Over 40 days have passed since the forced disappearance of Argentinian activist Santiago Maldonado. President Mauricio Macri’s government appears to be more preoccupied with protecting the impunity of the Argentine Military Police, also known as the gendarmerie, than with listening to the demands for Maldonado’s release — or at least for information on his whereabouts and condition — being made by a mobilized populace.
Maldonado was detained and disappeared on August 1 while participating in a protest in Chubut calling for the release of Mapuche leader of the Ancestral Mapuche Resistance (RAM), Facundo Jones Huala. Jones had been detained upon extradition requests by Chile. Both Argentina and Chile have labeled Jones a terrorist, on account of his resistance activities against capitalist exploitation of ancestral Mapuche territory.
The group of activists together with Maldonado, who blocked the road during the protest, were accosted by the Argentine Gendarmerie, who fired rubber bullets at the activists upon orders given by the Security Minister, Patricia Bullrich.
According to witnesses, Maldonado was beaten by the military police and forced into a van. His whereabouts and fate remain unknown. Matias Santana, who testified before Judge Guido Otranto on September 5, stated that he watched through binoculars as Maldonado was beaten and taken away by the military police to an undisclosed location.
Mobilization met with disinformation
In Argentina and elsewhere in South America, human rights organizations have mobilized through protests and demonstrations, demanding “Where is Santiago Maldonado?” Social media is also replete with Maldonado’s image and persistent questions directed at Macri and Bullrich — the highest levels of Argentinian authority accused of withholding important information.
At the request of Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances called upon Macri’s government to take urgent action to locate Maldonado, and specifically insisted that “Argentina’s National Gendarmerie abstain from participating in the search and the investigation of the disappearance.”
Since the first days of Maldonado’s disappearance, Minister Bullrich has attempted to downplay the military police’s actions. In a statement, Florencio Randazzo, a candidate for the post of senator in the province of Buenos Aires, declared: “Argentines demand that the Macri government shed light upon the truth of this disappearance — most especially because it is a forced disappearance committed by federal forces.” Randazzo also accused Bullrich of being “more preoccupied with protecting the military police than with the search for Maldonado.”
Bullrich attempted to shift rhetoric by criminalizing Mapuche resistance: “In Argentina, we do not permit such a group’s use of violence as a means of action, nor its aim to impose an autonomous Mapuche republic in the middle of Argentina.”
Speaking to MintPress News, Ernesto Moreau, President of Argentina’s Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), discussed the integral role of the Mapuche with regard to their ancestral claims for territory:
The Mapuche are the custodians of the environment and the rational use of natural resources. They are using peaceful methods to reclaim the territory that was stolen from them, as well as the system of community life which is directly linked to the land.”
Argentina’s Pagina12 has described the government’s stance as “a strategy of controlled information, or planned disinformation,” through the use of tactics such as disseminating unsupported hypotheses rather than conducting investigations. Such hypotheses have ranged from statements that Maldonado is residing with the indigenous communities to a vague admission that an officer might have committed “some excesses.”
The crisis in context: protecting corporate interests and echoes of a dark time
Maldonado’s disappearance, although it constitutes the first under Macri’s right-wing government, is not an isolated act of political violence. It is also tied to several layers of politics, profit and exploitation.
At a minimum, the case has exposed state repression of Mapuche resistance and activism. Digging a bit deeper, linkage of Maldonado’s disappearance to capitalist exploitation — most specifically the Italian clothing company, Benetton, which owns the largest share of the territory allocated to a foreign company in Latin America — is found. Benetton has exploited the land, and gone beyond straightforward exploitation: in 1997 it invested $800,000 in the Leleque Museum, which propagates a narrative regarding the history of the land, rebranding the Mapuche as “invaders who came from Chile.”
Finally, the contempt exhibited by the Macri government with regard to Maldonado’s disappearance is also a reflection of the Videla dictatorship and the refusal to acknowledge Argentina’s 30,000 disappeared under that regime’s U.S.-backed Plan Condor — the extermination program that sought to rid Latin America of socialism and communism.
Following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and the electoral victory of Salvador Allende in Chile, U.S. collaboration with dictatorships in South America became part of its foreign policy. Plan Condor — which was backed by the U.S. and orchestrated mainly by Chile under Augusto Pinochet and Argentina under Jorge Rafael Videla — resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of socialists and communists. In Argentina alone, the disappeared death toll reached 30,000.
Apart from providing financial and political support, declassified documents also reveal that the U.S. was knowledgeable about the “death flights” — an operation through which the military disposed of the disappeared by packaging the bodies and throwing them into the ocean from helicopters. The U.S. was also complicit in the death flights, having provided Argentina with helicopters for the purpose of disappearing political opponents.
Refining oppression, disappearing the Constitution
APDH President Moreau, naturally familiar with these dark historical passages, described Maldonado’s disappearance within the context of Argentina’s history of repression and political and capitalist violence. He emphasized the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to the government’s attitude regarding the three main actors in this case — Santiago Maldonado, the Mapuche, and Benetton:
Santiago Maldonado is a symbol of genuine solidarity. Benetton, on the other hand, reigns as an expression of the surrender of sovereignty and a system of life which is based upon the accumulation of wealth through irrational use of land. The Argentinian government is not preoccupied with these concerns — even after the end of the dictatorship, the indigenous people who are seeking to reclaim their rights have been persecuted and their culture attacked, at times through refined methods.”
Moreau also discussed the state’s version of Maldonado’s disappearance, which he says is a replica of the tactics used during the civil-military dictatorship to disappear detainees.
The notice for police intervention, stated Moreau, was given “without permission of the judge and before the commission of any crime. The second-in-command after Bullrich in the Security Ministry, Pablo Nocetti, who gave the order, was present during the intervention which culminated in the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado.”
Moreau further noted that the ministry should be aware of the practices, orders, training and routine intervention undertaken by the military police, which are often irregular.
With regard to Mapuche resistance, Moreau insisted that the state’s duty to restore indigenous territories is incorporated in the Constitution, even though the very opposite is being done by the government:
The detention of Mapuche spiritual leader Facundo Jones Huala goes against this [constitutional] duty. Anti-Mapuche policy is targeting all indigenous people who are claiming their constitutional and pre-constitutional rights.”
The burden of disappearance and Argentina’s historical memory
In late 2015, Mauricio Macri prompted outrage from Argentinians and human rights organizations alike when he called into question — to the point of denial — the number of disappeared during the Videla dictatorship. Moreau stated that Bullrich’s denial of a crime “has ideological similarities with the denial of crimes against humanity committed by the military dictatorship and during the government of Isabel Martinez.”
He explained: “Both negations are very serious: the first due to the minister’s responsibility for a crime committed under her administration; the second because denying the 30,000 disappeared is a huge, symbolic burden for Argentina, which, together with Guatemala, has suffered most from this crime.”
Moreau underscores that Argentinians have insisted upon the slogan “neither oblivion, nor forgiveness.” That slogan, he said:
. . . is an imperative part of international law, treaties and conventions, among them the International Convention against Forced Disappearances and the obligation of reparations. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH) has also established that states have a binding obligation to disclose the truth and the obligation is also based upon the guarantee of non-repetition of such crimes.”
Maldonado’s disappearance has ignited a vast mobilization, recalling the scope of mobilization arising in response to the disappeared during the military dictatorship. “The case of Santiago Maldonado and other indigenous people,” Moreau said, “resulted in adamant responses from social and human rights organizations in Latin America.”
Moreau explains how, in the immediate aftermath of knowledge regarding Maldonado’s forced disappearance, the APDH immediately began taking action and on August 2 — the following day — filed a criminal complaint on the grounds of forced disappearance.
At the regional level, the CIDH has been clear and persistent. At an international level, jurists working with the APDH have filed presentations to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Very few countries deny the severity of forced disappearances — on the contrary, they have been attentive to our complaints about the negation of Maldonado’s disappearance, the persecution of the Mapuche people, and the imprisonment of Facundo Jones.”
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Top photo | Demonstrators hold photos of missing activist Santiago Maldonado, during a protest at Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. (AP/Natacha Pisarenko)