Santiago Maldonado: the ill-fated traveller

Sebastián Ortega and Emilia Erbetta wrote a profile about Santiago Maldonado (the young man who disapeared in Mapuche land in Patagonia) in Rolling Stone magazine, available here. This is a small fragment. Español

Cosecha Roja
19 February 2018

Santiago Maldonado. Source: Cosecha Roja. All rights reserved.

This piece is published in the framework of our partnership with Cosecha Roja. Read the original here.

Santiago’s journeys turn his life story into a puzzle which is missing some pieces. There are only fragments left from his voyages: the reconstruction of his last years is marked by the memories of those who accompanied him or who encountered him on his path. 

His journey to Misiones in January of 2011 marked a turning point in his life. His departure point was La Plata, from there a group of friends accompanied him.

Upon arriving at Misiones, Santiago and Enzo Robles, a young tattoo artist like himself, were the only ones that remained. The others had trailed off in different directions.

Santiago travelled with a rucksack filled with acrylic paints with which he would paint walls he encountered on the way: huge paintings of different colours displaying libertarian phrases. 

In Misiones, they met Chuncho, an old Guaraní man who put them up in his house in the mountains. During these days, Enzo contracted a urinary infection.

Suddenly, he gave up being Lechuga to become the Brujo (wizard). He went from being a village punk to a nomad with libertarian ideas.

The elderly man went up to the mountains with a machete and came back with a fist of leaves and branches that he then stuffed into a cut up bottle. He filled it with water and added a lightbulb.

"Drink it all up" He said.

Half an hour later, Enzo was completely cured.

Santiago was fascinated: he took note of the names of the herbs and what each one was useful for. From there, his interest in ancestral medicine and plant power grew.

Suddenly, he gave up being Lechuga to become the Brujo (wizard). He went from being a village punk to a nomad with libertarian ideas.

Before leaving Chuncho’s home, Santiago offered to paint a mural as a thank you. At the request of the elderly man, he drew the figure of Jesus on one of the walls in his home, and he gave him a smile and a bottle of wine in his hand. “A Jesus somewhere between drunk and happy, and libertarian” remembers Enzo.

One afternoon, the two friends went to sail along the Paraná in boats made of wood with a few young Guaranís that Chuncho had introduced them to.

Whilst they took a rest by the coast, Santiago went towards the river bank to clean the mud off his boots and he fell into the water, into a deep part where his feet didn’t touch the floor.

From far away, his friends saw him waving his arms, it seemed like he was fooling around. Enzo remembered that his friend didn’t know how to swim. 

The Guaranís rescued him. Lechuga vomited liquid and was lying down on the grass in pain. From this moment onwards, his relationship with the water was one of fear and respect.

I imagine him escaping from the troops, the exact kind trained to kill, and suddenly he finds himself face to face with water.

The friends that met him on his travels recall that he would barely go near the sea or any river. Sometimes, when they would go out to sail along the lagoon in their village with their childhood friends, he would take off his boots. He was scared he would drown if the boat flipped over.

Seven years later, Enzo thinks about the last minutes of his friend’s life in the Mapuche community: “I imagine him escaping from the troops, the exact kind trained to kill, and suddenly he finds himself face to face with water, that had once before given him a taste of death.”

Many of Santiago’s tattoos had been done by Enzo. And when his family confirmed that the body found in the river Chubut was his, he tattooed the bearded face of his travel companion on the arm of his brother Sergio.

In between his trips, Santiago returned to his family home in 25 de Mayo. When he returned from Misiones, the Maldonados did a barbeque to celebrate Stella’s 59th birthday: it was the last time they shared a meal together as a family. That day, Sergio and his wife Andrea gave her a kettle.

“It’s beautiful” she said.

Santiago appeared with another gift for his mother: a small, second-hand Hindu cookery book. Even though Stella had never been interested in cooking – her menu usually consisted of pizza, cold meat and sausages – she completely forgot about the kettle and showed off the book that her youngest son had brought her, her favourite son.


Santiago Maldonado. Source: Cosecha Roja. All rights reserved.

The gift remained a mere anecdote as Stella never cooked a Hindu dish. That afternoon, after lunch, Santiago gave Sergio a tattoo under the watchful eyes of Germán.

The meeting between the brothers was exemplified in one photo: Santiago, without a shirt and with latex gloves, finishing off a tattoo on Sergio’s right arm. Standing next to them, Germán watches as his younger brother gets to work. It’s the last photo of the three of them together.

At that moment, Santiago was already thinking about dropping out of university. The idea had been going around in his head and he was conversing about it with his friends in La Plata: he would say he was no longer enthusiastic because he liked the workshop. After a few months, he quit his studies.

“I don’t want anything from the state” he said to a friend from 25 de Mayo.  

Sergio was worried, he had always been a type of father figure for Santiago. The two brothers were very different: the oldest saw himself as a structured individual. With his partner Andrea, he planned everything from his small production business specialising in tea and Patagonian spices to his holidays.

They often argued due to their different lifestyles. Santiago treated them as though they were bourgeoisie and when he dropped out of university he explained to them that he had already learned everything he needed. The rest, he said, he would learn outside. 

When he left university, he became distanced from many of his friends from the guesthouse. “The last time I ran into him in La Plata was in May or June of 2012, at an ayahuasca meet up.

The whole tribe from La Plata was there, among them were Lechu and Facu” remembers Fran. At that meeting they discussed what the ceremony would be like. Lechu wasn’t able to participate: a few days earlier he had begun his journey by bike.


Nobody remembers the exact moment in which Santiago decided he was no longer Lechuga but instead the Brujo. The first nickname was given to him, the second was chosen by himself.

It was much more than a simple name change: it went alongside a transformation which saw him turn from an adolescent punk from 25 de Mayo to a libertarian nomad opposed to the capitalist system, religion, who believed in economic autonomy and natural medicine.



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