(Photo via Infobae)

In the last few days you may have noticed that the face of a man named Santiago Maldonado has been featured on all newspapers, websites and tv channels in Argentina. There are marches and protests happening in his name around the country and even former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is tweeting about him.

WHO IS SANTIAGO MALDONADO?

In case you haven’t noticed, 28-year-old Maldonado is missing. He has been since last Tuesday after Border Patrol (gendarmería) forces forcefully cleared a roadblock staged by members of the Mapuche indigenous community in the southern Province of Chubut and, according to witnesses and his family among others, he was taken by them and never seen again.

This is a huge deal. Security forces potentially abducting a citizen is not only extremely concerning that this could happen in this day and age, but it also immediately echoes one of the darkest chapters in Argentine history when people were being systematically disappeared.

And the government seems to be on the defensive after offering a late, lukewarm response. When pressed for answer by the media, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich decided to respond in a somewhat dismissive tone and said both yesterday and today that “there are no indicators” suggesting that Border Patrol forces are involved in his disappearance even though members of the Mapuche community who were at the scene claim otherwise.

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING TO FIND HIM?

Today, the Security Ministry began offering a AR $500,000 reward to whoever provides useful information of his whereabouts. While talking to the press, Bullrich argued that security forces “can’t conduct an effective search” for him because the Mapuche leaders refuse to grant them access the area where he could be located. In contrast, they say that they have already conducted their own search, which proved unfruitful, and that they won’t let the state conduct any “intelligence” work there.

That’s the information we have so far, a week after Maldonado – an artisan living in the city of El Bolsón, in the Río Negro province – was seen for the last time. His family has issued a heartfelt statement demanding his return; deputies from various opposition caucuses in Congress intend to question Bullrich about the armed forces she commands and their involvement in the case. Several human rights organizations, including the UN’s Committee on Enforced Disappearances, have demanded that the government uses all resources available to find him. “[We request that the government] adopts an integral and exhaustive strategy to search for him and find him, taking into account the information provided by the members of the [Mapuche] community.”

Patricia Bullrich. Photo via Lanueva.com

Patricia Bullrich. Photo via Lanueva.com

Members of the indigenous community told Infobae that they last saw Maldonado when he came across the Chubut river and allegedly couldn’t find the courage to swim across it, which the other people present were crossing to escape from the security forces that were coming after them “with both rubber and led bullets.”

“We saw him holding on to a tree without crossing the river. Then we heard he was being arrested and someone say ‘OK, OK.’ We don’t know if the words came from Santiago or a member of the Border Patrol. We never saw him again after that,” the community member said.

As voices calling for his safe return multiplied across the country, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner joined protest this weekend. In a series of tweets, Cristina said that she had been put in touch with Maldonado’s family and described their version of the story.

“Santiago has been disappeared for five days. His brother tells me that witnesses saw the Border Patrol take him…”

“…that he was surrounded, beat up and put in a Border Patrol van. Since then, no one heard from his brother again…

She went on to say that the government, “of which the Border Patrol depends, has the obligation of informing where Santiago is and is responsible for his appearance.”

Santiago debe aparecer. Y debe aparecer con vida. pic.twitter.com/pon2fdox1t

“Santiago must be found, and he must be found alive.”

WHY IS THE MAPUCHE INDIGENOUS COMMUNITY INVOLVED?

Members of the Mapuche community have established a settlement in a plot of land that belongs to — at least in the eyes of the state — the Tierras del Sud company, currently owned by Italian businessman Luciano Benetton. However, the Mapuche claim that the land has belonged to their people for hundreds of years and warn that they will not be vacating the premises.

“Benetton is looking at mining projects in the land that he took from us, they want to build a dam and are polluting the soil with pine plantations. We won’t allow it. They will only take us away from here if we’re dead ,” members of the community told La Nación.

Maldonado, who had been living in El Bolsón for the last three months, had arrived to the settlement the day because he wanted to learn more about their situation. “He is not an activist, he was there for humanitarian reasons,” Santiago’s brother, Sergio, told Infobae.

Photo via La Nación
Photo via La Nación

Groups within the community have resorted to violent protest methods to try to get what they claim is theirs by historic right. Members of some of these groups were staging a roadblock last Tuesday, demanding for the release of their leader, Facundo Jones Huala, arrested in June and currently in a prison in the city of Esquel.

In fact, Jones Huala today issued a statement from prison, in which he called for “the rebellion of all of our people” and said that “all ways of fighting are valid and also urgent.” “From this perspective, the only way out is rebelling, to reestablish the human rights of all the dispossessed, and confront the inhumane far-right, which is at the service of imperialism and the capital,” he added.

Jones Huala’s imprisonment increased the tension between this faction of the Mapuche community and the provincial and national governments. Those Mapuche who consider him their leader — grouped in an organization called Ancestral Mapuche Resistance (RAM) — have constantly protested in demand of his liberation, and have resorted to violent methods to do so. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on an electric grid in the Chubut province and set a train station — also in Chubut — in flames.

Jones Huala. Photo via Diario Jornada
Jones Huala. Photo via Diario Jornada

Regardless of the big picture problem, hours go by and Maldonado is still missing. In a letter published in the La Garganta Poderosa magazine titled “He’s got to be found,” his brother Sergio recalls last Tuesday’s events and demands his return, alive. “We’re not talking about a missing person here. This is about a forced disappearance,” he says.

“I only write these lines to ask you with a desperate cry to please join us on every road, in every plaza, on every avenue. My brother has to reappear. And he has to be found alive,” the letter ends.

On Monday, social organizations led by La Garganta marched under this same rallying cry. Some protesters broke from the otherwise peaceful march, clashed with the police present and even attacked a journalist covering the event.

We still don’t have all the facts and it’s not confirmed whether the border patrol was involved, but these accusations didn’t happen in a vacuum. Security forces in Argentina have many times been involved in controversies that are brought out to people’s attention by human rights organizations — such as the case of two teenagers member of the Garganta Poderosa organization who were tortured by now former Coast Guard (prefectura) officials in September last year being an example.

We can only hope Santiago is found alive.