Photo via Minuto Uno

Santiago Maldonado’s disappearance has thrown Argentine society into a state of collective frenzy. It has evolved yet into one more issue that strongly divides the local population, each side believing a different theory about his fate and the government’s actions — or lack thereof — to find him, depending on their political conviction.

Because even though the issue here is a person’s disappearance – with all the seriousness that implies – both camps have managed to change the conversation from the need to find him to who’s to blame for it. There’s a side that likens the Macri administration to the last dictatorship, assuring that the government — if not the President himself — ordered Maldonado’s disappearance to institute a realm of terror and thus deter the Argentine people from protesting against his policies, which they say go against the interests of the large masses.

The other side argues that Maldonado was part of a terrorist organization within the Mapuche indigenous community who had anarchist ideals, and either died in an attack (this theory has been already proven false) to a post guarding a plot of land the Mapuches claim they have a right to, or is alive hiding in the Mapuche territory, an area that is off limits to the government because it is sacred territory.

The events that took place in Plaza de Mayo on Friday afternoon and the reactions in the aftermath did nothing but confirm what’s already clear. Not that we needed a lot more evidence, but tensions have escalated to extremely high levels, even for Argentine standards.

Let’s take a look at what happened, and how we have all become a little more crazy ever since.

FRIDAY’S MARCH IN PLAZA DE MAYO

Last Friday, roughly 250,000 people marched to Plaza de Mayo demanding the appearance of the 28-year-old artisan, a month since he was last seen in a roadblock staged by members of the Mapuche community in the Province of Chubut. In the brief rally that took place at the end of the event, Maldonado’s brother, Sergio, criticized the way in which government officials in charge of the investigation had been dealing with the case.

“A month since his disappearance, the state doesn’t question the brutality of its security forces. We are being mistreated by the Security Minister [Patricia Bullrich]. We get nothing but indifference from the judge and the prosecutor, who tell us one thing to our faces and then do another. They still haven’t provided a serious explanation about what happened to Santiago. They continue to deny his disappearance,” he said before the crowd, who echoed his claim.

Maldonado went on to demand that Bullrich steps down from her post, and that all border patrol (gendarmerie) officials who cleared the roadblock set up on Route 40, where he was seen for the last time, testify before the judge. Every time he mentioned Bullrich’s name, he had to wait several seconds for the booing to stop.

However, once the event finished and the vast majority of the attendants left the Plaza, everything went straight to hell. Chaos ensued when groups remaining in the premises clashed with security forces, which didn’t hold back at the time and reacted brutally.

According to La Nación, a group of no more than 150 people took down the fences set up to prevent people from reaching the Casa Rosada and began throwing rocks to the officers who were posted there, prompting them to move on them.

The clashes extended for blocks and during a long period of time. There were also incidents in the Southern city of El Bolsón, where Maldonado lived before disappearing, after a group of people threw molotov cocktails to the Border Patrol station and the officers who were facing them.

Different images show how Friday night’s events unfolded. But while some focus on how the security forces moved on the rebel groups wreaking havoc and brutally repressed them, others show the protesters acting with extreme violence, without distinguishing or caring between passerby civilians who reportedly had nothing to do with the incidents and journalists covering the events, and those who were clashing with them.

Here are examples of both.

In the end, dozens of people were injured and 31 more were detained — journalists among them — accused of “public intimidation, damages and resistance to authority.” All but one person were released today morning, after Federal Judge Marcelo Martínez de Giorgi upheld a request presented by the detainees’ lawyers. There is only one person left in custody because he has inconsistencies with his papers.

THE AFTERMATH

The events generated an avalanche of public statements from political leaders from all sides of the political spectrum. Predictably, they all largely placed the blame on the other camp.

Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said on Saturday that she “went back to seeing darkness in Argentina”: “yesterday [for Friday] I saw dark things, I went back to seeing darkness, people who were not identified, who looked like had attended the march but then showed up next to police officers, wearing vests,” she said in a gathering of female union leaders she was invited to.

“I want an Argentina were everyone can express themselves freely. I saw a lot of darkness yesterday and Argentines don’t deserve to live in darkness again,” she added, again likening the Macri administration to the dictatorship.

“Again and on prime time TV. This time, police officers passing as protesters wore vests…”

“… and began a hunt of people and journalists. Democracy degraded and put to the service of a TV ad.”

“The government must investigate how these incidents began and who were responsible for them, and also identify…”

“… the officers dressed as civilians who pretended to be protesters and gassed, beat and detained people?”

Santiago Maldonado’s brother also criticized the government’s actions and questioned that President Macri hasn’t been on top of the case. “He was in Villa La Angostura for the long weekend, 80 kilometers away from Bariloche. It would have taken him three hours to go to a station and request the search be sped up,” he argued.

“My patience ran out [on Friday] in Plaza de Mayo. From now on I’ll have a different approach. I’ll hit whoever I have to hit. What matters most is my brother and he’s not reappearing. I see my parents being destroyed [by this situation] and I’ll go against whoever I have to,” he added in a radio interview.

Former Workers’ Party (PO) national deputy and current candidate for senator Néstor Pitrola also echoed the criticism to the government by tweeting what he said was a cover of the satyric French magazine Charlie Hebdo, titled “Je ne suis Santiago Maldonado.” The only problem is that the cover was false — and had a grammatical mistake in French, something that many users were quick to point out. In Pitrola’s favor, he later clarified that the cover was fake, although he still said it was “good as a creative idea.”

Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña was in charge of speaking on the administration’s behalf. After confirming that Bullrich wouldn’t leave her post, he asked for “peace and calm.”

“Of course, we support these claims. But above all I want to convey the peace of mind that we must have, both political leaders and citizens, to know that all problems, pending matters, like in this case Santiago Maldonado’s location, must be solved within the institutional framework of dialogue and prudence,” he told the press.

Peña went on to say that “we are making all possible efforts to understand what happened and find out where Santiago Maldonado is. We won’t allow any kind of cover up, we will get to the bottom of this with the investigation and we hope the judiciary can move forwards,” he added.

This morning, Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta defended the security forces’ actions on Friday, but clarified that an internal affairs investigation was opened to determine whether there was police brutality. “Police officers reacted when the a violent situation ensued, when they started throwing rocks and suddenly people with sticks appeared. They followed the premise we always defend: we won’t allow violence in Argentina, in Buenos Aires City,” he said.

Rodríguez Larreta today. Photo via Telam/Analía Garelli
Rodríguez Larreta today. Photo via Telam/Analía Garelli

See what I mean? One side doesn’t condemn the visible police brutality, the other one doesn’t condemn that people try to set Border Patrol officers on fire.

Another issue certain media outlets focused on was the fact that repairing the damages caused to public buildings — the iconic Cabildo building included — in the march and its aftermath will cost almost AR $6 million.

But more worrying that any amount of money the City Government might have to use to repaint buildings and replace broken windows can’t be compared to the main problem society is going through, and that Maldonado’s disappearance unfortunately serves to illustrate perfectly: the hypocrisy in both camps and the convenient remembrance and oblivion of the different events that take place, depending on whether they serve them politically or not.

On Friday, as the march was taking place in Plaza de Mayo, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner attended a mass ceremony in Merlo to pray for Maldonado’s appearance. In there, she unexpectedly ran into the mother of one of the victims of the 2012 Once railway tragedy — which took place during her second administration. The woman, Monica Bottega, approached her right in the middle of the church and called her a “murderer” and a hypocrite for “never speaking about the incident” and “avoiding to meet with family members of the deceased.”

Also, on social media, people’s posts demanding for Maldonado’s safe return are met with people asking for the whereabouts of Julio López, who disappeared back in 2006 when he was about to testify against Miguel Etchecolatz, a former police officer convicted for crimes against humanity committed during the last dictatorship. As if they were mutually exclusive.

Fernández de Kirchner assures we are living in “dark times.” Before today, Macri only come to address the issue once — and in quite a lukewarm way — and hasn’t met with Maldonado’s family members. Only today he issued a stronger statement about it. As all this happens, Santiago continues to be missing while the different lines of investigation do nothing but crash against one wall after another.

In the meantime, we keep getting more and more divided.