Chile declares state of emergency in zone shaken by indigenous conflict

SANTIAGO, May 17 (Reuters) - President Gabriel Boric’s administration has declared a state of emergency in southern areas of Chile rattled by intensifying violence stemming from an ongoing conflict between the state and indigenous Mapuche groups.

Interior Minister Izkia Siches announced the constitutional state of emergency late on Monday, allowing the military to guard routes and highways in areas in the epicenter of the conflict.

Several Mapuche groups demand the return of ancestral lands where forestry companies currently operate. Several citizens, including Mapuche activists, security forces and forestry workers have been killed in the violence. Sabotage and burning of homes, trucks and machinery has increased in recent years in an area that also sees a lot of tourism.

“It is evident that in recent times we have had an increase in acts of violence on the roads, we have witnessed cowardly attacks,” Siches said in a press conference from La Moneda government palace. “We have decided to make use of all the tools of the state to provide security to our citizens.”

Boric’s left-wing government will also allocate 400 billion pesos (about $470 million) for public works projects in the area, Siches said, along with previously announced plans to promote land restitution and create a ministry for indigenous peoples.

The new state of emergency is more limited that one imposed by the previous government, which included areas beyond the roads in the conflict-hit zones of La Araucania and neighboring provinces Arauco and Biobio.

As a candidate, Boric stated he had no intention of renewing the state of emergency set by his right-wing predecessor Sebastian Pinera, which had been extended several times but ended this March. Some Mapuche groups filed a protecion order in court against Pinera, saying the state of emergency was arbitrary and ilegal.

In an attempt to show the government’s shift, Siches traveled to the zone during her first few days in office in March, but her trip was interrupted by gunfire shot into the air.

On Monday, Siches said that the government asked the public ministry for a prosecutor to investigate criminal organizations and activities such as drug trafficking and wood theft in the area. (Report by Natalia Ramos; Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero and Alexander Villegas; Writing by Alexander Villegas; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)