On January 4, it has been three months since federal forces broke into the territory of the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu in Villa Mascardi (Bariloche) and took Mapuche women and children into custody. Four of them are still under house arrest, including the machi Betiana Colhuan Nahuel, the spiritual authority of the community. From La tinta, we visited the house where they are being held and spoke with them to understand their claim and their link to the ancestral lands that they recognise as home and are fundamental to their spirituality.

The recovery of the lands in 2017 and the formation of the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu; the beginning of the National Parks case and the operations of the then minister, Patricia Bullrich; the murder of Rafael Nahuel by Prefectura; the coordinated media stigmatisation campaign; the hate crime against Elías Garay; the threats of eviction; the humiliations; the false flag attacks; the dozens of open cases? A long and systematic path of police, judicial and political persecution that had its most recent episode on 4 October 2022, when the Unified Security Command – formed months ago by the national government – entered Mapuche territory in Villa Mascardi and evicted the community that had been living there for five years.

Without intending to go into more detail about this operation – which has been well reported by the victims in the media – it is essential to tell how the lives of the four women and the ten children who are still being held in preventive and house arrest in the Mapuche Centre in Bariloche are going on. Because these are people whose lives in the mountains were abruptly interrupted and who now have to adapt to another environment, other ties, another spirituality, far from their home.

The Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu has been settled in Villa Mascardi for more than five years, in a portion of territory that it disputes with the National Parks, which it accuses of doing business with the land. In fact, most of the plots of land bordering the Lof belong to private individuals, except for a portion belonging to the Bishopric of San Isidro.

From 2017 to this part, the community began to work with animals, had a vegetable garden and medicinal herbs, and had built a dozen wooden houses (rukas) where about 30 people lived, including children who had spent their entire lives there. During the eviction, they lost their homes and belongings, as they have so far not been allowed to return and the territory is heavily guarded by federal forces.

“They destroyed everything we had built with a lot of effort over the years, but we don’t care about the material or economic aspects. We don’t see it as a business for tourism, as National Parks see it. We can start again from scratch and rebuild everything. But we have to go back. What gives us courage is the territory. Every day in that mountain gave us a charge of energy”, says the machi Betiana Colhuan Nahuel, from the other side of the table where we share some tortas fritas with mate amargo.

The place where they are now housed – apresadas – is a two-storey square concrete structure where Betiana Colhuan Nahuel, Luciana Jaramillo, Romina Rosas and Celeste Ardaiz Guenumil live together with a dozen children ranging from just a few months old to perhaps 9 or 10 years old. All are raised in community. The adolescents in the community are not here. They tell me that they still had the latent memory of the 2017 repression in which Rafael Nahuel died, which is why they fled up the mountain as soon as they heard that the repression by the security forces was unleashed.

“We have no choice in life but to return to the territory. Our children were born there, they have their placentas there and their roots there. You can’t remove it and take them somewhere else to continue their lives. It’s like removing it from its natural environment. They are not going to grow as they would in their native place. We aspire to go back, for our health, for our children’s health. We have everything there: our well-being as a people, our physical and spiritual health,” the machi says firmly, as she breastfeeds her baby barely above her traditional clothing and silverware.

Machi are the highest spiritual authorities of the Mapuche people, who “come to this world to heal with natural wisdom”, both Mapuche and non-Mapuche individuals. After 50 years, Betiana Colhuan Nahuel is the first machi on this side of the border, in the Puel Mapu, and is recognised as a spiritual reference on both sides of the mountain range.

In the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu (Villa Mascardi), there is also the only standing rewe in the country and it is a place where the machi contacts her spiritual energies, renews her strength and wisdom, neutralising spiritual energies that cause illness and disease.

It may be difficult to understand from a Western worldview, but from the Mapuche philosophy, the reasons why a machi would have to be next to her rewe are very profound. “It is not an altar that is visited from time to time. It is a newen, a force that is linked to the machi who carries out her work there, and to that rewe are also linked the people who are undergoing treatment and the communities that are linked to it. Every rewe is a living being that must be cared for, accompanied and nourished. They are concerned about our health, but we say that the health that is most at risk is that of the rewe, the mapu and the kujfikecheyem. Therefore, we are also all in danger”, expressed the detained women in the last Autonomous Parliament convened by different Mapuche-Tehuelche ancestral authorities that took place at the end of November.

The detention and eviction of the machi Betiana Colhuan Nahuel has similar precedents in Chile, where many pu machi have been separated from their pu rewe, as is the case of the machi Celestino Córdova, the machi Francisca Linconao and the machi Millaray Huichailaf, who have also publicly expressed the urgency to return to their territories and thus avoid the serious consequences that a weakened rewe has for the Mapuche people.

Luciana Jaramillo is another of the Mapuche detainees. Before starting to talk, she asks me afterward if I will be able to edit the audio from the recorder and I tell her that it is only for the article, that it is not going to appear anywhere. She seems more comfortable now. She says that they are just learning how to give interviews, that, until a few months ago, they would never have had to do it. Even so, she begins forcefully: “All this persecution, all this harassment and criminalisation is because we are Mapuche. What happened to our grandparents is being repeated. It is clearly an example, a punishment. They are trying to discipline not only our community but the entire Mapuche people.

“Our people pre-exist the state. We are returning to the place from where, at some point, our grandparents were previously removed from. By inheritance we are entitled to it. We are not usurpers, how can we usurp our own land, how can we buy our own land (…) The solution to this conflict is that they recognise their own laws and stop persecuting us”, says Jaramillo, in reference to international laws and the National Constitution itself (Art 75, paragraph 17), which recognises the rights and pre-existence of native peoples in the national territory.

The building in which the house arrest takes place is located in the northwest corner of the city of Bariloche, on a hill full of yellow broom. On one of its side walls, there are illustrations of Mapuche symbolism that allow the house to be recognised almost from the coastal road. As neighbours, they have the Criminal Police Detachment, where, every day, a military formation raises the Argentine flag.

Luciana also says that government authorities offered them housing in the city of Bariloche and money to support themselves for six months, a proposal they immediately rejected.

“They want the Mapuche like this, in the middle of the city, impoverished, being their cheap labour, building their house, being their servant, looking after their children and washing their clothes. That’s how the winka (white man) wants us, submissive. They can’t stand that we have an autonomous path, because they want us to be kissing their feet. We are no longer in this situation, we want to be a dignified people and we seek dignity in our territory, if the mountains give us everything we need, we don’t need anything from the city when we are there. We know how to sow, we know how to weave, raise animals… and we are building our spirituality, which is the most important thing”, says the young woman.

Machi Betiana says something similar: “We wanted to have a life more typical of the Mapuche people. And we give the message of encouragement that it can be achieved. That is why I think the state is afraid of us. In the city, we feel dispossessed, not part of it. That is our recent heritage. Our fathers and mothers have been cheap labour, illiterate, not fitting into society. It is part of the oppression that conquered and enslaved the Mapuche people. We were still this, in other ways, but we were still their slaves. That’s why we decided not to live on our knees any more, to stand up and that has consequences that we have to assume”.

The Mapuche people have, as a collective, the right to health and spirituality. And for their worldview, these two pillars of life are not guaranteed if the machi does not return to her rewe.

In addition to this, there are children who are being deprived of their right to grow up in full exercise of their cultural and religious identity. Since the eviction, some of the children are suffering from physical and emotional imbalances as a result of being away from their land, and they show it with a lack of speech or exhibiting a state of overexcitement. “The younger ones say to us: ‘Why are we here? Let’s go to the ruka’. They just want to go back there, to their place. We’ve been living there for five years, they don’t know anything else,” says Luciana.

Meanwhile, Betiana adds: “We try to transmit Mapuche culture, not on a blackboard or as a school lesson, but from day-to-day upbringing, with the customs in the territory. We try to make them see it as a way of life, more typical of our people. Today, they feel very deprived and repressed, because a lot of that upbringing has been cut off. But they understand what happened and that it happened to them for being Mapuche, for living in the territory.

On 12 January, President Alberto Fernández and representatives of Mapuche communities in Río Negro, Chubut and Neuquén will meet to discuss the persecution of the communities in general, and the problem of Villa Mascardi in particular.

When asked about the solution to the conflict, Betiana and Luciana responded: “The decision is political. The conflict that they themselves have generated with us can be resolved with a signature from the president, where he says that he will cede this territory to us, where we already had a life and which, by right, belongs to us.

Images: Ana Medero and Ezequiel Luque

This material is shared with the authorisation of La Tinta.