Border Patrol the day of the operation. Photo via El Patagonico

The investigation over the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado has made a drastic turn in the past few days.

Far gone are the theories suggesting that the 28-year-old tattoo artist was wounded during an attack conducted by a violent faction within the Mapuche indigenous community or that he had decided to go into hiding to bring the attention of the national media to the Mapuche claims over their disputed territory in the Southern region of Argentina and Chile.

Now, the spotlight is set on the actions taken by the Border Patrol (gendarmerie) and the possibility that one or more of the officers involved in the operation carried out on August 1st had something to do with his disappearance.

In the last couple of hours we were given updates on the two theories surrounding the Border Patrol: first, a DNA test finally revealed that there is no genetic trace of Maldonado in the pick-up trucks used by the Border Patrol during the operation; and second, an official whose participation in it was previously unknown admitted to “having wounded” a protester on that day, raising more questions about the actions of those who pursued the Mapuches towards the Chubut river.

AN ADMISSION THAT CONTRADICTS THE OFFICIAL VERSION OF WHAT HAPPENED ON AUGUST 1ST

This morning several media outlets revealed that while undergoing interrogation, one of the Border Patrol officers admitted to have hit one of the protesters that were escaping towards the Chubut river during the raid that they carried out after clearing Route 40. This officer admitted that he hit the protester “with a rock.”

One of Maldonado's last pictures
One of Maldonado’s last pictures

During his statement this officer, called Neri Robledo, said that the protester “had attacked him and that he threw a small rock back as retaliation” when he was swimming across the river. He went on to say that once he reached the other side of the river, the person stood up and insulted him. When asked about how he realized he had hit the protester, Robledo said that one of his colleagues “confirmed it.”

This information directly contradicts everything that representatives of the Border Patrol have said so far, as they repeated over and over that there hadn’t been any clashes with the protesters who staged the roadblock that day. In an interview that aired on Periodismo Para Todos, the head of the squad that conducted the operation, Fabián Mendez, said that the forces he commanded were always at least 40 meters away from the protesters.

Moreover, the fact that his participation in the operation was previously unknown indicates that the number of officials who pursued the protesters into the Mapuche territory and towards the river were eight instead of seven, as Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said on Sunday. Government representatives came out to say that they only found about Robledo’s involvement in the operation now because he asked for time off the day after the operation, arguing that “his father was ill.”

ANOTHER BP OFFICER WHO COULD HAVE HAD A MOTIVE TO RETALIATE

The investigation is also focusing on the potential actions of another Border Patrol officer named Emmanuel Echazú. Why? Well, he got his jaw broken after he was hit by a rock a few minutes after the beginning of the operation. In an interview with Clarín, his superior, Juan Pablo Escola said that Echazú continued moving forwards with him despite his wound.

A source involved in the investigation told Clarín that “they believe he was the only person with a strong motivation to kill someone. He was badly hurt, he’s young, strong and could have grabbed one of the members of the community and attack him with a rock, as [the officers] weren’t armed.”

Escola, however, says that they never got to the river bank, the area that is where most of the questions about that day arise from. Yet, statements continue to change as days go bye so only time will tell if this story changes too.

Echazú after being hit. Photo via America TV
Echazú after being hit. Photo via America TV

Suspicions arose after investigators learned that Echazú was in charge of writing the Border Patrol’s official report regarding the events that took place that day. Most of the official information that the government and court officials had access to —and disclosed — came from that document. Moreover, a report from the squad’s commander listing the officers who had partaken in the operation initially didn’t include his name.

Echazú has been given a leave of absence — presumably due to his injuries — and hasn’t had any contact with the press so far.

ANOTHER KEY DNA TEST COMES BACK NEGATIVE

This morning we also learned that the results of a DNA test revealed that there’s no genetic trace of Maldonado in the five pick-up trucks that the Border Patrol used during the operation. The results weaken the theory suggesting that three officers beat him up and then put him in the back of a pick-up truck that took off in Esquel’s direction.

In his statement before Federal Judge Guido Otranto last week, Matias Santana, a member of the Mapuche community, assured that this had been the case, and that he had seen the entire sequence through his binoculars — which he then said he lost — on top of a horse from the other side of the Chubut river.

Santana is the one in the brown poncho. Photo via Clarin
Santana is the one in the brown poncho. Photo via Clarin

However, the result will probably not make those who support this theory rule it out completely. Maldonado’s family and their lawyers have repeatedly argued that Border Patrol thoroughly washed the pick-up trucks after the operation, hinting that they attempted to erase any trace of Maldonado that could have remained there. Judge Otranto has rebuked that claim, saying it was clear the trucks were “loaded with stuff.”

Shortly after the results were made public, Bullrich came out to say that “this strongly clears the government from the accusations of forceful disappearance, pushed by some [political] sectors.”

A THEORY WEAKENS BUT ANOTHER ONE STRENGTHENS

This past week’s updates — the ones from the last few hours in particular — all seem to point the investigation to one place and one place alone: the events that went down by the Chubut riverbank.

It will be key to determine how the eight Border Patrol officers – especially the two mentioned before – proceeded there. Whether the protester hurt by Robledo when crossing the river was Maldonado and if the injury could have been mortal even though he claims otherwise. Or if Echazú made it to the river and struck whoever was close to him to get revenge for his broken jaw, then leaving that crucial “detail” outside the report.

A piece of information provided by members of the Mapuche community a few days after the operation seems to strengthen that theory. In an interview with Infobae published on August 4, Soraya Maicoño said that “we saw [Maldonado] holding on to a tree, not crossing the river. Then we heard one of the officers say he was being detained. And then the words in Spanish “ya esta!” (which, depending on the context, can be translated as “enough,” “OK,” “that’s it,” or “it’s done.”). Since Maicoño said she’s not sure who said that – it could have been Santiago or the officers – we really don’t know for sure what it meant.

“We didn’t see him again after that,” she said.

Last Friday, Otranto ordered different other law enforcement officers — excluding the Border Patrol — to conduct a thorough search along the 800 kilometers of the Chubut river to determine if Maldonado’s body is there.

A photo of the Operation. Photo via Ambito
A photo of the Operation. Photo via Ambito

The operation has proven unsuccessful so far, but according to La Nación, the officials in charge are sure that the river will provide at least some answers to the case’s questions. “We are certain that we have to focus on the river. Something happened there,” a source from the investigation told the outlet.

AN EXPERT SAYS MALDONADO’S PHONE WAS ACTIVATED NEAR ESQUEL A DAY AFTER HE WAS LAST ALLEGEDLY SEEN

Days after the operation in which he was allegedly last seen, a friend of Maldonado’s told Judge Otranto that on August 2 he called to one of his phones and someone picked up for 22 seconds, although whoever it was, they remained silent. He then called again, but the phone had been turned off.

Based on that information, Maldonado’s family and human rights organizations requested the call be traced to determine where his phone was when it was answered and what other phones were nearby. However, they later argued that neither the judge nor the prosecutor, Silvina Ávila, took measures aimed at doing this.

Yesterday, telecommunications engineer Ariel Garbarz talked to press outside Esquel’s courthouse and said he had sensitive information to the case but he’s not being accepted as an expert adviser (perito) to the investigative party, a legal figure in Argentine law.

He assured that after going to the cellphone towers near the city of Esquel with representatives of human rights organizations, he could conclude that Maldonado’s cell phone was activated in Argentina, near that city. “We have very important information about the geo-localization. It can help start solving the case. The call impacted a cell tower from Movistar. We know which one, but we will tell this to the court,” he said.

Garbarz went on to say that what’s most important about knowing where the device was activated is that it provides the possibility to detect what other phones were on near it, arguing that “they could be witnesses or potential suspects.”

“Someone picked up that call. Phones don’t answer calls by themselves. It could have been Santiago or someone else,” he said. And he continued: “Someone could have turned it on far away from the crime scene to divert attention. It’s necessary to have that information in the case file.” According to Infobae, he could be accepted as an expert today.