SANTIAGO, Chile – A Mapuche indigenous leader was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Friday for the arson murders of an elderly couple who died defending their property from hooded trespassers.
Celestino Cordova Transito, 27, was the only suspect arrested in the attack that killed Werner Luchsinger and his wife Vivian MacKay. The crime prompted a national debate about Chile's struggle to manage violent disputes over ancestral indigenous lands.
Prosecutors said hooded men entered the couple's ranch the night of Jan. 4, 2013, scattering pamphlets on the anniversary of a notorious killing of a young Mapuche activist who had been shot in the back by a police officer just down the road from the Luchsingers' property.
Luchsinger, 75, shot one trespasser in the neck while Mackay, 69, desperately telephoned her son Jorge Andres. The attackers scattered after torching the house, and the couple died in the flames before help arrived.
Cordova was arrested that night near the ranch with a shotgun wound to the neck. The judges called his wound "strong evidence" that he participated in the arson attack.
Defense attorney Pablo Ortega said his client had cooperated with police, and was not found to be a "material author" of the attack, despite his convictions for arson and murder.
Both sides planned to appeal Friday's 192-page sentencing report, which sparked more violence outside the courthouse in the southern city of Temuco. Mapuches and other activists pushed through barriers and hit police with long sticks, only to be scattered by water cannons.
Prosecutors had asked for life without parole, while Cordova's attorneys maintain that the leader is innocent.
Jorge Andres Luchsinger, the slain couple's son, told The Associated Press after Cordova's conviction that the family now wants similar sentences for all those involved in the killings.
Interior Minister Andres Chadwick said Friday that the government had "tried for a tougher sentence" for what he said was clearly "terrorist conduct."
But the court wasn't persuaded that the crime was a terrorist act, a blow to the government of outgoing President Sebastian Pinera, which investigated the killing using an anti-terror law dating back to Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.
President-elect Michelle Bachelet, who takes office on March 11, has said she will no longer invoke the law, though she used it frequently during her first presidential term.
The law enables the state to hold suspects in isolation without charges and permits the use of phone taps and secret witnesses, among other tools.
A U.N. special investigator urged Pinera's government last year to stop using the law, arguing that Chilean prosecutors already have sufficient legal tools to investigate and punish crimes.
The situation has been volatile in Chile's southern regions of Araucania and Bio Bio, where most of Chile's nearly 1 million Mapuche live. About 200 of the 2,000 Mapuche communities in the south include radical factions that have occupied and burned farms and lumber trucks to demand the return of land taken or sold out from under them as recently as a century ago. Police have responded with brute force, storming into Mapuche homes during raids and shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at women and children.
Mapuche means "people of the land" in their native Mapudungun tongue. Chile's indigenous resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years, until military defeats in the late 19th century forced them into Araucania, south of the Bio Bio river, about 340 miles (550 kilometers) south of the capital.
The government then encouraged European immigrants to colonize the area. Most of the indigenous there now live in poverty on the fringes of timber companies or ranches owned by the Europeans' descendants.
Associated Press Writer Eva Vergara in Santiago contributed to this report.