How the Disappearance of an Indigenous Activist Sparked an Uprising in Argentina

A conflict between indigenous communities and capitalist plunderers has long been simmering. The case of Santiago Maldonado brought tensions to a boiling point.

Juan Cruz Ferre

People have taken to the streets across Argentina to protest the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado. (Enfoque Rojo)

For the past three months, an unset­tling ques­tion has riled Argenti­na: Where is San­ti­a­go Mal­don­a­do, the indige­nous rights activist dis­ap­peared under murky cir­cum­stances after a protest? The trag­ic answer took 78 days to establish.

This backdrop of state repression and hostile political climate foreshadowed Maldonado’s disappearance by the end of summer.

San­ti­a­go Mal­don­a­do, 28, was last seen on August 1 at the Pu-Lof indige­nous com­mu­ni­ty in Chubut, Patag­o­nia. An arti­san and orga­niz­er from El Bol­són, he trav­eled to sup­port the Mapuche’s strug­gle. Dwellers of the Patag­o­nia region, which abuts Argenti­na and Chile, the Mapuche peo­ple have been demand­ing the resti­tu­tion of their ances­tral land and pro­tec­tion from the encroach­ment of multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions, such as the cloth­ing man­u­fac­tur­er Benetton.

Since the 1990s, land grabs have plagued Argenti­na, where soil is sold at ridicu­lous­ly low prices. Ital­ian bil­lion­aire Luciano Benet­ton tops the list of for­eign land own­ers in Argenti­na, with more than 2.2 mil­lion acres bought in the 1990s at a remark­ably low cost.

But he is not alone. Ted Turn­er, Jacob Suchard (own­er of Nestlé) and George Soros, among oth­ers, have also heav­i­ly invest­ed in the large swaths of land in the South­ern Cone, the south­ern­most part of South Amer­i­ca. The arrival of for­eign cap­i­tal to the Patag­o­nia has brought pre­dictable con­se­quences: the plun­der of nat­ur­al resources by extrac­tive indus­tries, the dis­place­ment of indige­nous and first nation pop­u­la­tions, the enclo­sure of land and vio­lent state repression.

What hap­pened on August 1?

In the past 15 years, the con­flict over the land on which the Mapuche com­mu­ni­ty lives has esca­lat­ed on both sides of the Argen­tinean-Chilean bor­der. The gov­ern­ment of Chile first levied charges of ter­ror­ism against the Mapuch­es in 2002. Today, this con­flict has reached fever pitch. In a par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cern­ing turn of events, Mapuche leader Facun­do Jones Huala was jailed in Argenti­na in June of this year under charges that had already been dis­missed by the Argen­tine courts — on the grounds that they were based on a tes­ti­mo­ny obtained through tor­ture in Chile.

This back­drop of state repres­sion and hos­tile polit­i­cal cli­mate fore­shad­owed Maldonado’s dis­ap­pear­ance by the end of sum­mer. As ear­ly as August 1, Mal­don­a­do took part in a road­block at the Pu-Lof Mapuche ter­ri­to­ry, now owned by Benet­ton. Par­tic­i­pants iin this road­block demand­ed the free­dom of Jones Huala, the leader of Resisten­cia Ances­tral Mapuche (RAM), a nation­al­ist Mapuche orga­ni­za­tion. Faced with a bru­tal repres­sion by the Nation­al Gen­darmerie, those at the road­block were forced into the weeds and towards the riv­er. Mal­don­a­do was nev­er seen again.

What fol­lowed changed the polit­i­cal land­scape. Maldonado’s pic­ture inun­dat­ed social media, and a cam­paign began — one in which hun­dreds of thou­sands asked the seething ques­tion: Where is San­ti­a­go Maldonado?

Maldonado’s dis­ap­pear­ance sparked a wave of mass protests across the coun­try. Human rights activists, polit­i­cal par­ties, stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions and unor­ga­nized crowds filled the streets of Buenos Aires and else­where. The tra­di­tion­al Plaza de Mayo was filled sev­er­al times in the span of two months by pro­test­ers demand­ing that the gov­ern­ment bring him back alive.” As mobi­liza­tions mount­ed, a polit­i­cal cri­sis ensued, and the case caught the atten­tion of inter­na­tion­al media.

This swift pop­u­lar reac­tion stems from Argentina’s his­to­ry of state ter­ror. In 1976, in response to an embold­ened labor move­ment and a ris­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary Left, a mil­i­tary jun­ta took the reins of the gov­ern­ment and instat­ed a bloody dic­ta­tor­ship that took the lives of 30,000 activists, work­ers and stu­dents. The geno­ci­dal dic­ta­tor­ship in Argenti­na was one com­po­nent of a region­al oper­a­tion engi­neered by the CIA, with the aim of gut­ting the threat of com­mu­nism” in South Amer­i­ca. The vic­tims were kid­napped and phys­i­cal­ly elim­i­nat­ed, leav­ing almost no trace behind. They were disappeared.

The mem­o­ry of those dark days is an open wound in the psy­che of the Argen­tinean peo­ple, a wound that could only be over­come through the strug­gle for human rights. A month after San­ti­a­go Mal­don­a­do dis­ap­peared, hun­dreds of thou­sands marched onto the Plaza de Mayo, and protests were held in major cities around the world — includ­ing New York, Barcelona, Lon­don and Paris.

Labor Joins in

While the main labor fed­er­a­tion, Gen­er­al Con­fed­er­a­tion of Labor, was notice­ably absent from key actions, the sec­ond-largest labor orga­ni­za­tion, Argen­tine Work­ers’ Cen­tral Union, turned out. And some unions engaged in cre­ative cam­paigns. Laid-off work­ers of Pep­si­Co, who ear­li­er this year became a sym­bol of mil­i­tant labor orga­niz­ing, pulled off a music fes­ti­val in front of the Nation­al Con­gress, where they held an encampment.

Teach­ers across the coun­try launched their own cru­sade against the impuni­ty of state vio­lence: They brought the case of San­ti­a­go Mal­don­a­do to the class­room through a diver­si­ty of activ­i­ties, from poet­ry ses­sions to pub­lic class­es or to even call­ing out his name when tak­ing atten­dance. The teach­ers’ union, Edu­ca­tion Work­ers’ Con­fed­er­a­tion (CTERA), print­ed thou­sands of book­lets to use in class to dis­cuss Maldonado’s case. What tran­spired in the class­rooms assumed a larg­er polit­i­cal and nation­al element.

Gov­ern­ment complicity

The response from the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Mauri­cio Macri can be sum­ma­rized as incom­pe­tence and con­ceal­ment. While the inves­ti­ga­tion was mired in irreg­u­lar­i­ties, the gov­ern­ment engaged in a dirty cam­paign por­tray­ing the Mapuche as criminals.

Nation­al Deputy for the rul­ing Cam­biemos, Elisa Car­rió, claimed that the Mapuche RAM is a ter­ror­ist” orga­ni­za­tion oper­at­ing in the south­ern region of Argenti­na — and that San­ti­a­go Mal­don­a­do might have been involved with them before alleged­ly flee­ing to Chile. By imply­ing that Mal­don­a­do was tied to this mil­i­tant orga­ni­za­tion, then depict­ing them as ter­ror­ists, she was like­ly try­ing to white­wash or jus­ti­fy the government’s pos­si­ble respon­si­bil­i­ty for his death.

Ini­tial­ly, the gov­ern­ment tried to deflect respon­si­bil­i­ty for the repres­sion that pre­ced­ed the dis­ap­pear­ance of San­ti­a­go Mal­don­a­do. But it quick­ly came to light that the gen­darmerie was act­ing under the direc­tion of Pablo Nocetti, chief of staff of the Min­istry of Security.

When mobi­liza­tions acquired polit­i­cal clout and grew in size in Buenos Aires, the gov­ern­ment infil­trat­ed them with provo­ca­teurs to cause dis­rup­tion and dele­git­imize them. When teach­ers brought the debate to the class­rooms, Nation­al Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion Ale­jan­dro Finoc­chiaro chas­tised the teach­ers’ union CTERA, call­ing their edu­ca­tion­al book­let on Mal­don­a­do rogue and mis­chie­vous.”

Open End­ing

The body of San­ti­a­go Mal­don­a­do was found in the Chubut Riv­er, 300 meters upstream from where he was last seen. He was iden­ti­fied only two days before nation­al elec­tions were held. The results of the autop­sy showed no signs of trau­ma, only evi­dence of death by drown­ing. How­ev­er, there are curi­ous facts sur­round­ing the death, includ­ing that the area had been searched eight times before the body was found — in an area already cov­ered. Regard­less of the results of the autop­sy, human rights orga­ni­za­tions, pro­gres­sives and oppo­si­tion politi­cians believe the gen­darmerie is respon­si­ble for Santiago’s death, since the repres­sion is what pre­cip­i­tat­ed the outcome.

The case of San­ti­a­go Mal­don­a­do brought to the sur­face a sim­mer­ing con­flict between indige­nous rights and capital’s fren­zied zeal for nat­ur­al resources. As recent­ly as late Novem­ber, a per­son from the Mapuche com­mu­ni­ty was iden­ti­fied as killed by a gun­shot by the gen­darmerie in an obscure inci­dent in Lago Mas­car­di, Province of Río Negro.

The gov­ern­ment has only hith­er­to inter­vened to rein­force the pow­er­ful and quell the vul­ner­a­ble. How­ev­er, the reflex by the Argen­tinean peo­ple has demon­strat­ed a readi­ness to fight. They’d bet­ter be, as the strug­gle will be long.

Juan Cruz Ferre is a writer and edi­tor for Left Voice and La Izquier­da Diario. He is a polit­i­cal activist and med­ical doc­tor from Argenti­na and is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing a PhD in Soci­ol­o­gy at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue