Death of Santiago Maldonado

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Santiago Maldonado
Santiago Andrés Maldonado.JPG
Santiago Andrés Maldonado

25 July 1989
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Died1 August 2017 (aged 28)
Chubut, Argentina

The Santiago Maldonado case refers to the death of an Argentine demonstrator, who took part in a road block and was missing after the Argentine gendarmerie dispersed the demonstration. Maldonado's body was found months later in a nearby river with no signs of violence. The events took place in Cushamen, located in the Argentine province of Chubut. The autopsy of the body indicated that Santiago's cause of death was "drowning by immersion in the water of the Chubut River, contributed by hypothermia" and that it was a "traumatic death" and there were no signs of violence. The autopsy also showed that the body had stayed underwater for at least 55 days.[1] The law-enforcement action was carried out by the Argentine National Gendarmerie, a security force that operates under the direct command of the National Security Minister, Patricia Bullrich, under the control of President Mauricio Macri.[2][3][4][5][6]

On October 20, 2017, Santiago's family confirmed that the body found floating in Chubut River was indeed his.[7] On October 21, a twelve-hour autopsy revealed no lesions in his body, leading experts to conclude that he had drowned.[8] On November 24, 2017 the verdict of a commission of 55 forensic experts confirmed that Santiago Maldonado died by asphyxia and hypotermia; different studies showed that the corpse at the time of the autopsy was between 55 days and 72 days old. The experts also confirmed that there were no blows or injuries. Nevertheless, the defense insists that the case is a forced disappearance.[9] The case was closed on November 29, 2018, when judge Gustavo Lleral ruled that there was no forced disappearance.[10]

The event[edit]

Santiago Andrés Maldonado (born 25 July 1989) was a craftsman and tattoo artist from the town of Veinticinco de Mayo, province of Buenos Aires. A few months before his disappearance he had moved to El Bolsón, province of Río Negro, about 70 kilometers north of a Mapuche settlement named Cushamen. Maldonado supported the aboriginal communities in their land claims, but, according to his family, he had never before been politically active because "he does not believe in politics".[11]

The event took place on July 31 and August 1, 2017, at the Chubut Province. The location was the Pu Lof de la Resistencia of Cushamen, a mapuche establishment built in territories seized from the Italian clothing company Benetton Group by Facundo Jones Huala. Huala, member of the Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche group,[12] was jailed because of the violent protest activities including destruction of properties that undertook in several locations, and members of the Pu Lof organized a picketing protest at the National Route 40, advocating for his liberation.[13] The people in the demonstration were hooded, and had completely blocked the road with trees, stones and fire, thus not allowing any transit through the road. The protest was carried out by eight people, Santiago Maldonado among them. Judge Guido Otranto instructed the Argentine National Gendarmerie to clear the blockade and disperse the protesters, who escaped. The judge had also instructed them to use minimal violence, and film the operation on video.[13]

The protesters tried to block the road again some hours later, on August 1. The protesters reacted violently to the Gendarmerie this time, and attacked them with stones. Commander Juan Pablo Escola reported that two gendarmes were gravely injured in their faces during the attack. He sent a group of 30 gendarmes to the Pu Lof. Although he did not have a judicial warrant to do so, he considered that the attack could be considered as in flagrante delicto, which would have allowed to skip that requirement.[13]

Some protesters attempted to escape by swimming across the Chubut River, and others tried to hide in a forest next to the river. Maldonado could not cross the river because he could not swim.[14] The whereabouts of Santiago Maldonado were unknown after that point.[13]

Judicial case[edit]

A judicial case, led by a judge and three prosecutors, tries to determine the whereabouts of Maldonado. The national government[15] and the provincial government of Chubut[16] asked to be complainants in the case. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights suggested that, in case of doubt about a case being a forced disappearance or not, it should be investigated as if it was.[17] In line with this suggestion, the Gendarmerie was removed from taking an active role in the investigation.[15] The United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances has requested to oversee the investigation, which was accepted by Argentina. As a result, both the judiciary and the Argentine government will have to keep the organization updated about every progress of the investigation.[18]

The case was initially investigated as a search and rescue, and was later rebranded as a forced disappearance. However, the change was made without any new evidence that may suggest an involvement of the Gendarmeria.[19]

A group of twenty mapuches occupied the court on September 20, asking for the removal of judge Otranto.[20]

The Maldonado family and the CELS accused the judge Otranto of not being an impartial jury. The federal chamber of appeals of Comodoro Rivadavia recused him from the case, but clarified in the sentence that they found no reason to doubt his intellectual honesty and respect to the procedures. He was recused instead because of an interview with the newspaper La Nación, where he made an extrajudicial commentary about the accuracy of the theories, before formally closing the case. Otranto was then replaced by judge Gustavo Llerald.[21] The Maldonado family celebrated the removal of Otranto, but complained that their specific request had been rejected.[22] Otranto is still in charge of the case over the road block that started the case.[13]

On 21 October 2017, after a 12-hour autopsy involving 52 experts, including those appointed by Maldonado's family, Judge Gustavo Lleral confirmed that Maldonado's body did not have any signs of violence and the cause of death was established as death by drowning. On November 24, 2017 the verdict of the 55 experts confirmed that Maldonado drowned and that there were no signs of violence on his body. How, when and why he died is still on investigation.[23][24]

The prosecutor Silvina Avila asked in December 2017 to change the folder of the case from forced disappearance to suspicious death, on the grounds that the investigation did not reveal any clue that may support the forced disappearance hypothesis. There was a similar request from the Ministry of Security in May 2018. The judge Lleral rejected both requests. He pointed that the folder of the case is inconsequential, that changing it before the case was closed would be an improper advance of opinion, and that the case is not guided by the folder's name but by the results of the investigations.[25] There are no specific members of the gendarmerie formally accused of wrongdoing or called for inquiry, which turns it into a moot point.[9]

International cases[edit]

On August 7, 2017, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances expressed its "concern about the physical and psychological integrity" of Maldonado and requested the Argentine state to adopt "a comprehensive search strategy", taking "all the urgent measures that are necessary to search for him and find him, taking into account the information provided by the members of the Pu Lof Mapuche community that were present at the moment of the repression".[26][27] The UN committee also requested that the Gendarmerie does not participate in the search and investigation of the disappearance and that the Argentine government protects all the evidence that may help to identify those responsible for the disappearance. The same day, the Minister of Security offered a reward to those who "while not having participated in the crime, offer useful information that can help find the whereabouts" of Maldonado.[28]

On August 23, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), of the Organization of American States, also took a precautionary measure asking the Argentine state to "adopt all the necessary measures to determine the situation and whereabouts of Mr. Santiago Maldonado" and to "inform about all the measures that have been adopted to investigate the facts".[29]

On October 6, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances published a document addressed to the Argentine national government in which the former expresses its concern about the lack of progress in the clarification of what happened to Santiago Maldonado. The UN demanded the Macri administration to set as a priority the clarification of the role of the Gendarmerie and to keep this force away from the investigation. It also accused the authorities of quickly rejecting the hypothesis according to which the Gendarmerie is the perpetrator of the enforced disappearance of Maldonado. The Committee expressed its concern regarding the lack of partiality of judge Guido Otranto. It finally pointed out that there are officials of the Macri administration that continue to stigmatize the members of the Pu Lof by portraying them as a threat to national security, when the government should be instead offering protection to the Mapuche community.[30]

The UN and the IACHR closed those cases in January 2018, a pair of months after Maldonado was found.[31]


Maldonado escaped from the Gendarmerie by trying to cross the Chubut River. A new search revealed a corpse in the river on October 17.[32] There were no reports of other deaths or missing people in the area, and it was confirmed that it was a male, with light blue clothes as those that witnesses reported that Maldonado was wearing.[33] The corpse was found 300 meters upstream from the area of the events.[34]

Newspaper Clarin said that the hypothesis of the government was that the presence of many aquatic plants and strong flows could make it difficult to find the corpse.[35] The autopsy conducted on 21 October 2017 confirmed forensic evidence clearly pointed to drowning and hypotermia as the cause of death[36] The autopsy, witnessed by 52 experts including that of the Maldonado family and international organizations, revealed no evidence of injuries. The corpse was acknowledged to be Maldonado's by the 52 experts witnessing the autopsy. On November 29, 2018 Judge Lleral closed the case citing no further evidence pointing towards anything different to an accidental drowning.[10]

Maldonado's legal plans[edit]

Despite of the recovery of the body, and the results of the autopsy, the defense of the Maldonado family insists that the case was a forced disappearance. They consider that he had been taken and killed by the gendarmerie elsewhere, and then his body was planted into the crime scene. They say that the body presents signs of cryopreservation, although the autopsy does not reveal such signs. This theory does not provide an explanation to the absence of any signs of manipulation of the body, or the way the gendarmerie could have sneaked into a location closely watched by the mapuches.[9]

The Maldonado family requested a deeper autopsy study, and a new autopsy by independent people. The judge rejected both requests. He considered that the results of the autopsy were clear enough, and that an autopsy by outside people would go against the sovereignty of the judicial power. The defense asked for big number of investigations, that the judge systematically rejects as extemporaneous, pointless or impossible to perform. Those rejected investigations would be cited in later judicial stages, and even in a potential international case once all the local judicial venues are done, to argue an obstruction of justice.[9]

Former hypothesis[edit]

Forced disappearance[edit]

According to witnesses, after the Argentine National Gendarmerie had an encounter with the Lof, agents from this security force carried somebody to a truck.[37] Later those witnesses admitted to lying to the court and are facing perjury charges. The Gendarmerie denies having detained Maldonado, so does the minister of security, Patricia Bullrich.

The witnesses made public comments, but refused to testify in court.[38] They proposed to testify while concealing their identities with hoods, which was rejected by the judiciary.[39] Other witnesses told before justice that Maldonado was taken by Gendarmerie agents.[39]

Eighty biological samples were retrieved from the vehicles used by the Gendarmerie during the operation, and used for a DNA test. Another fourteen samples were ignored, as they were unsuitable for testing. The results were released a month later: none of them matched the DNA of Maldonado.[40] The value of this evidence has been disputed by public defender Fernando Machado, who argued that the samples would have been taken after the trucks had been washed. The judge dismissed those concerns.[40]

The prosecutor Silvina Avila made a report that established that there are no solid evidences that link the Gendarmerie with Maldonado.[41] As of September 17, the judge does not consider the theory of a forced disappearance to be likely.[42]

Audio files were taken from WhatsApp conversations held by those involved in the operation on the day. One of the files, sent by a member of the gendarmeria, states that a sergeant had "Maldonado in a truck".[43] A more detailed analysis revealed that the comment was made on August 16, only as part of a private joke between members of the Gendarmerie while Bullrich explained the case to the Congress.[44] All 70 cell phones of the gendarmes were investigated, and none of them had been used to discuss an actual forced disappearance operation.[35]

Ariel Garzi, a fellow craftsman from El Bolsón, called Santiago Maldonado's cellphone on August 2. The call was answered by an unknown person. It lasted 22 seconds, during which Garzi heard the sound of steps.[45] Ariel Garbanz, an engineer from the Communications Security Lab of the National Technological University, investigated the call and claims to know the location where the phone was answered. Judge Otranto refused to look at this evidence.[46]

Received a mortal wound[edit]

Maldonado could have received a mortal wound during the escape, which would have caused his death at some later point. The Mapuches may have buried the body and then made up an accusation about an alleged forced disappearance in order to advance their political agenda.[47]


A theory considered that Maldonado was still alive, hiding in Mapuche territory. A search with search and rescue dogs conducted on August 16 suggested that he would have been in the area in the previous 24 hours.[47]

The government also considered that Maldonado may have never been in the protest to begin with. As all people in the protest were hooded, it was not possible to properly recognize him in photos or filmings of the event. The Maldonado family reported that he was a quiet and peaceful man, which would make it unlikely that he would take part in a violent protest in a road. The mapuches Beatriz Garay Neri, Soraya Noemí Guitart and Nicolás Jones Huala reported that they talked with him on August 1, in the morning, but did not provide further details about his presence or the topics of discussion. They did not report his absence either, and ignored his full name.[35]


Santiago Maldonado used his cell phone for the last time on July 21, 2017. That day, four or five hooded members of the Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche invaded the small house of Evaristo Jones, a worker for the Benetton family. Jones reported that he tried to defend himself by stabbing one of those people with a knife. As there are no cases of knife injuries treated in nearby hospitals on that day, or info about Maldonado's activities in the immediate days prior to the August 1 protest, it is suspected that he may be the stabbed thief, and that he had bled to death days before the protest.[48]

The family of Maldonado tried to refute this theory by providing a video of another picketing protest of the RAM that took place on July 31, which would have been attended by Maldonado.[49] They also provide testimonials from numerous people who saw Santiago after the supposed attack.[50] In addition, Evaristo Jones, the attacked worker, denied having hurt any of the attackers.[51] The Maldonado family also affirms that they had telephone conversations with Santiago on July 25 (his birthday) and on July 27.[52]

Through DNA tests it was proved that Santiago Maldonado was not injured in said episode.[53]


A demonstration in Buenos Aires

Kirchnerism and human rights organizations exploited the case to advance a political discourse against Macri. Treating the case like a forced disappearance allowed to draw comparisons between his government and the Dirty War that took place during the National Reorganization Process, in the 1970s. According to this narrative, Macri would have a covert plan to kidnap and kill demonstrators, the gendarmerie, the judiciary and the media would be working alongside Macri in such a plan, and Maldonado would be just the first victim of it.[54] Human rights organizations had aligned themselves with the Kirchners during the government of both Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, even in topics unrelated to human rights, and often worked as their spokesmen. They kept this role since 2015, when Macri defeated Cristina Kirchner in the presidential elections.[55] This, however, undermined their legitimacy in the Argentine society, as an increasingly portion of the population loses interest in the events of the 1970s, and their public image got tied to that of Cristina Kirchner.[56]

The disappearance of Maldonado has also mobilized international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International[57] and Human Rights Watch.[58] In Buenos Aires, La Plata, Bariloche, Mar del Plata, Bahía Blanca, General Madariaga, Mendoza, Malargüe, El Bolsón, Rawson, Viedma, Gualeguaychú, Rosario and Neuquen thousands of people marched in demonstrations demanding that Maldonado appears alive and the resignation of Bullrich.[59][60][61] People also marched to demand that Santiago Maldonado is brought back alive in Bogotá (Colombia), Asunción (Paraguay), Montevideo (Uruguay), Canelones and Fray Bentos (Uruguay).[62][63] In Spain, several Argentine residents marched to Plaça de Catalunya to ask for Santiago Maldonado.[64] On August 11, there was a large mass demonstration in Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires. On August 21, during the 49th ordinary session of PARLASUR, in Montevideo, Argentine representatives condemned the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado.[65][66]

The disappearance of Maldonado took place shortly before the 2017 midterm elections. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, leader of one of the opposition parties, mentioned the case repeatedly during her rallies.[38] Kirchner and several Kirchnerite politicians used it to draw controversial comparisons between the presidency of Mauricio Macri and the 1970s Dirty War. However, political analysts consider that the case is unlikely to affect the election results, and that the aggressive rhetoric of Kirchner may actually scare independent voters and increase the chances of the Cambiemos official coalition.[67] the corpse of Maldonado was found a few days before the elections. By the time of voting, the Maldonado family had confirmed his identity and the initial autopsy revealed no signs of violence against the body; the official results of the full autopsy would be released a pair of weeks later.[68]

August 30 is the International Day of the Disappeared, and several teachers affiliated to the CTERA union mentioned the event during school classes. This action was rejected by groups of parents because it described the involvement of the Gendarmerie as a confirmed fact, and it was considered a case of political indoctrination.[69]

The Macri administration first negated the disappearance of Maldonado. As the days went by, members of Mr. Macri's cabinet send contradictory messages.[70]

Demonstrators in Uruguay ask for the whereabouts of Santiago Maldonado

On September 1, 2017, a month after Santiago Maldonado's disappearance, thousands of people expressed themselves through rallies and demonstrations asking for his appearance alive. The largest demonstration took place in Plaza de Mayo and was organized by Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Línea Fundadora), Relatives of the Disappeared and Imprisoned for Political Reasons, HIJOS, the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), the Argentine League for the Rights of Man, and the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, among other organizations.[71] In other cities, such as Mendoza, Mar del Plata, San Luis, San Juan, Neuquén, Salta, Posadas, Jujuy, Santiago del Estero, Villaguay, Concepción del Uruguay, Gualeguaychú and Concordia there were rallies and demonstrations with the same demand.[72] In Rosario and Córdoba there were rallies with an attendance of 40000 each.[73][74] There were also protests in Spain, Brazil, France, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Austria and the United States which were organized through social media.[75][76] In London,[77] São Paulo, Berlin, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, Barcelona, Sidney, Santiago, Mexico City, Vienna, Washington DC and New York City, groups of people expressed their solidarity with the demand for the appearance of Santiago Maldonado alive.[78][79][80]

See also[edit]


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