How the Disappearance of an Indigenous Activist Sparked an Uprising in Argentina

Source: In These Times

A conflict between indigenous communities and capitalist plunderers has long been simmering. The case of Santiago Maldonado brought tensions to a boiling point.

For the past three months, an unsettling question has riled Argentina: Where is Santiago Maldonado, the indigenous rights activist disappeared under murky circumstances after a protest? The tragic answer took 78 days to establish.

Santiago Maldonado, 28, was last seen on August 1 at the Pu-Lof indigenous community in Chubut, Patagonia. An artisan and organizer from El Bolsón, he traveled to support the Mapuche’s struggle. Dwellers of the Patagonia region, which abuts Argentina and Chile, the Mapuche people have been demanding the restitution of their ancestral land and protection from the encroachment of multinational corporations, such as the clothing manufacturer Benetton.

Since the 1990s, land grabs have plagued Argentina, where soil is sold at ridiculously low prices. Italian billionaire Luciano Benetton tops the list of foreign land owners in Argentina, with more than 2.2 million acres bought in the 1990s at a remarkably low cost.

But he is not alone. Ted Turner, Jacob Suchard (owner of Nestlé) and George Soros, among others, have also heavily invested in the large swaths of land in the Southern Cone, the southernmost part of South America. The arrival of foreign capital to the Patagonia has brought predictable consequences: the plunder of natural resources by extractive industries, the displacement of indigenous and first nation populations, the enclosure of land and violent state repression.

What happened on August 1?

In the past 15 years, the conflict over the land on which the Mapuche community lives has escalated on both sides of the Argentinean-Chilean border. The government of Chile first levied charges of terrorism against the Mapuches in 2002.  Today, this conflict has reached fever pitch. In a particularly concerning turn of events, Mapuche leader Facundo Jones Huala was jailed in Argentina in June of this year under charges that had already been dismissed by the Argentine courts—on the grounds that they were based on a testimony obtained through torture in Chile.

This backdrop of state repression and hostile political climate foreshadowed Maldonado’s disappearance by the end of summer. As early as August 1, Maldonado took part in a roadblock at the Pu-Lof Mapuche territory, now owned by Benetton. Participants iin this roadblock demanded the freedom of Jones Huala, the leader of Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche (RAM), a nationalist Mapuche organization. Faced with a brutal repression by the National Gendarmerie, those at the roadblock were forced into the weeds and towards the river. Maldonado was never seen again.

What followed changed the political landscape. Maldonado’s picture inundated social media, and  a campaign began—one in which hundreds of thousands asked the seething question: Where is Santiago Maldonado?

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