Two months ago, few people in Argentina had heard of 28-year-old artist and activist Santiago Maldonado. Today, his face is one of the most recognised in the country.
I first encountered Santiago Maldonado’s story on Friday 1 September, exactly one month after the incident that brought his case to national and international attention. On my way to the shop to buy some wine on a quiet evening in Mendoza, I suddenly found myself caught in the wave of a massive street demonstration.
Hordes of people marched past wielding pictures of a bearded man’s face. Scattered in between them, others held home-made banners demanding to know dónde está Santiago Maldonado?
After this, I started to notice the same slogan everywhere. Posters slapped on lampposts and shop windows. Graffiti scrawled on statues and park benches. News bulletins on the hostel TV. The next day I travelled to Buenos Aires, and it was relentless. I couldn’t turn a corner without being confronted by questions about Santiago Maldonado’s whereabouts. I needed to know more.
What I found initially was this. At the beginning of August, Santiago Maldonado went missing under highly suspicious circumstances during an indigenous rights protest in Patagonia. He was expressing his solidarity with the Mapuche people, who claim ownership of their ancestral territories in the region, which protestors say was usurped by the country’s largest landowner, Benetton.
The precise details of his disappearance are not clear, and there are many different theories. But in a country with a murky history of political disappearances, the case has aroused anger and demands for answers.
Just as I had discovered with Chile’s uprising against military dictatorship, the student movement in Argentina has been at the forefront of the campaign for Santiago Maldonado’s release. I contacted some of the campaign’s leaders to find out more. Valeria, an activist in Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas, the Socialist Workers Party, was happy to answer my questions.
“All we know is that Santiago was taken by the Gendarmería, the security force of Argentina, after being beaten,” she tells me. “He is the only one who was captured, according to witnesses, after the illegal operation ordered by the Ministry of National Security. The operation was illegal because it had no order from the judge to enter the Mapuche territory. The Gendarmería has him, that’s for sure.”
Many other groups have become involved in the public response. “Teachers’ unions have recommended national conferences for Santiago’s case to be debated in classrooms. Several faculties have made strikes to demand him alive,” Valeria adds. “Other groups involved are human rights organisations, leftist political parties, progressive sectors, artist, media personalities, and labour unions, not necessarily left-wing.”
Social media networks, in particular Twitter, have been instrumental in mobilising the public and organising activities. Images, videos and phrases have been spread with the hashtag #dondeestasantiagomaldonado. As Valeria says, “the face of Santiago Maldonado is everywhere”.
Art has also been an important part of the campaign. “There are many murals for Santiago Maldonado throughout the country,” explains Valeria. I saw many such murals on the streets of Buenos Aires. “Artists have made paintings, photos, videoclips, songs and different performances for Santiago.”
In Bariloche, a beautiful town in the northern reaches of Patagonia, I came across a street music festival in the main square outside the Civic Centre in aid of the campaign. From Bariloche I travelled to El Bolsón, the small mountain town where Santiago Maldonado was living at the time of his disappearance, and found more artworks and posters for cultural events.
El Bolsón seemed a tranquil and artistic place. I asked a local small business owner for his perspective on the case.
“There are lots of theories about what happened,” he says. “There were text messages between the police uncovered that suggest Santiago was taken away in a vehicle.
“The disappearance has also been politicised a lot, with elections coming up, and one theory claims that he made himself disappear for some political gain. I don’t believe that, though.
“What I think is that they probably killed him.”
This echoes the deepest fears that have been expressed by Santiago Maldonado’s family. His brother has voiced his concerns that authorities might plant the body on indigenous land and “invent any type of story”.
Considering Argentina’s not-too-distant history, it is easy to see why the case has struck a nerve. It is estimated that 30,000 people went missing under the most brutal of Argentina’s military dictatorships, the so-called “Dirty War” between 1976 and 1983. As the regime rallied against suspected subversives and dissidents, many people, both government opponents and innocents, disappeared in the night and were tortured or murdered. The victims are known as los desaparecidos.
Is the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado a callback to the shady past of Argentina’s security forces? While the government denies any responsibility and insists that times have changed since the 1980s, the evidence doesn’t look good.
And what next for the campaign? On Sunday 1 October there will be a march in Buenos Aires, marking two months since Santiago’s disappearance.
“All this movement is done to support the initiatives that the family of Santiago Maldonado decides,” says Valeria. “There will be more initiatives, such as talks and marches throughout the country, to continue spreading the case.”
You can find out more about the campaign aparicion con vida de Santiago Maldonado, including a chronology of events, at www.santiagomaldonado.com.