SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Two Roman Catholic churches were burned in a southern region that the Mapuche indigenous group claims as its ancestral territory, police said Thursday.
The arson attacks that destroyed the wooden structures took place late Wednesday in Vilcun, about 430 miles (700 kilometers) south of the Chilean capital.
No one was injured in the attacks, which came just days before the start of an investigation into 11 indigenous people arrested for alleged involvement in the arson killings of an elderly couple.
Werner Luchsinger and his wife, Vivian MacKay, died in 2013 defending their property from hooded trespassers. Celestino Cordova, a Mapuche indigenous leader, was sentenced in 2014 to 18 years in prison for the arson murders. He is the only person charged in the crime that prompted a national debate about Chile's struggle to manage violent disputes over indigenous lands.
Authorities said Thursday they found pamphlets scattered near the burned churches demanding the release of those arrested. Some were signed by the radical Mapuche group Weichan Auka Mapu that has claimed responsibility for about 40 attacks in the area, including some on religious temples.
A recent increase in the number of arson attacks has led the attorney general's office to appoint a prosecutor who will focus exclusively on these cases in Chile's southern regions of Araucania and Bio Bio, where most of Chile's nearly 1 million Mapuche live.
About 200 of the 2,000 Mapuche communities in the south include radical factions that have occupied and burned farms and lumber trucks to demand the return of land taken or sold out from under them as recently as a century ago. Police have been accused of violent abuses, including storming into Mapuche homes during raids and shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at women and children.
Mapuche means "people of the earth" in their native Mapudungun tongue. Chile's largest indigenous group resisted conquest for 300 years, until military defeats in the late 19th century forced them into Araucania, south of the Bio Bio river. The government then encouraged European immigrants to colonize the area.
Most of the indigenous there now live in poverty on the fringes of timber companies or ranches owned by the descendants of the European colonists.