The Santiago Maldonado case took a little break on Friday — in time for former President Cristina Kirchner’s historic interview with Infobae — but again picked up steam during the weekend and on Monday morning.
The main updates involve the decision of Federal Judge Guido Otranto to finally order law enforcement to search for traces of the the 28-year-old tattoo artist where he was last allegedly seen in the Mapuche indigenous community – which they refer to as “Pu Lof” – the admission of a Border Patrol officer to having entered the Pu Lof with a firearm in what is yet another direct contradiction with what the force had officially stated before, and some strange text messages between BP officers where one advises another to avoid any involvement in the “rock issue”
There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get to it.
Law Enforcement Enters the Pu Lof
49 days since Maldonado’s disappearance, judge Otranto ordered a search operation in the Mapuche community in the district of Cushamen, the place of the border patrol operation where Maldonado was last seen. Otranto had been heavily criticized for not making this decision before, as the territory might hold some key evidence.
In his defense, the judge assured that the search operation would cause more clashes between members of the Mapuche community and law enforcement, and argued he wouldn’t order it until he was sure this wouldn’t be the outcome if he did.
The warrant orders the roughly 300 officials from different law enforcement forces to stay for as long as necessary to “seek traces of Santiago Maldonado that could shed light on the circumstances of his disappearance.” With the aid of search dogs that will go through the 1250-hectare territory, they will be tasked with conducting an extensive search of the Chubut river and the rest of the land legally owned by Italian Businessman Luciano Benetton which the Mapuches have been occupying since 2015.
Law enforcement forces have been searching for Maldonado in the Chubut river since September 8. According to Clarín, they have already exhaustively covered 50 out of the river’s 800 kilometer extension, but haven’t found any trace of Maldonado yet.
Border Patrol Officers Again Provide Contradicting Statements
Ever since the investigation put the spotlight on Border Patrol’s actions on August 1, the officers questioned by the judge and the prosecutor insist they have done nothing but what representatives of the force said initially, as they had repeated over and over again that at no point they directly clashed with the protesters who staged the roadblock on Route 40 or reached the Chubut river bank.
Last week, an officer called Neri Robledo admitted to having hit a protester “with a rock” when he was swimming across the river to escape the raid, but said the strike “wasn’t deadly” because he saw that “once he reached the other side, the person stood up and insulted him.”
The next day, another official came forward and acknowledged that he shot his “anti-mutiny” shotgun — which shoots rubber bullets — in the direction of a protester. The official, whose identity remains unknown, said that he had strayed from the rest of his squad when he took the shot, but that he aimed at the ground and didn’t hit the protester.
The statements from officers who were called to testify before the court on Friday and throughout the weekend provided yet new revelations: Corporal Andrés Ahumada said that he was carrying a firearm when he entered the community. This directly contradicts the force’s initial version, which assured this hadn’t been the case.
Ahumada’s lawyer justified his actions by saying that he drove a truck during the operation and that “it’s an obligation for drivers to carry a firearm to provide safety to those who are unarmed.” “Drivers have to carry their gun and the force is investigating both the officers who carried guns and those who had to carry one but didn’t,” the lawyer added.
According to Ahumada’s recount, when the squad’s commander signaled the advance on the Mapuches, he ordered the pick-up trucks be used as shields to protect the officers from the rocks the protesters were throwing. It’s still unclear whether the drivers of the two other trucks — whose names haven’t been made public — also had their guns on them when they advanced, or left them at the entrance of the community with the officers who stayed there.
These constant contradictions — and the suspicions that come with them — have prompted the Security Ministry to have Border Patrol change how it conducts its internal affairs investigations. The modification, which according to La Nación will be made official in 15 days, would allow the Ministry to oversee the force’s internal investigations when they are of “institutional transcendence.” In those cases, should the government decide to, it would be able to assemble an “investigative committee” with special faculties.
The “Rock” Issue
The Court also received during the weekend a report containing the text messages and phone calls made by the BP officials who were part of the infamous operation. Out of all the analyzed evidence, an interaction between two officials stood out: a message in which one advised the other to make sure to not be involved in the “rock issue.”
Neri Robledo is the only one who admitted to have thrown a rock at a protester. Yet he’s not the only one who could be in hot water for this text. Images that surfaced in the last days show an official — it’s unknown whether it’s Robledo — holding a handful of rocks before entering the Mapuche community, so there could be more than one “rock issue.” We’ll see what happens.
Judge otranto Speaks Out as Maldonado’s Family Continues Attempting to Remove him from the Investigation
On Sunday, La Nación published an extensive exclusive interview with Otranto, in which he gave his considerations about the case, considering the evidence he has so far. He said that he doesn’t believe Maldonado was hurt, and argued he could have been captured or drowned in the river. “I don’t think the version about him being taken by Border Patrol is consistent. There’s also no evidence that can lead me to believe that he could have been badly hurt by a shot or a rock, or by one or more BP officials,” he said.
Maldonado’s family is not at all happy with the way Otranto has been leading the investigation. Last week, they formally requested he be recused — in non-legal terms, removed — from the investigation, but the judge refused to do it. As a result, Maldonado’s family will resort to an appeals court and request it appoint an “efficient” judge.
When La Nación consulted Otranto about what he would tell Maldonado’s parents, he said that they “can rest assured that I’m conducting a serious and objective investigation, and that they will get an answer from me regarding what happened to their son.” They don’t agree.
The IACHR Will Call the Government to a Meeting to Discuss the Case
President of the OAS’ Inter American Court of Human Rights Francisco Eguiguren anticipated today that the Court will call representatives of the Macri administration to a “work meeting” to analyze this case, as well as another high-profile one that also has political implications: the imprisonment of controversial social leader Milagro Sala.
In a radio interview, Eguiguren said that the meeting will aim at analyzing whether the government followed the guidelines outlined by the different injunctions they issued. “We’ll see where we are and we’ll draw conclusions from that,” he added.