The question mobilising Argentina: ‘Where is Santiago Maldonado?’

A protest demanding the reappearance with life of indigenous rights activist Santiago Maldonaldo.

September 1 marks one month since the last time he was seen. Santiago Maldonado, a 28-year-old artisan, was protesting on August 1 in solidarity with the struggle of the Mapuche people from the Lof Cushamen community in Chubut province, in Argentina’s Patagonia region.

The Border Force, a dual military-police force that patrols the country’s borders, fired upon the protesters to clear the Route 40 highway as part of a large-scale repressive operation. Various witnesses say that when the repression started, Maldonado ran off towards the river, following members of the Mapuche community, but did not manage to cross it.

Various people present saw the Border Patrol enter the area and later drag a person into a van. Since then, no one has seen Maldonado. 

“The Border Patrol took Santiago”, said Stella Maris Peloso, Santiago’s mother. “They have to tell us where he is, because we cannot take this anymore”

Where is he? What did they do to him? These are the same questions that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo asked during Argentina’s genocidal military dictatorship (1976-83). The military junta and its compliant media cynically responded: “They must be vacationing in Europe”.

The reality was that 30,000 people were disappeared, kidnapped and killed by the military.

Today, some of the government-aligned media outlets disseminate all types of unlikely “hypotheses” – he is “hiding” or they saw him “hitchhiking” in another province – to deflect attention from the actions of the Border Force.

One month after his disappearance, the prosecutor in charge of Maldonado’s case asked that it be classified as a “forced disappearance”, which directly implicates the state. Just like 40 years ago.

Previously classified as a “missing persons” case, the federal judge from the city of Esquel agreed to the request.

Mapuche struggle

The government of President Mauricio Macri and his security minister, Patricia Bullrich, have tried to circumvent the investigation. For a month, the state has obstructed the search for evidence, while its only response has been to criminalise the Mapuche people. The case has grown into a deep political crisis for the government.

The Mapuche community, relegated to some southern parts of Argentina and Chile, demands the right to their ancestral land against the presence of multinationals such as Benetton and Lewis that have been become huge landowners.

The Benetton family owns 900,000 hectares of land in the south of Argentina, which has been handed over to them with complete impunity since 1983 by successive “democratic” governments.

Today, the Mapuche people are persecuted and brutally repressed for denouncing this situation and demanding their right to land that was taken from them during centuries of looting.

Chile has designated the Mapuche people as “terrorists” and has requested that Argentina extradite Facundo Jones Huala, a young Mapuche lonko (community leader) illegally jailed in the country. The protest Maldonado was participating in when he disappeared was demanding Huala’s freedom.

Myriam Bregman and Nicolas del Cano, leaders of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PTS) within the Left Front (FIT) and former national parliamentarians, visited the Mapuche community in Chubut together with human rights organisations to strengthen the call for the reappearance with life of Maldonado.

Speaking to the media, Bregman was categorical in terms of the government’s responsibility: Security minister Patricia Bullrich “is trying to cover up her own actions and the responsibility of her head of cabinet” Pablo Noceti, who was present when the repressive operation that culminated in Maldonado’s disappearance, was carried out.

The leftist leader said the Border Patrol “hid information” with the objective of delaying and covering up the investigation.

Bregman recalled that September 18 would mark the eleventh anniversary of another disappearance “in democracy”, that of Jorge Julio Lopez, which occurred under the Nestor Kirchner government.

Lopez disappeared just hours before he was due to give evidence against a former police officer for his role in crimes committed under the military junta, and has not been seen since.

This case became a genuine “monument to impunity”, said Bregman. “What happened to Julio Lopez cannot be allowed to happen to Santiago, we want his reappearance with life now.”

Growing campaign

Social media in Argentina has been inundated with messages asking the same question: Where is Santiago?

Sharing their status on Facebook and Twitter, with memes or handmade signs, thousands have asked the same question, every day looking for ways to get their message heard even further away.

“I’m Julia. I’m in Rosario and anyone can find me. But no one seems to know where Santiago Maldonado is. Bullrich has to say where he is.”

“Facebook asks me what am I thinking and I say where is Santiago Maldonado?”

“I’m Alejandro, I just saw Messi’s amazing goal and I ask myself where is Santiago Maldonado.”

“Enjoying Saturday with my family and we are asking: where is Santiago?”

Banners with the same question were seen at football stadiums and various universities.

Maldonado’s family has set up a website to spread information and collect data. Moreover, thousands of social media users have demonstrated their solidarity. In the section “Fake news”, they counter the news circulated by the mainstream media.

Education workers from all around Argentina will hold actions in schools on September 1 calling for the reappearance with life of Maldonado.

In many schools, they will read out a letter written by teachers, as children arrive to school with their parents: “For a month now, in every corner of the country, each one of us has asked: Where is Santiago Maldonado?

“The government is responsible for the repression unleashed in the south against the Mapuches who struggle for the right to land and that led to the disappearance of Santiago; just as occurred with the Pepsico workers who were evicted from their factory; just as occurred with the teachers during the wage struggle. No more repression in Argentina!

“We propose that from Quiaca [in the north] to Ushuaia [in the south] across all schools in the country we hug our families, hang banners demanding his reappearance and make sure that students in every public school learn how to write and draw the name and face of Santiago.

“Let the world know that we miss Santiago and we will not stop until we find him.”

Despite the summer holidays in Europe, the call of the reappearance with life of Santiago Maldonado has also been heard in Madrid, Barcelona, London, Berlin and other cities.

Only the mobilisation of tens of thousands, together with the persistence of the family and human rights organisations in Argentina, has ensured that the call for the reappearance with life of Santiago Maldonado has grown day after day.

International solidarity must also grow and redouble more than ever.

[Translated and slightly abridged from La Izquierda Diario by Federico Fuentes.]

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