; that the state compels Mapuche people to keep a low profile, to stay quiet, to keep their heads down or be labelled ‘terrorists,’ to give up their claims for justice. Visiting Sergio last year, however, I recognized the fire in his eyes that told me that this would not be an option. His land is who he is and his life without it would not be much of a life at all. It is this understanding which brings Mapuche together in new and diverse ways, ways which cannot be confined.
Magnus Course teaches social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His research is concerned with kinship, personhood, and power in both South America and Europe. He is the author of Becoming Mapuche: Person and Ritual in Indigenous Chile (U Illinois Press, 2011), the Spanish translation of which was published by Editores Pehuen in 2017. He has recently completed a project on the intersection of fishing and Gaelic culture in the Outer Hebrides and is now working on a new project on death in Naples.
Fabian Painemilla is an indigenous Mapuche, from Chile. He possesses a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and Latin American Studies from the University of Maryland. At the moment Fabian is obtaining his master’s in education and leadership from Notre Dame University of Maryland. Fabian has many years of experience working in Chile and the US in diverse environments.