Divers have found a body during a search of the Chubut river, close to the area where Sergio Maldonado went missing more than two and a half months ago.
The lifeless body, dressed in dark clothes, has yet to be formally identified, with speculation rife that it could be Maldonado's body.
Tactical divers from the Naval Prefecture discovered the body at around midday on Tuesday “hooked to the branches of a willow tree,” in the region close to where Maldonado was last seen alive on August 1, some 1,500 metres from the base of the Pu Lof Mapuche community, local news reports said.
Maldonado, a 28-year-old artisan, went missing on August 1 after the Gendarmerie (Border Guards) clashed with members of the Mapuche community in the region while evicting a protest, in which he is said to have taken part. He has not been seen since.
It was the third search in the region for his body and took place in a new location, close to where two previous unsuccessful searches had taken place. A forensic unit is already said to be at the scene, where security officials are working to identify the body. They will then begin an autopsy to determine the cause of death. The “raking of the area” was ordered by Judge Gustavo Lleral, reports said, on new terrain.
The 28-year-old’s disappearance is currently being probed via two separate judicial lines. Judge Lleral, who was recently appointed to the case after the departure of his colleague Guido Otranto for misconduct, is in charge of determining the whereabouts of Maldonado, while Prosecutor Silvina Ávila has been delegated the investigation into the alleged forced disappearance of the young man.
According to reports, Ávila is now travelling to the region to follow developments. Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj and Justice Minister Germán Garavano will also travel to Chubut “in the coming hours” with a team of government officials, unconfirmed reports suggested.
As news broke in Argentina, just days before crucial midterm elections, some political figures made public comment.
Buenos Aires province Governor María Eugenia Vidal spoke on television saying the body “has just been found by the [officers from the Naval] Prefecture, who were working on the site.”
“I hope it is not Santiago and that he appears alive," she added.
Rallying call. Maldonado’s disappearance has become a rallying call for human rights activists, who have expressed disappointment over the government’s handling of the case and the search for the missing artisan. For many in Argentina, the case carries echoes of the dark days of the country’s military dictatorship, in which forced disappearances were tragically all to common.
Members of Maldonado’s family and some witnesses have claimed that Gendarmerie officers detained the 28-year-old before he went missing, implying they may have been involved in his disappearance.
Government officials, including Security Minister Patricia Bullrich and Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña, have been criticised for publicly offering their backing to the Gendarmerie on numerous occasions, despite the lack of clarity surrounding the events leading up to his disappearance.
Since Maldonado’s disappearance, local pressure from activists – which culminated in two mass rallies in the capital calling for his safe return and a series of satellite mobilisations across the country – and from international human rights organisations have piled pressure on the government.
Just this month, the United Nations called on the Argentine state to investigate the Gendarmerie’s “responsibilities” in the case and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced it had summoned representatives of the government and the family of the 28-year-old artisan to a hearing in Montevideo that will take place on October 26, four days after the midterm elections.
Former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, campaigning as part of her run for a senatorial seat in Buenos Aires province, has repeatedly criticised the government over the handling of the case.
Up until today's developments, the search for Santiago Maldonado has been fruitless. Many in the country will now be eagerly awaiting news of the identification of the body found in the Chubut river.
In a statement posted on Facebook in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the family of Santiago Maldonado dismissed reports that the body had been identified, saying that "until the relevant tests are performed, it is not possible to establish the identity [of the body] or the cause of death."
The family, which has been the focus of much media coverage and pressure, asked everyone to be respectful of their privacy at this difficult time.