South Florida man caught in middle of Mapuche conflict in Chile

Mauricio Sepulveda at the family farm in Chile he inherited in 2006. The timber farm is located in an area of conflict with Mapuche peoples.
Mauricio Sepulveda at the family farm in Chile he inherited in 2006. The timber farm is located in an area of conflict with Mapuche peoples. Special to the Miami Herald

Driving through the Chilean countryside one December night, Mauricio Sepulveda heard two loud cracks against his windshield, then the splintering of glass — someone had shot at him from the side of the road.

Ballistics results showed that if Sepulveda had not been coming fast down the hill, and if the shooter had not been pointing upward from a prone position, the two bullets would have entered the car instead of ricocheting off the glass.

Sepulveda, 61, of Bal Harbour, spends half of every year on the coast of southern Chile outside Tirúa, a town his family helped found generations ago. It boasts rolling hills of pine trees, winding rivers and a black sand beach, but also violence caused by land disputes between farmers, the government and the indigenous Mapuche people.

Since inheriting the family farm from his father in 2006, Sepulveda has been trying to return permanently to Miami — where he has lived and worked since 1986 and became a citizen in 2002 — because the farm is situated in a red zone of what is often referred to as the Mapuche Conflict.

Small pockets of indigenous people in Chile have become fiercely violent since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, whether out of frustration with the government’s history of abuse against Mapuche, the slow land-reclamation program intended to make up for those abuses or the forestry companies still occupying the land of their ancestors.

Much of this frustration is focused on setting lumber-transportation trucks on fire, cutting down the pine and eucalyptus forests owned by big lumber companies, or vandalizing government-owned buildings. But private landowners and small-time farmers feel the effects of this violence, too.

Werner Luchsinger, 75, and Vivianne Mackay, 69, for example, died in a 2013 fire in Vilcún when a group of Mapuche shot at their farmhouse to prevent them from escaping.

Sepulveda said he has been threatened with a similar fate countless times. Last year, he lost 20 acres of his eucalyptus forest to fires set by Mapuche. Earlier this month, five more acres of his land were burned, the flames coming within 30 meters of his home.

However, there are plenty of other indigenous people living in rural areas around Tirúa who said they have no desire to take or attack Sepulveda land, not only because the plot was unoccupied when originally purchased but because the family has been a longtime friend to them.

After emigrating from Europe in the 1870s, Sepulveda’s great-grandparents founded the nearby town of Quidico, which sprouted as a result of the agricultural work they did alongside Chileans and Mapuche alike. Later, Sepulveda’s grandfather helped found Tirúa in the 1890s and employed hundreds of Mapuche that Sepulveda said became some of his family’s closest friends.

“We should be fighting against the companies, not against Mauricio,” said Bautista Ancalao Necul, 78, a Mapuche of Tirúa who believed much of the violence had lost its way. “…The Sepulveda family — especially my dad and his dad — were like brothers.”

When Sepulveda’s grandmother did not have enough milk for his father, Jose Domingo Sepulveda Mendez, a Mapuche woman who had also recently given birth offered to breastfeed him alongside her own son.

But much of this history has been lost in the fighting.

One June morning in 2014, more than 50 Mapuche came up Sepulveda’s private road, passing three locked gates, and stood on his porch declaring that he should sell the land because it belonged to them. Sepulveda said his strong personality can be his downfall at times, but in this moment it prevented the situation from escalating.

“I told them wait a minute, you’re telling me different things here,” he said. “You say the land is yours and I need to leave because you are going to harvest, but also that I need to sell the land to you. If it’s yours, why do I need to sell it?”

Sepulveda told them he had plans to sell to other Mapuche who had approached him peacefully, and many of them left to fight with those potential buyers. Others retreated down the yard, where they partook in a ceremony to claim the land.

Sepulveda’s house has been barren since that confrontation — a bed in each room and one table in the dining room — because he moved all of his belongings into storage five hours away in Concepción and into a cabin he rents in Cañete more than an hour away, where he feels safer sleeping at night.

Most of the time, only the police officers Sepulveda requested after that June morning occupy his farmhouse now, three Chilean guards with semi-automatic weapons rotating lookout duty on the front porch 24 hours a day.

Living with complete strangers, even ones that are there to protect him, is mentally and emotionally draining. Sepulveda said he wants to get back to South Florida, where he hopes to continue training riders for horse-jumping and running his heavy equipment business.

Even more important, his three daughters Yvonne, 38, of Cutler Bay; Paulina, 33, of Bal Harbor; and Valery, 31, of Los Angeles, are waiting for Sepulveda to return from Chile for good.

“I both want my father to sell the farm because of the dangerous violence and the value I place on his life,” said Valery, “but at the same time, it’s very heartbreaking that selling away my family’s history is in a way surrendering to the corrupt politicians and government that chose to turn a blind eye to everything that’s happening.”

Sepulveda’s father sold nearly 865 acres of property to a private owner in the 1980s, but he’s had trouble selling the rest.

“Nobody wants to buy this land,” he said. “Who would want to? Something bad is always happening.”

In 2013, the National Indigenous Development Corporation (CONADI) agreed to buy the land to give to the Mapuche, but Sepulveda said he hasn’t seen any progress made toward finalizing a purchase since that time. In addition, the offer price was unreasonably low, Sepulveda said.

Carlos Carvajal, the Director of CONADI for the Bío Bío region where Sepulveda’s farm is located, said they are trying to speed up the land-purchasing process, but prices are determined externally. He also said CONADI does not handle issues of violence by indigenous people.

Sepulveda said he continues to meet with CONADI, driving between his cabin in Cañete and the farm in Tirúa — but earlier in the day now, when there is less risk of being shot.

At one time, Sepulveda said he had an emotional connection to the home his family founded in Chile, but now it’s too much of a risk. He’s looking forward less to saying goodbye and more to saying hello to his family in Bal Harbour — a homecoming in its own right.