The ‘triangle of death’: Chile’s P-72 highway where three Carabineros were killed

The route that connects Cañete and Tirúa in the forested Biobío region is considered the most dangerous in the country after a spate of attacks

Carabineros and corps commander Ricardo Yáñez in front of the burned truck
Carabineros and corps commander Ricardo Yáñez in front of the burned truck, on April 27 in Biobío.Carabineros de Chile (REUTERS)
Antonieta de la Fuente

For at least 15 years the road linking Cañete and Tirúa in the Biobío region, known as the P-72, has been one of the epicenters of rural violence in Chile. But in recent years, the number of attacks has been increasing. Today, this road is considered the most dangerous in the country. It was precisely on P-72 where last weekend firefighters found the burnt van with the charred bodies of three carabineros: Sergeant Carlos Cisterna (43) and Corporals Sergio Arévalo (34) and Misael Vidal (30). The three non-commissioned officers were on patrol when they were ambushed, riddled with bullets and loaded into the back of the vehicle where they were set on fire.

The crime took place in the early morning of April 27, just as the 97th anniversary of the police institution was being commemorated and, due to its brutality, it has been described as unprecedented by Chilean authorities. On Monday, the national prosecutor, Ángel Valencia, appointed the regional prosecutor of La Araucanía, Roberto Garrido, to take charge of the investigation, precisely because of his experience in cases of rural violence.

The triple homicide, although the most serious case known to have taken place in the area, is not the first attack to occur on the P-72. The 42-mile road, which runs parallel to the Biobío coast and is surrounded by pine forests, has been considered a red zone for years. It is a sector where radical Mapuche organizations operate, using violence as an instrument for land recovery, as well as mafias involved in timber theft, car theft, and organizations linked to drug trafficking.

Minister of the Interior Carolina Tohá said that “the attack that took place is not new in this region or in this zone. The zone, and route 72, is one of the places that has been most victimized by attacks since the existence of this conflict in the southern macro-zone.” The minister added that it was an area where violence had begun to decline over the last year. “Activity had returned, visitors had returned, some businesses had recovered, and this is certainly a blow to the heart of the effort that has been made together to bring peace back here.”

The sector where the attack occurred has been under a state of constitutional emergency for two years, and is therefore patrolled by the armed forces.

ola de violencia en chile
Military and police carry out operations in the Cañete commune on Sunday, near where the truck was found.Ignacio Vázquez (EFE)

The triangle of violence

Through his work as a former presidential delegate for the southern macro-zone in the second administration of Sebastián Piñera (2018-2022), lawyer Pablo Urquízar describes the area as follows: “In the southern cone of the Arauco province is what is known as the ‘triangle of violence,’ an area composed of three communes, Cañete and Contulmo, connected by route P-60, and Cañete and Tirúa, connected by the P-72. This route is where radicalized organizations in the area have been trying to exert territorial control for quite some time.”

According to police data, between January 2020 and November 2021, some 75 attacks were registered on this route, many of them directed at carabineros, but also at truck drivers, forestry workers, and civilians. And although the constitutional state of emergency, in force since May 2022, had helped to reduce the violence, the murder of the three carabineros last weekend confirms that the P-72 remains a highly dangerous route, especially at night.

The vast majority of the pine forests in the area are owned by timber company Arauco and the paper company CMPC, the two main forestry companies operating in Chile. However, several of their properties have been taken over by radical organizations, which are mainly dedicated to timber theft, so company workers cannot enter or exploit these forests, explains a person who knows the area well.

“It is a route that has no other use than forestry and connectivity between two coastal towns that do not have a large number of inhabitants,” says Juan Francisco Galli, a former undersecretary of the interior in the Piñera administration. “People travel little on that route, and if they do it is because they know each other, because it is a dangerous route for non-locals,” he adds.

Public broadcaster Televisión Nacional journalist Iván Núñez and cameraman Esteban Sánchez confirmed this first-hand. On March 27, 2021, while driving along the P-72 on their way to Tirúa at night, they were ambushed. Núñez escaped unharmed, but Sánchez was shot in the arm, thorax, and head: he lost his sight in one eye.

In April 2023, a group of hooded men shot at a school bus traveling along the road in the Antiquina sector. According to investigations, it was apparently mistaken for a forestry vehicle. On June 10 of the same year, an electricity transmission tower was demolished with explosives on the border between Cañete and Los Alamos.

But violence has plagued the area for at least a decade and a half. In 2008, prosecutor Mario Elgueta and his entourage were attacked in Puerto Choque, near Lake Lleulleu. Héctor Llaitul, leader of the indigenous militant organization Arauco Malleco Coordinating Committee, which until about five years ago dominated the territory, was convicted for the first time over the assault.

One of the most recent episodes of violence on the P-72, prior to the deaths of the three carabineros, took place last January when unidentified persons blocked the road, shot at police personnel guarding a property in the sector, and threw an explosive device that hit a house. Before escaping, the criminals set fire to the van in which they were driving.

The funeral for the three carabineros killed on route P-72, on April 28.
The funeral for the three carabineros killed on route P-72, on April 28.CARABINEROS DE CHILE (EFE)

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