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 December 15, 2017

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.
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