March for Santiago Maldonado on 1 September 2017 in Santa Fe, Argentina. TitiNicola/Wikipedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
This article was published prior to the discovery of Santiago Maldonado’s body in the Chubut river. The body was found on 17 October 2017 during a court-ordered sweep of the area; three days later, after identification procedures had been carried out, his family confirmed that the body was Santiago Maldonado’s. The results of the autopsy have yet to be released.
Santiago Maldonado was last seen on 1 August 2017, trying to flee from Argentina’s Gendarmerie (border guards) in the territory of the “Pu Lof Cushamen” Mapuche community. The 28-year-old was there supporting the indigenous group’s demands that their ancestral lands be returned to them – including Patagonian tracts currently owned by Benetton.
This community, and its land claims, have been demonised by the Argentine government. Since late 2016, the national Security Ministry has sought to present Mapuche groups as “terrorists” and enemies of the state to try to justify their harassment, persecution and repression. This approach fits into the US-led agenda regarding “new threats” to security and gives Argentine security forces with a long violent history a green light to use illegal and disproportionate force.
Repression of Mapuche protest in Chubut province
In Argentina today it is government policy to treat land conflicts and social protests as if they were security matters, engendering violent operations such as the one that took place on 1 August in Chubut province. That day, the Gendarmerie went to clear a highway roadblock set up by members and supporters of the Pu Lof Cushamen community. But things did not end there. The security force illegally entered their territory to violently pursue protesters, throwing rocks at them, shooting rubber bullets and burning families’ possessions.
It was in this context that Santiago Maldonado disappeared.
"Dónde está Santiago Maldonado?"
The question “¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado?” (“Where is Santiago Maldonado?”) has galvanised local celebrities, swept social media and been echoed by tens of thousands of people in protests in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America and Europe. Last Sunday, which marked two months since his disappearance, Argentines took to the streets again to demand answers.
On 7 August, just six days after Santiago Maldonado disappeared, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances called on the Argentine state to take urgent measures to locate him. Also, in light of the repeated episodes of repression suffered by members of the Pu Lof Cushamen community, the Committee urged the state to ensure they would not be “subject to acts of violence and harassment.” These demands were not fulfilled. Later, on 22 August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted a precautionary measure for the protection of Santiago’s rights.
They also tried to further stigmatise the Mapuche community and discredit Santiago’s relatives
From day one, Santiago’s family and human rights groups urged authorities to search for him and investigate whether the Gendarmerie had anything to do with his disappearance. The judiciary dragged its feet on taking crucial, time-sensitive measures, and weeks went by before significant search efforts began. Meanwhile, Argentine government officials publicly ruled out participation by the Gendarmerie and floated flimsy alternative hypotheses about what might have happened. They also tried to further stigmatise the Mapuche community and discredit Santiago’s relatives and human rights organisations, such as CELS, which is party to the judicial investigations. Illegal spying on another group active in this case, the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos (APDH), has also been denounced.
After its alternative hypotheses collapsed under their own weight, the Security Ministry belatedly and only partially began turning over relevant information from its internal investigation, concluded weeks before. It became clear that the Gendarmerie’s operation was violent and riddled with irregularities – just as community members had denounced from the start.
Two months have passed, and the Argentine state hasn’t yet found Santiago Maldonado. The investigation has made slow, tortuous progress due to institutional resistance to probing the Gendarmerie. Santiago is still missing, and his family – and Argentine society as a whole – need to know what happened.
*This article was published prior to the discovery of Santiago Maldonado’s body in the Chubut river. The body was found on 17 October during a court-ordered sweep of the area; three days later, after identification procedures had been carried out, his family confirmed that the body was Santiago Maldonado’s. The results of the autopsy have yet to be released.