Week 2: Weaknesses in the System
By Al Macina
The intrigue of attending a second trial in the space of seven days made up for the everyday nature of the petty drug possession charge in question during the first week. An early morning drive from Temuco to the town of Angol and its court took me through farmland and forest in a valley flanked by mountains. It was reminiscent of the beauty of the northern Sierra Nevada. A brilliant blue sky revealing snow-capped volcano peaks to the east towards the Andes reminded me I was far from California.
The trial presented some of the issues plaguing Chile’s justice system. The Public Ministry relied on little evidence to accuse eleven Mapuche, members of the region’s main indigenous group, of stealing a small amount of wheat from a farm. Such political issues can eclipse the new procedural reform and any of its remaining problems. The first witness recited endless agricultural facts unrelated to the case and could not personally identify any defendants. Instead, she mechanically provided some of their names. Her testimony then established that she had not been in the area of the time the crime, reducing her purpose as a witness to merely certify that the wheat had in fact been taken. The second witness, a Mapuche, largely missed the mark as his answers were often unrelated to the questions posed by counsel.
Surprisingly, at lunch the attorneys lamented their weak position despite the prosecutors’ lack of evidence based on judges’ deference to prosecutors. In the same vein, my supervising attorney recently recounted that in his 15 years of experience, Chilean judges cannot seem to believe that police would exaggerate or falsify reports and testimony. He said that paso a paso (bit by bit) this attitude is changing for the better. As to this trial, he deemed the evidence “weak.” Further, proof of a fact can be established merely when at least two witnesses’ testimony corresponds. Unfortunately, despite the criminal procedure reform, such antiquated notions remain.
As to Chilean politics, the case provides an example of the state’s apparent contempt via the Public Ministry (i.e. the state prosecutors) for the Mapuche. The dispute stems from a historic struggle within the region dating to Spanish colonization of the Mapuche homeland. Yet relative to past and upcoming cases where the government has cited outdated anti-terrorism statutes against the Mapuche, this case is anything but extreme.
The current regional docket includes such a case utilizing the anti-terrorist law against Mapuche defendants. I have read the file and look forward to reporting on case developments and the eventual trial during my stay.
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