By Alexia Rauen
The New York Times headline on October 19 read: “Body Found in Argentine River Shakes Up Election.” Al Jazeera stated on October 22: “Santiago Maldonado’s death overshadows elections.” “A missing-person case looms over Argentina’s midterm elections,” was The Economist headline on September 7. These headlines contextualize the discovery of Santiago Maldonado’s body in terms of national politics and fail to capture the indigenous struggle at the root of his disappearance. Maldonado was present at a mapuche indigenous protest on August 1 in the Patagonian region of Argentina when he disappeared. Cristina Kirchner, the former president of Argentina who has not been shy about her discontent with Mauricio Macri’s government, has used Maldonado’s disappearance as further criticism. Ultimately, the coalition of parties of incumbent Macri proved successful in the elections despite the discovery of Maldonado’s body, securing a significant political victory by dominating “the top five population centers of Buenos Aires City, and Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Santa Fe and Mendoza provinces.” While the international community and Argentine politicians have gravitated to Maldonado’s death as a political instrument in these elections, the death has struck a different chord among the Argentine population. Widespread protests demanding his reappearance in Argentine cities occurred, and with his death an investigation must now be held to determine the cause of death and possible involvement of law enforcement.
Amnesty International Argentina’s director, Mariela Belski, released a statement on October 20 calling for a “full independent investigation…to establish who was responsible for Maldonado’s disappearance and death, who ordered it and who knew about it and failed to act.” On August 22, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, agreed that Maldonado’s disappearance was under concerning circumstances and ordered that the government of Argentina work to determine his location and safety. Maldonado’s body was found in the Chubut River that other protesters crossed in their attempts to find safety when the protest turned violent. Reports claim that when the Argentine law enforcement arrived at the mapuche protest, they used lead and rubber bullets against the protestors, causing the civilians to flee. According to these witnesses, Maldonado did not cross the river with the other protesters, and allegations were made that he was taken by the Gendarmerie police force.
The conflict within this region stems from disputes over land: the mapuche hold longstanding claims as the land’s original inhabitants while the introduction of private property, specifically the purchase of Patagonian lands in 1991 by Italian company Benetton, continues to reach violent climaxes when law enforcement becomes involved. El País, a Spanish newspaper based in Madrid, highlighted the statements of Amnesty International in their coverage of the Chubut mapuche conflict. This Amnesty International report indicates that the mapuche community have demanded the rights to this land since March of 2015, but there has not yet been resolution to these claims. Moreover, President Macri asserts that his government has had no role in Maldonado’s disappearance. The Gendarmerie accused of taking Maldonado also does not admit any involvement.
No discussion of a person’s disappearance in Argentina can be sufficient without recalling the difficult history of the country. During the Argentine dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, 20,000 to 30,000 (the numbers are still disputed) individuals disappeared. The memory of this time weighs heavily on the minds of the Argentine people. Furthermore, recent unrest in Chile outside of the Argentine Ambassador’s home echoes the anger in Argentina over Maldonado’s loss – and, of course, Chile is another nation with both a prominent mapuche population and history of forced disappearances. Santiago Maldonado’s death should not be forgotten, nor should its context in the needs and demands of a marginalized community, the mapuche. Argentina must halt the practice of selling indigenous lands to private interests. The government needs to also work towards a long-term plan, in cooperation with mapuche representatives, to buy back portions of land from private corporations to be returned to mapuche communities.