The question holding Argentina in suspense: Where is Santiago Maldonado?

The question holding Argentina in suspense: Where is Santiago Maldonado?

Argentina turns out in force for Santiago Maldonado. Photo taken in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, on 1 September. Although this would not be the first case of enforced disappearance in Argentina since the return to democracy, Maldonado’s disappearance underlines the persistent violence against activists in the country and the region.

(Lucía He)

Last Friday, 1 September, tens of thousands of people came out onto the streets of Buenos Aires. Human rights organisations, political groups and thousands of citizens congregated in the Plaza de Maya with a simple but emphatic question: Where is Santiago Maldonado?

The young 28-year-old craftsman was last seen exactly one month earlier, when officers of the National Gendarmerie of Argentina removed a group of activists and members of the Mapuche community from the area they were occupying on land owned by Benetton, the Italian clothing company.

Since then the whereabouts of Santiago has been a question that has held thousands of Argentinians in suspense, has exacerbated political divisions in the country, and has revived a painful memory that still haunts Argentinians: the thousands of forced disappearances that occurred during the military dictatorship.

Maldonado had travelled to the south of the country to protest side by side with members of the Mapuche Pu Lof en Resistencia, a group of families that has been demanding the return of its ancestral lands for a number of years.

Much of the land is now the property of the Benetton group, the largest private landowner in Argentina. The occupation has lasted nearly two years and has seen violent evictions and the imprisonment of the leader of the Pu Lof community, Facundo Jones Huala.

On the morning of 1 August, armed police officers, under the authority of the National Security Ministry, advanced on a road block on Route 40 in Chubut, organised by members of the Mapuche community.

According to witnesses and family members, Maldonado was taking part in the demonstration when he was arrested, beaten and then taken away in a gendarmerie van. Despite complaints about the enforced disappearance of Maldonado, the national government has repeatedly denied the involvement of the gendarmerie.

The National Security Minister, Patricia Bullrich, has stated publicly on several occasions that it is her “firm conviction that the gendarmerie did not take Maldonado away” and that there is not sufficient evidence to support this story (so far there is no public proof that shows with certainty that Maldonado was taking part in the protest).

Similarly, in the month since the activist disappeared, President Mauricio Macri has only spoken about it once: “We are working painstakingly to try to find out what has happened,” he stated.

The government’s position has triggered criticism from various sectors of society, who believe the government is more interested in defending the gendarmerie and its officers than in finding the whereabouts of Maldonado.

“Regrettably the national authorities are not up to the task and throughout the month all it has done is to hypothesise, with little effort to work on the principal hypothesis concerning the responsibility of the gendarmerie, while its treatment of Santiago Maldonado’s family has been very concerning,” says Gabriel Kletzel, director of the International Team at the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a human rights organisation that has been following the case. “Basically they have done exactly the opposite of what one would expect of the authorities if they really wanted to find a missing person alive.”

A flawed investigation

Many human rights organisations have called on the government to carry out an impartial investigation to determine Maldonado’s whereabouts. According to the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances, his disappearance requires “a comprehensive and exhaustive strategy to search for and find” Maldonado.

Family members and organisations have complained however that the current investigation into Maldonado’s enforced disappearance has been full of irregularities and inexplicable delays.

“There are currently two legal investigations underway. There is a habeas corpus one and there is also an enforced disappearance investigation” explains Kletzel.

“[However], there is a whole range of factors related partly to how the justice system operates and partly to the lack of full cooperation by the national authorities...which have created a major delay in carrying out fundamental measures”.

For Andrew Anderson, executive director of Front Line Defenders, an organisation that protects human rights defenders in peril throughout the world, the Argentinian government’s lack of cooperation is disturbing.

“If somebody is disappeared, particularly if he’s disappeared in the context of a protest, there’s clearly a responsibility for the government and the various bodies of the state to be very active in seeking to bring that person back. It seems a little bit that they’re more concerned about denying responsibility than about actually doing something to make sure that he is found and restored to his family.”

A still open wound

Despite the slow progress in the investigation of this case, the mere possibility of complicity in Maldonado’s disappearance by the state’s armed forces has revived dark memories of Argentina’s military dictatorship, during which some 30,000 Argentinians were forcibly disappeared, according to human rights organisations.

This number is now disputed by the government, which estimates that there were 9,000 disappearances.

“We all suffered a lot and we have been campaigning for 40 years for the reinstatement of the rule of law, and the right for people to express their views,” said Nora Cortiñas, leader of the of the group Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) in a recent radio interview:

“There are many witnesses who say Santiago was taken away by the gendarmerie, but they [the authorities] wanted from the outset to remove all traces of that. This is a crime against humanity.”

The government rejects this version of events.

“Enforced disappearance is a deliberate act. The idea that our government would do this is out of order: neither the government nor the security forces are those of [the dictatorship of] 1976,” said Bullrich.

Despite the fact that this would not be the first enforced disappearance to occur in Argentina since the return to democracy – according to the Coordinator against Police and Institutional Repression (CORREPI), there have been more than 200 enforced disappearances at the hands of the state or organisations dependent on it since 1983 – Maldonado’s disappearance underlines the persistent violence against activists in the country and the region.

“The situation in Argentina has been much better in terms of respect for human rights defenders. But it continues to be a difficult context especially for those advocating for indigenous peoples’ rights.

’’[The disappearance of Santiago] is a very serious step backwards in terms of the protection of human rights and human rights defenders in Argentina”.

According to Oxfam, the number of assassinations, attacks and acts of repression against human rights activists has reached historic levels in Latin America.

In 2015 alone, 122 human rights activists were assassinated in the region – which amounts to 65 per cent of assassinations of this kind in the world.

Sergio Maldonado, Santiago’s brother, is concerned above all that his brother should not become another number to add to this list. “For how long do we have to put up with this situation? For how long do we have to ask ourselves where Santiago is?”

This article has been translated from Spanish.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story (Published on 8 September 2017) wrongly identified the Pu Lof Resistencia community as the Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche (RAM). The link between these two groups is not clear. We have deleted all reference to the RAM in this article.