Chilean indigenous leader jailed in high-profile murder case

SANTIAGO Fri Feb 28, 2014 3:16pm EST

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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - A court on Friday sentenced a Mapuche indigenous leader to 18 years in prison for his participation in the killing of a couple during an arson attack last year in a high-profile case that rekindled divisions over land rights in Chile.

A Temuco criminal tribunal found Celestino Cordova, a 27-year-old traditional healer, guilty of taking part in the deadly attack on the elderly Luchsinger landowners on their estate in the southern Araucania region.

The case has become emblematic of a century-old, escalating conflict that pits the indigenous Mapuche people fighting for what they deem their ancestral land against wealthy landowners and the booming wood pulp industry.

Many Mapuche, famous for their fierce resistance to the Spanish conquest, say they were robbed by the Chilean government's often brutal colonization policy in the 19th century.

That has bred deep-seated Mapuche resentment against the descendants of immigrants such as the Luchsingers, whose ancestors reportedly arrived in Southern Chile in 1883.

Chile's largest indigenous group remains clustered in one of the poorest areas of what is otherwise one of Latin America's wealthiest countries.

Some Mapuche advocate violence as a means to recoup land, arguing the government is illegitimate and that their claims will never make headway in courts or the political arena.

Many others in polarized Araucania want peace and argue that century-old wrongs should be put to rest.

Managing the dispute will be one of incoming center-left President Michelle Bachelet's key domestic tests, though there are few easy solutions to the complex conflict.

Any clashes are likely to remain isolated and are unlikely to affect the Andean country's overall governability.

ATTACK IN THE ARAUCANIA

Several intruders sneaked into the Luchsinger estate in the early hours of January 4, 2013 and began shooting at the family home, according to court documents.

Werner Luchsinger, 75, fired back and wounded Cordova in the neck, before both he and his wife Vivian Mackay perished in the blaze that engulfed their house.

Police arrested Cordova shortly thereafter. No one else has been arrested.

Cordova claims that there was no evidence he was involved in the attack and that the trial is an attempt to scare Mapuche away from fighting to reclaim their land.

His defense will appeal the ruling, local media reported.

The emblematic case comes six years after the death of Matias Catrileo, a 22-year-old Mapuche who was killed by a policeman during an attempt to recover land.

(Reporting and writing by Alexandra Ulmer; editing by Andrew Hay and Richard Chang)

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