It is the case that continues to divide Argentina. Just a few days before the first anniversary of Santiago Maldonado’s disappearance, a new expert analysis of his autopsy has cast the official findings into doubt, threatening to reignite the controversy that dominated headlines in last year.
On August 1, 2017, Santiago Maldonado disappeared during a clash between Mapuche protestors and Argentine Border Patrol forces. He was reportedly last seen surrendering to the officers on the banks on the River Chubut before he disappeared without a trace. His body was found in the river 78 days later.
By this point the case had stirred up massive controversy in Argentina, a country already split by a deep political rift, la grieta. Differing accounts of what happened from the Mapuche community and Border Patrol officers and extremely partisan reporting further confused the issue. Marches were held across the country inspiring the mass mobilization of over 100,000 people demanding Maldonado’s safe return, but were often tainted by vandalism and violence.
The idea that national security forces could have had something to do with Maldonado’s disappearance strikes a nerve a country where the word desaparecido carries a strong political charge, evoking the scars of the last military dictatorship and the 30,000 people who were ‘disappeared’ under that regime. Some people, especially those on the Left, saw this as a forced disappearance by security officers and a cover-up by President Macri’s center-right government.
The other side of the argument describes Maldonado as an anarchist with links to Mapuche terrorist groups. The Pu Lof Mapuche community in Patagonia are currently locked in a bitter struggle with Italian clothing firm Benneton over land which they claim is their ancestral right. These tensions have often boiled over into violent protest, especially with the influence of the militant Mapuche group Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche, or RAM. The roadblock that led to Maldonado’s disappearance was a protest for the release of RAM’s incarcerated leader, Jones Huala.
Maldonado’s body was eventually found on October 17th in the Chubut River and even at this point, his family claimed that the body could have been planted there. The official autopsy concluded that the body had been in the river between 53 and 73 days prior, and didn’t present signs of injury nor having been moved. The official cause of death was hypothermia and drowning, but Maldonado’s family have continued to challenge the findings due to inconsistencies in the final report.
This week, experienced forensic scientist and criminologist Enrique Prueger published the results of an unofficial study he conducted into the autopsy report, the results of which contradict the official conclusions, especially those related to the length of time that the body had been underwater. He concluded that the body could not possibly have been submerged for 78 days, therefore it had been “planted there by someone” anywhere from a few hours to ten days before it was discovered.
Perito Forense Prueger ;Los 28 peritos que firmaron la autopsia en noviembre pasado ignoraron el punto 10 del informe, en el que la bióloga y palinóloga Leticia Povilauskas detalla el tiempo que pudo perdurar el polen hallado en la ropa de #SantiagoMaldonado . pic.twitter.com/2eGoF2A1gy
— #UNIDADCIUDADANA (@YoNoLo_Vote) July 27, 2018
In an interview with Infobae, the expert said that the condition that the body was found in was inconsistent with one that had been submerged in water for that period of time. He then told Página12 that the official autopsy had ignored the biologist Leticia Povilauskas’ report, namely, the appearance of pollen on Maldonado’s trousers. The biologist had said that pollen disappears from clothes after being in water for more than 30 days.
Prueger went on to say that according to his findings, there were two possible versions of what happened. The first is that Maldonado “drowned and his body was hidden somewhere before being thrown into the river to be discovered” or the second, that “Santiago was imprisoned, hidden – perhaps to wait for his wounds to heal – and then drowned and placed in that spot.”
To support his hypothesis, Prueger conducted his own experiment in the Chubut river and claims that in addition to “ignoring” the biologist’s report, the official report featured errors in the water temperature measurements, which would affect the findings on the length of time that the body was submerged.
Verónica Heredia, the Maldonado family’s attorney, stressed that although the family had not commissioned this study, the results were in line with the questions they had, particularly about the length of time that the body had been submerged. “The part of the river [where Maldonado was found] was 30 centimeters deep at that time, they had searched the area so many times, why was it that the same divers who had passed through that area seven times found the body on October 17th and did not give any explanation as to why they had not found it before?”
This investigation has coincided with the release of a documentary about the case. Directed by Tristán Bauer and co-written by Omar Quiroga and Florencia Kirchner (daughter of former presidents Néstor and Cristina), El Camino de Santiago: Desparición y muerte de Santiago Maldonado (Santiago’s Way: The Disappearance and Death of Santiago Maldonado) is an 80-minute investigation into what happened on that fateful day in August last year.
Though the documentary itself is slated for release on August 7th, a pre-screening was held on what would have been Maldonado’s 29th birthday. Critics have described it as a particularly one-sided exposé which lays the blame for what happened very much at the door of the Argentine government, both that of the Macri administration and the “Desert Campaign” of General Roca, and not asking any questions about the Mapuche community’s refusal to cooperate in the investigation.
“[This] is a film that hardly resolves the discussion around this case, much less mitigate the rift that divides a good part of Argentine society,” said Diego Batlle for La Nación. “It will excite its own troop and outrage the other.” Unsurprising, given Bauer and Kirchner’s involvement and the fact that the producer, Jorge ‘Topo’ Devoto, has also made a documentary about Néstor’s life and has close ties with Cristina and her children.
The Minister for Security Patricia Bullrich, who was much criticized for her reaction to Maldonado’s disappearance, continued to support the Border Force officers and panned the film for reinventing what happened. “They have done with Maldonado what they have done for many years, which is to switch reality for a story,” she said. “The Border Guard did not touch Maldonado.”
Prueger’s report, the release of this documentary and the year anniversary of Maldonado’s disappearance may now inflame tensions that had been lying dormant. The fact that there are still so many inconsistencies in the case has made obtaining a clear picture of what happened close to impossible, and this risks stirring up the controversies that dominated the national psyche this time last year.
Although since then attention has drifted from the case, the resurfacing of these holes in the official story may once again push people onto the streets to demand what really happened on August 1, 2017 in Chubut.