Santiago Maldonado, a 28-yearold artisan, has been missing for almost 40 days now and the impact of his absence has extended far beyond his family. The case now represents a major challenge for the government of Mauricio Macri, especially as members of the Maldonado family have accused the government of misleading the investigation through the actions of Security Minister Patricia Bullrich.
While esquel Federal Judge Guido Otranto has ordered the banks of the Chubut river be raked to determine if Maldonado’s body is there, the family has continued to call on magistrate and prosecutor Silvina Avila to focus on the actions of the Gendarmerie (Border Guards), the security force that led a violent operation to forcibly disperse protesters on August 1, the day the young man disappeared.
Several witnesses told the court this week that they saw Santiago Maldonado as he escaped from the operation to clear the blockade next to the Pu Lof Cushamen indigenous community, almost 40 days ago. A member of the Mapuche indigenous community, Matías Santana, told the court that he was using a pair of binoculars and saw Santiago – who was wearing a light-blue anorak he had lent to him – being forced into a Border Guard’s van on the day in question.
The decision to rake the grounds of the area came soon after Judge Otranto collected evidence Maldonado had been in the area that day. But for some, the move does not go far enough, Verónica Heredia, the lawyer who represents Maldonado’s relatives, has argued that efforts should be focused on the officers of the Gendarmerie, because multiple witnesses have claimed they saw Maldonado being beaten and taken away by Border Guard officers.
Two probes. There are two probes ongoing that aim to determine the whereabouts of Maldonado. Judge Otranto is leading a probe aimed at responding to the habeas corpus requests filed by human rights organisations, while Prosecutor Silvina Ávila is investigating the alleged forced disappearance of the tattoo artist. (What does a ‘forced disappearance’ actually mean? That a person has gone missing due to the action of state actors, officers or their acquiescence.)
Investigators are still waiting for the results of the tyre-tracks collected by the Federal Police from vans that belong to the Border Guard and DNA tests being conducted by professor Daniel Corach. Both tests are aimed at determining conclusively if Santiago was inside one of the security force’s vehicles. Human rights groups and the plaintiffs are awaiting those results, which could shed light on at least part of the mystery.
There have been some incidents, sources said. On Thursday, Heredia reported that the registries of the Border Guard of July 31 and August 1 had been altered, that there were pages missing and some other had been glued together. The lawyer also complained that progress is not being made quick enough, pointing out that the registries had been seized on August 17 but had not yet been analysed by the prosecutor so far. “If we don’t have prosecutors who investigate, probes do not make progress,” Heredia said.
According to the Maldonado family lawyer, during a meeting she held with prosecutor Ávila and Fernando Vallone – of the Attorney General’s Office Against Institutional Violence (Procuvin) – the latter acknowledged that he was participating in the investigation because there was reason to believe that Santiago had been forcibly disappeared.
“The hypothesis of the Attorney General’s Office is that it is a forced disappearance,” Heredia said at a press conference she gave along with Sergio Maldonado, Santiago’s eldest brother.
According to sources of the Attorney General’s Office, rumours that raw footage recorded by the Gendarmerie on August 1 during its attempts to clear the blockade are true.
Dismissed claims. On September 4, Judge Otranto dismissed a line of investigation that had been put forth by the government’s security minister, Patricia Bullrich. The judge revealed that DNA tests had confirmed the person who had been wounded in an attack by evaristo Jones, a property caretaker for lands owned by the Benetton family, on July 21 was not Santiago Maldonado. The news prompted an angry reaction from human rights organisations, who felt the government had tried to muddy the waters surrounding the 28-year-old’s disappearance.
“The government sought to divert the investigation through Security Minister Bullrich,” said Gastón Chillier, the executive director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CeLS), speaking earlier this week.
Bullrich has fiercely defended the Gendarmerie whenever allegations of wrongdoing in the case were levelled against them. However, this week the government decided to change track and made Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj the person in charge of detailing the executive’s position to the public. Avruj immediately travelled to esquel, where he met Judge Otranto.
While there, Avruj accused Kirchnerite politicians, their supporters and human rights groups of “playing dirty” and played down the role of the Border Guards.
“Considering the reports of the judge and the prosecutor there are no grounds to blame the Border Guard,” he said.
Meanwhile, the stakes in the capital have continued to rise. Federal prosecutor Federico Delgado has requested that Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral open an investigation to determine if President Macri, Bullrich and other members of the Cabinet have sought to cover-up the disappearance of Maldonado, a move requested by the Argentine League for Human Rights.