Photo via Clarin

The Santiago Maldonado case continues to dominate the nation and yesterday was stranger than usual.

The most relevant news involved a surprising statement from an elderly couple who appeared on television to say they were certain they picked up a hitchhiker 17 days ago “who looked exactly like Maldonado”. At the same time, Esquel Judge Guido Otranto ordered the local police to begin searching for the missing artisan in the Chubut river, but still refused to have them cross it and look for him in the lands currently occupied by members of the Mapuche indigenous community that they consider to be sacred, and therefore off limits to anyone who doesn’t belong to their community.

Let’s get to it.

A STRANGE CLAIM SURFACES

Yesterday afternoon a couple appeared on a local TV station in Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego, to say that on August 22 they offered a ride to a man who “looked exactly like Maldonado.” Graciela González Reyes and her husband, Eduardo Muñóz, said that they found him in the outskirts of Esquel, in the Province of Chubut, gave him a ride and dropped him off in the very small town of Tecka, in the same province.

Tecka
Tecka

In case you don’t remember, members of the Mapuche community who set up the roadblock on Route 40 (and that the Border Patrol eventually cleared on August 1, triggering this whole mess) assured that the tattoo artist was thrown in a truck that they say was last seen heading towards Esquel. The Border Patrol squad that conducted the operation is stationed in that city.

The couple said that the hitchhiker looked like he hadn’t showered in weeks. The woman said he was “only wearing a sweatshirt” to protect himself from the cold Patagonia temperatures and that his shoes were “torn” and had “socks in his hands, instead of gloves.”

“He had a mark in his forehead as if he had had something tight wrapped around his head for a long time. Like a bandage. His nose was hurt, and he was very thin. His clothes were too big for him,” she recalled. Although she says he asked to be taken to Comodoro Rivadavia, Chubut’s most populous city, they told him they weren’t going in that direction and dropped him off outside Tecka.

“We asked him if he was carrying anything and said that his stuff had been stolen from him, and that he’d been hit in a fight. We asked him for his name but he didn’t answer. He was very sad. Like gone. In shock. After a while he said he had just turned 28 years old,” she said.

Then things get even weirder: the couple described his odd behavior, saying he told them that “his sister-in-law had called him for his birthday.”

“So I said: ‘Oh, so you had a phone’. And he replied that he did, but it had been stolen from him after the ‘bad men’ hit him. He said they took his backpack, his jacket and they robbed him,” the woman said.

Then they said they realized “he was Santiago” when they saw “the demonstrations on TV and photographs of him.”

“When we arrived [to Río Grande] we saw his photo on the news. That was on August 31. Because even when we asked for his name, he didn’t give it to us. We knew there was a young man missing because we were asked about it on the road, but that happened after we dropped him off. Until that moment we ignored the whole story,” they said.

Maldonado
Maldonado

The couple concluded by saying that they don’t know what he did after they dropped him off. “We left him there just like you would do with any other person you help on the road,” although “he was very cold. [In those conditions] he didn’t have a lot of time left to live,” the man said.

“I have no doubt it was him. What happened after we dropped him off? I don’t know. I can say that on August 22 he was alive. Had we known [who he was], I would have taken him to the police, but we completely ignored it,” they finished.

Let’s take a closer look at this and be skeptic for a second. Needless to say, this latest plot twist is strange and it raises a lot of questions about the timeline of the events, their accuracy and the way in which the couple allegedly reacted.

Let’s break down their three most head-scratching statements:

  • They said the person “looked terrible” and seemed like “he didn’t have a lot of time left to live.” And yet they left him at the entrance of a town instead of taking him to a hospital or some place where he could have been provided with clothing and food.
  • They said they knew there was a “young man missing” but not his name. I don’t know about you, but in the past 38 days even my Scrabble has spelled the phrase “Where is Santiago Maldonado?” Unless they hadn’t stopped anywhere with internet or a TV during that time, traveled in a windowless car and slept in it during the entire trip, it’s a bit strange that they haven’t even heard the name.
  • The woman said that they went to the police on August 31, after learning of the march demanding for his appearance. There have been numerous marches of the kind, but the one the interview shows, in Plaza de Mayo (where Maldonado’s brother Sergio addressed the audience) took place a day after that, on September 1.

According to Clarín, the government began working on this to confirm whether it’s true or not. Their story is strange, but we must admit it sounds more credible than we one from August 9, when someone said they gave Maldonado a ride in the Entre Ríos Province, thousands of kilometers away from Esquel. Needless to say, the person wasn’t Maldonado.

POLICE WILL LOOK FOR MALDONADO IN THE CHUBUT RIVER, (BUT NOT ON MAPUCHE SACRED LAND)

Today, Federal Judge Guido Otranto ordered the police to begin searching for Maldonado in the Chubut River and its banks. The Coast Guard (Prefectura) will lead the operation that will be conducted throughout this 800-km-long river, and will be supported by scuba divers from its Bariloche section, as well as a helicopter from the Federal Police. Around 100 officials of all security forces will work on the operation, which has no end date.

Judge Otranto. Photo via Infonews
Judge Otranto. Photo via Infonews

However, Otranto continues to refuse to send forces to the other side of the river, as the Mapuches consider that land to be sacred. He says he would rather respect the community and avoid the possibility of another clash with law enforcement officials, which he says is likely should he decide to order a search in an area that’s more than 1,000 hectares big.

The thing is, during a search in the community where Maldonado was last allegedly seen, the dogs that were used to pick up his scent went straight towards the Chubut river bank – which the Mapuches crossed in an attempt to escape the the Border Patrol raid on August 1st – indicating that the traces would undoubtedly continue on the other side of the river. In contrast, members of the indigenous community have assured that this was not the case, and that they actually allowed the investigators to enter.

In later searches, 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. However, if forces don’t conduct a thorough search in that area, there will always be speculation about the possibility that Maldonado is there.