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In Chile's Forests, Shadowy Rebel Groups Threaten Logging Industry

Burnt-out trucks are pictured on a rural road near Angol town, Temuco city, south of Santiago, Chile Aug. 7, 2015. Six trucks and heavy machinery of a forest company were burned in an arson attack in a rural area on the road between Angol and Collipulli

A few moments of relaxation for Chilean logger Nelson Hidalgo were shattered one day last month when 12 armed men piled out of a pick-up truck and demanded he step outside his work-site dining trailer.

At rifle-point, the masked men forced Hidalgo and a handful of colleagues to the ground, according to the workers' accounts.

Over the next hour, the armed men burned a minibus, an excavator, and other equipment belonging to Nylyumar Forestry - Hidalgo's employer and a subcontractor for Chilean timber giant Celulosa Arauco.

As they left, the men scattered leaflets claiming allegiance to Chile's indigenous Mapuche people, many of whom assert that logging companies are trespassing on their territory and draining the natural resources that are their birthright.

No one was injured. But Nylyumar estimates losses that afternoon came to $600,000, and the company's workers were shaken.

"Since then, I've been tense. My muscles are in pain, as if they've been shrinking," the gruff, middle-aged Hidalgo said.

Such experiences have been multiplying lately, industry and government data show, and weighing on Chilean logging, the country's second-largest industry after copper mining. Mostly focused on southern Chile, it is the source of 10 percent of the country's exports.

Twenty-five attacks by saboteurs claiming to represent Chile's Mapuche were registered in the first five months of 2016 by forestry subcontractors' union Acoforag. That resulted in an estimated 9 billion pesos ($13.5 million) in damage, up from 3 billion pesos in all of 2015 and 638 million in 2014, according to the union.