It’s been one more day and still there aren’t any significant updates in the Santiago Maldonado case.
And while in this case no new is bad news and the investigation is still on square one, the conversation surrounding the missing 28-year-old artisan seems to be slowly changing its tone. First, the Macri administration has conceded that the theory suggesting that Border Patrol officers (gendarmerie) are behind his disappearance is now credible. Not only that, it seems to be the most probable one.
This shift in the government’s rhetoric likely comes as a result of the fact that the theory about him being dead or hidden after participating and being wounded in an attack that took place in July led by members of a rebellious Mapuche faction was rebuked on Monday after results of a DNA test revealed that the blood that was speculated to be his, actually wasn’t.
Although this theory was quite far fetched, the case now has two lines of investigation remaining: one that also speculates that Maldonado is or was working with this rebellious group known as RAM, and the other is that the Border Patrol did in fact take him after clearing the roadblock on Route 40 on August 1, where he was allegedly last seen.
Let’s look at them in detail.
The first theory, which certain media outlets are calling “the sacrifice,” suggests that Maldonado decided to go into hiding after the August 1 raid by the Border Patrol, in an attempt to give visibility to the Mapuches’ claims over their disputed territory in the Southern region of Argentina and Chile.
Investigators back this theory with two pieces of information they think could be potential evidence: the first one is a paragraph of a letter made public by RAM leader Facundo Jones Huala, who has been in prison since June, that reads “…tremendous effort, my brother. It will not have been in vain: your endless solidarity is now resulting in countless displays of support, which confirm your rights along with ours, acting as an example that can be echoed throughout history…”.
Investigators also say that during two of the many search operations carried out a week after his disappearance, the dogs used by Border Patrol to find him indicated that there were fresh traces of a person who was wearing clothes that were considered to be Maldonado’s.
During the first search, the dogs went straight towards the Chubut river bank – which the Mapuches crossed in an attempt to escape the the Border Patrol raid in August 1st – indicating that the traces would undoubtedly continue on the other side of the river. However, they claimed that they were not allowed to cross due to the Mapuches’ assertions that that was their ancestral territory and therefore Border Patrol could not access it. In contrast, members of the indigenous community have assured that this was not the case, and that they actually allowed the investigators to enter.
The second time the Border Patrol headed to the area, dogs did not approach the river but instead moved from left to right, suggesting that whoever owned his clothes had been walking or standing in an area of about 350 meters.
“THE BORDER PATROL TOOK HIM”
The theory that Border Patrol officers arrested Maldonado he disappeared under their watch has existed since he went missing that day. Witnesses at the scene during the raid, along with Maldonado’s family members, have always claimed this is exactly what happened. The difference is that, while the Macri administration initially seemed to minimize or dismiss this possibility, the government now appears to have changed its stance on the matter. Instead of arguing that there are no clear indications that Santiago was taken by the Border Patrol, they are now saying that this “may have happened”. Not only that, it’s the most probable theory.
In an interview with Radio Mitre, Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj said that even though there is no evidence in the case file indicating it, “the strongest theory points at Border Patrol officers.” Following the same line of thought, Cambiemos Senator Federico Pinedo said that “there isn’t the slightest effort to cover up for anyone who may have committed a crime.”
In fact, on Macri’s request, Avruj will travel to the city of Esquel today, in the province of Chubut, to inform federal judge Guido Otranto that the government is prepared to work in collaboration with him to solve the case.
On their end, Interior and Security Ministers Rogelio Frigerio and Patricia Bullrich met this morning with the governors of Río Negro and Neuquén, Alberto Weretilneck and Omar Gutiérrez, as well as Chubut Vice Governor Mariano Arcioni. According to La Nación, they will seek to coordinate efforts in the search for Maldonado. The government also increased the reward for anyone who can provide any useful information that might help to find him to AR $2 million.
Yesterday, for the first time, members of the Mapuche community provided investigators legally valid statements about the events that took place on August 1 after the Border Patrol showed up at a roadblock on Route 40, in Chubut, and not only cleared the road but also chased the protesters (Maldonado included) into Mapuche territory without a warrant. One of the witnesses, identified as Matías Santana, proceeded to talk to the press after his statement. He had appeared before the judge last month, but since he had done so with his face covered and without any identification, his statement wasn’t considered valid. This time, once he identified himself, it was.
Santana said that, using his binoculars, he had seen how Maldonado was beaten up and detained by Border Patrol officers and thrown into a van that was headed to an unknown location. Today he said he lost his binoculars during a sweep conducted by federal forces.
“I just testified before Judge Otranto and described how the Border Patrol officers entered the field, chased us to the river and how I, while riding a horse on the other side of the river, saw three Border Patrol officers beating what seemed to be a person. They were beating something that was was light blue and black. I recognized my jacket, which Santiago had borrowed that same day,” he said.
Hours after these comments made the media rounds, Maldonado’s family members gave a press conference in Esquel, alongside their lawyers. They argued that this new development and change in the investigation’s focus was a “breaking point” and hinted that, if it is pursued, it might prove to be fruitful.
“We continue to support the theory that we have insisted on since the beginning: that on August 1, Santiago was brutally beaten by Border Patrol officers and then taken away in a van”.
One of the lawyers representing the Maldonado family pointed out that they had only been able to access the case file yesterday, as it was being kept in secrecy. “Because of this, we are analyzing the documents and preparing future probes. We understand that nothing was done during recent days. With these new statements (in reference to the ones mentioned above)… we’ll see what to do. We think we will only really begin (the investigation) now,” she said.
“There’s more and more evidence suggesting that this operation was illegal and that several abuses were committed,” she concluded.
Only time will tell.