It is now more than a month since I wrote down in capital letters “REMEMBER SANTIAGO MALDONADO” in an exercise book that I use to jot things down. I feared that concern for the missing 28-year-old might dwindle and the significance of his disappearance would be diminished by other events.
Maldonado, who is usually described in the media as a “hippie tattoo artist” or artisan, had joined a protest by a group of Mapuches, the escendants of the original population of an area in Patagonia between El Bolson and Esquel. He vanished on August 1 after a minor clash between the Gendarmerie (Border Guards) and the Mapuches, who had blocked Route 40.
Now more than two months have passed and Maldonado’s whereabouts are even more of a mystery.
The judge who was investigating the case has resigned and his replacement has a lot of catching up to do, starting with some 2,000 pages of vidence that must be read. It was encouraging for me to learn that the new judge had stressed in a message to his staff: “We are searching for a human being.”
So far, the most objective reporting I have seen on the disappearance of Maldonado was by Fernando Soriano, posted October 1 by the online outlet Infobae.
Soriano began by itemising a few of the false reports that had appeared in newspapers and on the Internet. The young man was reportedly sighted, twice, 2,000 kilometres away in Entre Rios; a middle-aged married couple claimed that they gave him a lift; he was said to have been hidden by the Mapuches; it was also reported that he was wounded in an attack at a Benetton estancia guardhouse; another version claimed that he had crossed the frontier into Chile.
Speculation on the part of the man and woman in the street has been even less helpful. Some supporters of the government believe that Maldonado has been in hiding on the orders of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, specifically to discredit President Mauricio Macri by – to use an expression that appalls me – “throwing a dead body at him.”
Most people I have talked to seem to think that “something happened” when the Gendarmerie clashed with the Mapuche protestors. They assume that Maldonado was killed, probably accidentally, and that his corpse has been disposed of, perhaps through one of the ways that the bodies of victims were made to disappear during the military dictatorship.
Infobae reporter Soriano reported that six officers of the Gendarmerie were granted leave 24 to 48 hours after the clash on Route 40 and that they ave yet to be questioned. That information seemed to confirm a rumour circulating in Bariloche and other towns in the area that the Gendarmerie were sent on leave to evade questioning about the clash with the Mapuches that resulted in the wounding of an officer.
What has most encouraged me most were the two massive protest marches to the Plaza de Mayo that asked simply “Where is Santiago Maldonado?” and called for his re-appearance alive and well.
Those two marches to the Plaza de Mayo and the speeches made by two of Santiago Maldonado’s brothers revealed that there is a collective onscience in the country that will not be silenced, one that will not allow a return to those days past when disappearing people was a convenient way to wipe out dissent.
What has wounded me is the stone-faced attitude of people who appear to be incapable of understanding that, as the judge pointed out, at the heart of this matter is “a human being” who has disappeared in suspicious circumstances.
I had the impression earlier that, behind the scenes, there was a politically motivated effort to assassinate Santiago Maldonado’s character. But an exhaustive report by one of the reporters for Jorge Lanata’s programme Periodismo para todos (“Journalism for Everyone”) effectively stablished that the young man whose visage is now iconic was a loveable person.
Everyone the reporter spoke to had only good things to say about him. Members of his family have also emerged – in the glare of an intense media spotlight – as people with integrity, touchingly innocent, perhaps even picturesque even if their anarchism seems slightly out of date in the modern world of politics.
The significance of Maldonado’s disappearance is that it is a moral challenge. The government’s legitimacy stems from its moral authority and his, in turn, rests on respect for human rights, a government in defence of human lives.
The challenge to resolve or, at the least, satisfactorily explain the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado rests with the government.
It cannot be evaded without undermining the government’s legitimacy.