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'We Have Nothing to Celebrate': Columbus Day Protesters Fill Streets of Santiago

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

Mapuche Protest October 12, 2013. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty ImagesOver 15,000 protesters gathered in Santiago, Chile on Saturday in an anti-Columbus Day demonstration to demand improved indigenous rights and a return of ancestral lands—521 years after Columbus began the European invasion of the Western Hemisphere.

The protest was organized by the country’s largest indigenous group, Organización Mapuche Meli Wixan Mapu, "who have been in a long struggle with the government over ancestral land taken from them during colonization," Al Jazeera America reports.

"We have nothing to celebrate” read a press release by Mapuche.

Police turned water cannons on the protesters and dispersed the crowd after several protesters had thrown rocks at the police.

The ongoing fight for indigenous land rights heated up on Wednesday, Santiago Times reports, when a major police operation arrested 8 Mapuche activists as Chilean security forces cleared indigenous occupants from disputed land.

"Mapuche press also reported major property damage and the killing of livestock," Santiago Times reports, "though the later was denied by local police chief Ivan Bezmalinovic."

Santiago times reports:

The Mapuche people have been fighting for years, both in courts and protests, to accelerate the repatriation of traditional lands. The Chilean government made agreements to give some of the land back, but as a report from the United Nations last month commented, the timetable for the repatriation process would mean little progress in the near future.

This perceived inaction or delay has been met by regular demonstrations and occasional violent protest including arson attacks on disputed lands. The government response has been to treat these attacks as acts of terrorism. Many of the Mapuche political prisoners currently in custody are being held under Chile’s anti-terrorism law.

Al Jazeera reports:

Mapuche protesters have been treated as ‘terrorists’ by the Chilean government -- which uses an anti-terrorism law against them. Thousands of Mapuche and their supporters demanded an end to the application of this law on Mapuche land activists in peaceful marches Saturday.

The U.N. urged Chile to stop applying the anti-terrorism law against the Mapuche in July.

“The anti-terrorism law has been used in a manner that discriminates against the Mapuche," U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson said in a press release. "It has been applied in a confused and arbitrary fashion that has resulted in real injustice, has undermined the right to a fair trial, and has been perceived as stigmatizing and de-legitimizing the Mapuche land claims and protests.”

A separate anti-Columbus Day protest took place Saturday in Mexico City.

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