Walking through the streets of Rosario, Acebal, Buenos Aires of – Argentina, I could not escape the question: ¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado? Where is Santiago Maldonado?
The phrase manifested everywhere. Often, it was accompanied or represented by a stencil of a bearded young man. The graffiti broadcasted the question as an imperative, of which the urgency I felt, even as an outsider. I asked my local guide about the meaning. She was dismissive. “It’s just people making politics.” Still, the ubiquity of the phrase made it hard to ignore.
The question led to more. Who is Santiago Maldonado? Why is he missing? And most of all, why had his disappearance created a firestorm in Argentina, blazing across the streets? The queries led me to consider the essence of political graffiti in the local context. To understand, I began to read and research the politics, history, and culture of Argentina.
¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado?
Santiago Maldonado was a poet, a backpacker, and an activist. A handsome 28-years old, Santiago had a wild nomad’s beard and a steely gaze. All-in-all, a romantic figure who would become a charismatic symbol of resistance; an unintended martyr of political means. Santiago was last seen alive during a protest on August 1st.
Argentine Spanish uses the word ‘manifestacion’ for ‘protest’. The cognate brings to mind a conjuring of a long silent anger, erupting out from years of repression. Santiago stood among the Mapuche Indians, defiant. The small band had gathered here in Patagonia to fight the foreign, landowners over disputed territory. Facundo Jones Huala, a leader of the Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche (RAM), a Mapuche separatist faction, was being held for destruction of private property and this manifestacion demanded his release.
Benetton, an Italian multinational fashion brand owned territory that had historically belonged to the Mapuche Indians. At 2.2 million acres, Benetton is the largest private landowner in Argentina. The company has a record of aggressive tactics against indigenous peoples.
Along National Route 40, which connected the north and south of the country, Santiago and co made their stand. The protesters created a roadblock of trees, stones, and fire to jam traffic, in the hopes that local law enforcement would free Huala. Roadblocks are a popular tactic of nonviolent resistance among South American indigenous groups.* Rather than cave to the demands of these scrappy dissidents, a judge sent in the Gendarmería to disperse the blockade.
The Gendarmería have a hard reputation. A paramilitary force, their official role is to serve as border guards for the nation’s frontiers. Their unofficial role is to bust heads for the state. By judicial orders, they were to use minimal violence in the crackdown. But in this heated confrontation, violence was all but certain. On August 1st, the two forces met, and the ensuing battle would have consequences for the nation.
Reports state that at first the protesters were dispersed semi-peacefully, until some began to throw stones at the Gendarmería. In response, the frontier guards enacted In flagrant delicate protocol, [Latin: In Blazing Offense], allowing them to retaliate without judicial warrant. Like thunder, they crashed upon the manifestacion with anti-riot ammunition and tear gas. Under the assault, the protesters tried to flee. Some attempted to escape across the nearby Chabut River, while others hid in the forest. When the dust settled on the day, several had been arrested and Santiago Maldonado was missing.
Fire, from Simmer to Boil
The case exploded across Argentina. It was campaign season, and in the run up to elections, the country was paralyzed by outrage from both sides of the political divide. Each accused the other of dishonesty; those on the left made allegations of brutality, while those on the right cited the incident as being over-dramatized.
The story had all the suitable elements for a media spectacle. The plight of the long repressed Mapuche Indians, heavy-handed tactics by a paramilitary force acting in vague jurisdiction, and a mysterious disappearance with violent implications.
The legislative contest posed important power dynamics for the future of Argentina. Currently the state of the nation is one of division, as rank and righteous as the divided discourse of the United States. The midterm elections were considered to be a referendum on President Macri’s austerity measures that are intended to repair the nation’s long broken economy, but have stirred resentment among the general population. Former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a socialist, was running for a senate seat in opposition to Macri’s reforms. Fernández had popular support within her own coalition, but she is also the subject of several corruption investigations.
The mystery of Santiago’s location invited heavy speculation. Theories flourished as to his whereabouts, from fringe conspiracies to crime scene deductions. Was it a forced disappearance, Santiago held in secret interrogation by the Gendarmería? One of the Mapuche protestors claimed the last they saw of Santiago was him being clubbed by the paramilitary. Was he somewhere in hiding, perhaps escaped to neighboring Chile? Or maybe he drowned in the Chaput river in his retreat? Santiago’s family doubted he would have deliberately tried to cross the river; Santiago couldn’t swim.
As weeks went by, and the question of where was Santiago Maldonado went unanswered, pressure built. Public accusations of the left focused on the villainy of the Gendarmería and the mismanagement of the government in the investigation. Critics on the right countered that the socialists were creating politics out of an unfortunate accident. Santiago drowned, they said, with insinuations that the young man had it coming for his defiance and apparent stupidity. Talking head’s babbled, social media tittered and twittered, and the streets ignited.
¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado? ¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado? ¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado? On every wall and bathroom stall, graffiti hands scrawled. His eyes looked up from storm drains and over alleyways, out from TVs and down from public displays. Stencils, tributes, vigils, memoriams, and memorials exploded across every screen and every street. As August became September and September became October, it echoed louder and louder and until the question had engulfed every atom of Argentine society.
New Century, Old Conflicts
To an outside observer, it may seem a simple matter of political spectacle, that which has become a commonplace procedure of the 21st century. But historical context provides deeper analysis into the passionate reaction. The mystery of Santiago Maldonado has brought friction to many raw wounds of unanswered disappearances and questions of state violence.
Repression has long been a tactic of the Argentinian government. In the case of the Mapuche Indians, their protests for the restoration of ancestral lands in traces back over 130 years. There is a historical precedent of cheating indigenous peoples out of land across the Americas, and in the frontiers of Patagonia lethal force has often been administered as a means of control.
Upon witnessing the crusades against indigenous peoples by the young nation, Charles Darwin remarked, in a passage titled ‘Wars of Extermination’:
“Everyone here is fully convinced that this is the most just war because it is against barbarians. Who would believe in this age, in a Christian civilized country, that such atrocities were committed?”
Nearly a century and a half later, violent tools of coercion are still being implemented.
Violence has burned its mark on a number of events in the history of Argentina. Often, it is the spark that ignites the fire of change in society. Though Santiago’s family stated he wasn’t politically active, commentators have implied that Maldonado was an anarchist. Though this is more likely a judgement on his lifestyle than an assessment of his motivations, the incrimination is a heavy charge. Fear of the anarchist insurrection has long been a deep seated terror of the nation’s elite.
Anarchism is a doctrine of political thought that advocates a rejection of private property and compulsive authority. A symptom of the radical left, it arrived on Argentina’s shores during the turn of the 19th century. The nation was booming, it’s economy among the strongest in the world, and the prosperity encouraged a flood of migrants. Among those that washed up on Buenos Aires shores were many Slavic immigrants. With them, they brought the tides of Marxist ideologies.
At a manifestacion in 1909, anarchists and other radical laborers protested in the streets, raging against the conditions of the working class. The demonstration was dealt with harshly by the Buenos Aires chief of police.
“A military man of the old school, a priest of law and order,” Colonel Ramón Falcón was a man of action. He had no sympathy for the demands of these foreign-born Bolsheviks. He crushed the strike without mercy.
The anarchists would have their retaliation. Months later, while riding in his horse-drawn coach, Colonel Falcón had a bomb thrown at his feet. His killer – a scrawny Ukrainian boy that barely spoke Spanish.
The blast sent shockwaves across society. Members of the conservative upper-crust were outraged, and demanded the death penalty. At first, prosecutors knew nothing about the boy, an immigrant without papers. The daily news made a spectacle of his trial, working up the public into a frenzy. In a dramatic reveal, it was learned that the assassin was an 18-year-old, acne-spotted anarchist, young Simon Radowitzky.
The trial became a battle for the boy’s life, with public calls to see Radowitzky shot against a wall. The defense pleaded that as a minor under Argentine law, his life should be spared for prison time. After heated debate, the judge ruled in favor of the boy’s life; serving him a life-sentence behind bars.
Simon Radowitzky would spend the next 21 years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. Captive at the notorious Ushuaia penitentiary, a dungeon on the edge of the world, Radowitzky became a symbol to anarchists and the radical left.
Decades later, the great depression would once again rouse political agitation among labor unions and the working class. In a bid to quell the unrest, President Yrigoyen pardoned Radowitzky. Instead, the naive president set into action the events that would cause his own overthrow. Conservative powers within the armed forces had long resented the anarchist for killing one of their own. In 1930, as a response to the pardon, they deposed the president and enacted the first military coup in Argentina’s history.
Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and the mystery of Santiago Maldonado stirred a nervous fever in Argentina. His family hoped he would return alive, even as the possibility seemed slimmer every day. But the masses were driven mad, troubled by the inability of authorities to deliver a body.
If, as some conspiracies put forth, Santiago had been tortured under interrogation, maybe he was kept hidden to hide a mutilated corpse. Both sides of the political spectrum demanded a body be found, to bring answers to the disappearance.
The public need for closure stems from echoes of a dictatorial past. Following the 1930 coup, Argentina operated on a wild pendulum of political instability. Civilian democracy was restored, only to be overthrown, again and again, with 6 coup d’états in 60 years. The last military dictatorship, which took power in 1976, was the most brutal.
A military junta removed President Peron’s widow, and installed themselves in power. Shortly after consolidating their control, the junta initiated a campaign of state-terrorism to suppress any opposition. Known as ‘the Dirty War,’ right-wing paramilitary groups operated as death squads with license to attack any and all forms of dissidence. Anarchists, artists, journalists, intellectuals, church members, labor unions, university students… anyone who questioned the state was silenced.
The Dirty War was enacted under a perverted doctrine of national security, and behind closed doors, leaders justified the violence as a necessary suppression of terrorist elements. Persecuted leftists were held in secret concentration camps where they were interrogated, tortured, raped, and executed. To absolve themselves the blood of their crimes, the dictatorship denied the reports of missing citizens.
In those years, there were many Santiagos. It is estimated that upwards of 10,000 were kidnapped in forced disappearances. For families, the mystery was never resolved and they were forced to live with the pain of uncertainty. In a moving testimony, activist Hebe de Bonafini recalled her sorrow as a grieving mother:
“I am thinking, thinking. Where are you, my son? You are out there somewhere, perhaps closer than I imagine? I think, and I wait for Maria Elena and Raul who don’t come. But I am with you; I imagine you thin, bent over, absent. Every day, and even more at night, I see you arrive, or I hear you knocking on the door. I open it, and there is nothing but silence, silence for everything.”
Bonafini would become an important member of a silent protest, a manifestacion of mothers who had lost their children. They gathered weekly at the Plaza de Mayo wearing white shawls, as a manner of both mourning and to express their defiance. Recognizing they couldn’t repress fragile mothers by the same violent means, the government instead aimed to discredit their protests. Nicknamed, ‘the Madwoman of Plaza de Mayo,’ the military junta depicted them as crazy old hags.
In the end, the white shawled woman had their justice served. Their status as suffering mothers attracted the sympathies of the foreign press, and helped highlight the human rights abuses of the dictatorship. The ‘Madwoman of Plaza de Mayo’ became critical players in the downfall of the oppressive government. The authoritarian state collapsed, and in 1983 Argentinians went to the polls to elect a leader in the newly reborn democracy. A truth council was established to investigate the many unsolved mysteries of disappeared youth. Their report was titled Nunca Mas – Never Again.
It’s hard to stare into the daring eyes of Santiago Maldonado without recalling another Latin hero. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was born in the Argentine city of Rosario in 1928. He grew up in a middle class family, becoming a doctor, and studying the treatment of leprosy.
On a post-university road trip around Latin America (observations captured in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’) the young man became sympathetic to the working poor of his continent. The Argentine became radicalized after witnessing firsthand the military coup in Guatemala in 1954. The CIA-backed power move toppled a democratically elected president. The experience changed him, and charged his political fervor.
Che would meet an ambitious Cuban lawyer named Fidel Castro in Mexico, and the two became revolutionary Marxists. By means of guerilla warfare and media manipulation, they toppled the US-backed dictator of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista. In Batista’s wake, Castro and Che launched the one-party communist state. On behalf of global leftist revolution, Che would go on to fight in Angola and Bolivia, where he was killed by the Bolivian military, with support from the U.S.
In his advocacy of revolutionary warfare, Che wrote: “Tactics and strategy are the main elements of the art of war, but war and politics are intimately related by a common denominator: the effort to reach a specific goal, whether it be annihilation of the adversary in armed conflict or the taking of power.”
However, he is remembered less for his guerrilla tactics than as a symbol.
Latin America has a legacy of romanticized rebellion. Alberto Korda, a fashion photographer turned revolutionary, took the iconic, Guerrillero Heroico. The photo captured the good doctor in a march of solidarity for those killed in an unexplained dock explosion (Castro faulted the United States.) The image entered popular culture, shaping Che as a figure of somber resistance. “Since his death he has become a modern myth… not yet stripped of his youthful vitality.” The same could be said of Santiago Maldonado.
¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado?
On October 18, 79 days since Santiago’s disappearance, a body was found. It was discovered in the Patagonian river, only several hundred meters upstream from where the backpacker had disappeared. Both the left and the right suspended their campaigns until the corpse could be identified.
Forensic experts were flown in, including the team that identified Che. In the state morgue, with tear-filled eyes the Maldonado family looked upon the tattooed body. It was Santiago. Although, Sergio [his brother] would not confirm this to the press until forensic experts could verify that it was indeed him. After careful examination, the autopsy revealed the body was without contusions akin to torture. The cause of death was drowning.
The results did not satisfy everyone. From the left, there were still suspicions the body was planted. From the general public, the Macri administration’s mishandling of the investigation deepened his unpopularity. However, others were happy to see the spectacle come to an end.
Father of Catholic Nations and an Argentine Son, Pope Francis offered to help mediate. His holiness spoke with Maldonado’s family, to offer comfort and support. In a letter to the grieving mother, the Pontiff wrote: “In these moments of so much pain and sadness, I bring you the security of my closeness and my prayer.”
Though the family is still recovering from the spectacle, the political implications were swift. Macri’s governing coalition won decisive victories in the midterm elections, sweeping the opposition party of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The triumph will embolden the center-right party to expand the scope of Macri’s economic reforms and austerity measures. For Kirchner and her leftist allies, who helped fuel allegations that Macri’s government was behind a cover-up, the election will have lasting consequences.
This December, Kirchner was indicted on accounts of treason for an unsolved bombing of a Jewish community in Buenos Aires, with a judicial order for her arrest. The ex-president has been accused of a cover-up, and there are suspicions of her involvement in the 2015 murder of a prosecutor who intended to bring charges against her. These legal allegations are in addition to the corruption investigations. Kirchner denies all charges.
And what of Santiago Maldonado? Now, that he has been found, what will his legacy be within the canon of Argentina? Though forensics would appear to have cleared the government of fault, and the elections validating popular support, many are still suspicion of the state.
Disillusioned youth voice their protest through graffiti, turning the streets into a canvas of dissent. Historical precedent shows violence originating from both the left and the right, the anarchists and the state. The question is, will people truly accept the future proposed by the government? Or perhaps, in the words of Che Guevara; “Today’s restlessness is an unmistakable symptom of rebellion.”
Written by T.K. Mills
Photos provided by T.K. Mills
For more by the author, check out his website tkmills.com
* While in Bolivia during January 2016, I witnessed firsthand the power and intimidation of one such roadblock. The protestors had shut down the road to Uyuni [famous for its salt flats] as a means of demanding the government supply a new bus station. After careful negotiation, we were allowed to pass but only on foot, abandoning our ride and trekking some miles into town.
Sources – Books
The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey – Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Ocean Press, 2003
The Argentina Reader: History, Culture, Politics – Edited by Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela Montaldo, Duke University Press, 2002 [With focus on the following articles]
–Wars of Extermination – Charles Darwin
–Simon Radowitzky – Osvaldo Bayer
–The Latin American Revolution According to Che – Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
–Modernization and Military Coups – Guillermo O’Donnell
–The Madwomen at the Plaza de Mayo – Hebe de Bonafini and Matilde Sanchez
–Never Again – National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons
Sources – Online
Al-Jazeera – Santiago Maldonado’s Death Over Shadows Election
Council of Hemispheric Affairs – Benetton in Patagonia: The Oppression of Mapuche in Argentine South
Clarin Politics [In Translation] – Despite Recusal, Otranto Continues to Lead the Cause for the Eviction of Route 40
The New York Times – Body found in Argentine River Shakes Up Election
The New York Times [In Translation] – ¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado?
The New York Times – Argentina’s Leader, Mauricio Macri, Bolstered by Election Results
The New York Times – Judge Seeks Arrest of ex-President of Argentina on Treason Charges
Publico [In Translation] – “¿Donde Esta Santiago Maldonado?”
Telesur [In Translation] – Pope Francis Meets Family of Drowned Santiago Maldonado