“Mobilizing terror, containing autonomy: network infrastructures in indigenous borderlands in Chile”

Published on October 22nd, 2019

Written by Josefina Buschmann, Chilean researcher and filmmaker  

In October 2017, images of phone antennas, WhatsApp and Telegram text messages, audios of phone conversations, and aerial surveillance videos appeared in a prime time news broadcast in Chile, showing the “inside view” of a police intelligence operation (operación huracán)1 designed to surveil and dismantle an alleged terrorist organization working in the south of the country. Many of the eight suspects detained were important leaders from Mapuche indigenous communities. These communities have mobilized to reclaim their autonomy and lands,2 currently occupied by agro-forest companies and historically seized during the military invasion by the Chilean state and colonization by European settlers in the late nineteenth century.3 After seven months incustody under the charges of illicit terrorist association (asociación ilícita terrorista),the suspects were released. The evidence – primarily based on “intercepted” Telegram text messages – was fake.  The operation was a hoax.4 

Figure 1 Screenshots of T13 news. From top to bottom: aerial views of police procedures and a Mapuche ceremony, antenna in the zone, and the recreation of (fake) Telegram messages. (T13, 2017). Available at https://www.t13.cl/videos/nacional/video-detalles-operacion-huracan

In spite of the fraudulent character of the operation, its televised broadcast revealed the role network infrastructures play in impeding the autonomy of Mapuche communities when their practices do not align with the limited multicultural recognition policies of the neoliberal Chilean state.5 Distributed from land to outer-space, network infrastructures enable mediation6 processes that are essential to sustaining police operations such as the collection of “intelligence” information by intercepting phone conversations, hacking social media profiles, and remote sensing the terrains and everyday practices in it. Furthermore, beyond the actual technological capacities of these infrastructures, it was the narratives around their technical capabilities, their aura of neutrality combined with the opacity of these systems, that managed to legitimize false evidence and keep Mapuche leaders incarcerated. More than evidence, these “intelligence” media functioned as an affective force. The police had intentionally sent Chilean news outlets an “inside” view of the operation so that they would transmit it on-air, and create an inflammatory public atmosphere. The media news operations were as important as the “evidence” itself. Through their carefully edited sequences, news media outlets authenticated fake evidence, and positioned Mapuche as legitimate police targets. Telecommunication technologies worked as a means of deception as they were positioned as neutral and effective tools, both in national media coverage and in the justice system. The hoax could prevail only in the context of low digital literacy and convoluted black boxing of information about state surveillance. In the words of the attorney of one of the Mapuche accused, “the judges and prosecutors, who are in charge of investigating, give extra credit to new technologies, as if it was a great form of determining something. And abusing of our ignorance on how these technologies work, they assert something and then, after interiorizing and analyzing the report and content of the technology, you realize the technology doesn’t say much and the rest is speculation.”7

As part of my master’s thesis project,8 I examined the central role mediation processes play both in producing imaginaries of the Mapuche as “criminals” and “terrorists,” and in sustaining special police operations that target, deceive, and incriminate indigenous peoples in the context of their mobilization for the recovery of lands and autonomy. These operations also involve crossing colonial pasts,9 dictatorship continuities,10 neoliberal extractive presents,11 and global security discourses and practices. Drawing on media theories and governmentality studies, I offered the term operational atmospheres (op-atmos) as a notion to think with and account for the composition of the state security apparatus and operations at the intersection of vertical (aerial, orbital, and electromagnetic), algorithmic, and affective fields of actions.12 Op-atmos are entanglements of feelings, imaginaries, and discursive practices; technologies and techniques; local and transnational political economies and histories; that form state’s logistics of perception13 which are contingent, partial and grounded on fragile and labor-intensive processes, through which they come into existence. 

Figure 2 Operational Atmospheres diagram. Some of the icons used were created by Gregor Cresnar, Datacrafted, Ben Davis, Alvaro Cabrera, Nick Bluth, abdul karim, H Alberto Gongora, Viral faisalovers, ahmad, Made, Arafat Uddin, Symbolon, Oleksandr Panasovskyi, Kid Mountain, glyph.faisalovers, Juan Pablo Bravo, ProSymbols, and Jaime Yeo. Available at The Noun Project https://thenounproject.com (Diagram by author, 2019).

Between June 2018 and April 2019, I conducted interviews with police officers, Mapuche’s defense attorneys, local activists, anthropologists, political figures, and digital experts; and visited three Mapuche families under surveillance, with whom we counter-mapped police events in their zones. I also analyzed press publications, legal documents, judicial processes, and congress investigations; and examined technical artifacts and algorithmic operations employed by Chilean police. Throughout this research process, two specific goals stood out. First, the need to open to public scrutiny the technical systems that form op-atmos, their materialities, capacities and limitations, in order to demystify the technologies and their cloudiness. One of the methods I employed was the development of critical visualizations, introducing pictures and creating diagrams with the information collected. The second purpose was to analyze how those systems were put to work embedded in specific cultures, acknowledging the differential qualities they express as they are crossed by class, race, gender and ethnicity. I was particularly interested in moving beyond the practices of perception to understand the practices of pre-visualization14 that shape what is perceived and defines who is identified as a suspect or terrorist, when and where and, as a result, who gets targeted, controlled, and even killed.

Figure 3 Diagram of aerial remote sensing systems of state and citizen security forces in Chile. 

Municipalities in yellow, Carabineros (police) in green, PDI (investigations police) in blue, and Military Forces in red. Missing in this diagram is the Fasat Charlie satellite orbiting around the earth at 620 km (low earth orbit), obtaining high-resolution multispectral images. The scale is not proportional. (Diagram by author, 2019) 

A special focus was placed on the analysis of aerial systems due to its increasing presence in the local skies and its key role in the development of operational atmospheres. As spy planes, helicopters and drones with multispectral cameras hover over Mapuche lands, they not only remote sense and guide operations on the ground; they also produce terror from the air15 and on-air: in their flights they provoke fear and distress on the populations below, and the recorded aerial images are then broadcasted to give shape to public fears. In that context, the aerial surveillance footage of a Mapuche ceremony (Figure 1) can become the image of a terrorist group; and the nocturnal thermal infrared video capturing unidentifiable heat signatures of bodies moving in the forests can be rendered as Mapuche terrorists responsible for arson attacks (Figure 4).  

Figure 4 Thermal image from a Flir Star Safire multispectral camera mounted on carabinero’s Beechcraft spy plane following 2 targets (heat signatures of bodies) supposedly “suspects” of terrorist arson attacks in Araucanía, as part of operación huracán. Screenshot taken from a TV news report on carabineros’ air force (24 Horas, 2017). 

 This vertical remediation of race16 produces new visualizations of the “indigenous other,” which are defined not by skin color or ethnic appearance but by the classification of the territory and the populations who inhabit it as “radical” Mapuche communities. These Mapuche borderlands are transformed into a space of exception17 where special laws and techniques work, a condition that continuously exposes its inhabitants to death as their bodies are transformed into visible targets. This is what happened on a November afternoon when a sergeant on a helicopter – whose partial view only allowed him to distinguish a human from an animal18 – wrongly identified a suspect of robbery and led to the killing of Camilo Catrillanca, a young Mapuche leader. 

Figure 5  Screenshot from the GoPro camera of sargent Héctor Vásquez on the helicopter that led to the killing of Camilo Catrillanca. (CIPER, 2019). Available at https://ciperchile.cl/2019/01/17/muerte-de-catrillanca-la-version-falsa-de-los-tripulantes-del-helicoptero/ 

The Minister of Internal Affairs and National Security stated that Camilo’s death was a terrible accident caused by his unfortunate presence in “that zone.19 However, more than an accident, this zone has been intentionally produced by state’s geopolitics of death20 as a death-world21 in which network infrastructures mobilize and are mobilized to produce operational atmospheres that undermine indigenous sovereign claims and ways of being in the land. 


1 See T13 “Los detalles de la Operación Huracán” https://www.t13.cl/videos/nacional/video-detalles-operacion-huracan; and 24 Horas “Así fue la Operación Huracán por dentro” https://www.24horas.cl/nacional/asi-fue-la-operacion-huracan-por-dentro–2514600

2  Lands are particularly significant for the Mapuche, a name that literally means people (che) of or from the land (mapu), for whom “land is actively involved in the making of selves” (Di Giminiani 2016, 888), and there is a profound connection with the place of origin in the creation of selfhood. Contemporary claim for their lands is not only related to this particular ontology – this way of being in the world marked by the connection to their ancestral land -, but also to particular social structures, and a political system of governance, along with a knowing in and from the land, a kimün (knowledge). 

3 This historical process is known as “Pacificación de la Araucanía” (Pacification of Araucanía) or, more precisely, the military occupation of Araucanía. 

4 See Nicolás Sepúlveda and Mónica González 2018 “Operación Huracán”: testimonios y confesiones confirman que fue un montaje” Ciper Chile https://ciperchile.cl/2018/03/13/operacion-huracan-testimonios-y-confesiones-confirman-que-todo-fue-un-montaje/

5 See Hale, Charles R., and Rosamel Millamán. “Cultural Agency and Political Struggle in the Era of the Indio Permitido.” In Cultural Agency in the Americas, 281–304. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.

6 I understand mediation as conceptualized by Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska who changed the focus on media from a set of discrete artifacts such as images and screens to an understanding of the continuous processes of mediation, where people’s daily existence is defined by “being in, and becoming with, the technological world, our emergence and ways of intra-acting with it, as well as the acts and processes of temporality stabilizing the world into media, agents, relations, and networks” (xv) (Kember, Sarah, and Joanna Zylinska. Life after New Media. Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012). 

7 Interview conducted in Temuco, Chile. July 2018.  

8 Buschmann, Josefina. “Operational Atmospheres: Mediating policing in the fight against crime and “rural terrorism” in Chile.” Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2019.  


9 Richards, Patricia. “Of Indians and Terrorists: How the State and Local Elites Construct the Mapuche in Neoliberal Multicultural Chile.” Journal of Latin American Studies 42, no. 01 (February 2010): 59–90. 

10 Risør, Helene, and Daniela Jacob. “‘Interculturalism as Treason’: Policing, Securitization, and Neoliberal State Formation in Southern Chile.” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 13, no. 3 (September 2, 2018): 237–58.

11 Richards, Patricia. Race and the Chilean Miracle: Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Indigenous Rights. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. 

12 See Lisa Parks’ notion of vertical mediation and cultural atmospherics; Peter Adey’s security atmospheres; and Eyal Weizman’s politics of verticality

13 Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. New York: Verso, 2009.

14 Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015.

15 Sloterdijk, Peter. Terror from the Air. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.

16 Parks, Lisa. “Vertical Mediation and the U.S. Drone War in the Horn of Africa.” In Life in the Age of Drone Warfare. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017.

17 Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Bloomington: Stanford University Press, 1998. 

18 Basadre, Pablo. 2019. “Muerte de Catrillanca: la versión falsa de los tripulantes del helicóptero.” CIPER, January 17, 2019. https://ciperchile.cl/2019/01/17/muerte-de-catrillanca-la-version-falsa-de-los-tripulantes-del-helicoptero/

19 See T13. 2018. “Gobierno Lamenta Muerte de Comunero Camilo Catrillanca y Anuncia Fiscal Exclusivo.” T13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1264&v=4Mw9CZH-rqU, and Cámara de Diputados Televisión Chile. 2018. Comisiones Unidas DD.HH. y  Seguridad Ciudadana 19/11/2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7otI-ySK5g

20  Mbembé, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11–40.

21 Mansilla Quiñones, Pablo Arturo, and Miguel Melin Pehuen. “A Struggle for Territory, a Struggle Against Borders.” NACLA Report on the Americas 51, no. 1 (March 29, 2019): 41–48. 


Josefina Buschmann is a researcher and filmmaker working with media to explore the cross between technology, society, and environment. Her background in sociology, media studies and filmmaking informs her collaborative practice-based research. Recent projects include the study of predictive policing, drone surveillance, and the examination of artificial intelligence databases. She is part of the Chilean film collective MAFI – Filmic Map of a Country.