BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – His youthful bearded face and penetrating gaze stare straight ahead. It’s a portrait that’s become ubiquitous here, from the walls near the presidential palace, La Casa Rosada, to the sides of buildings along the city centers' principal avenues. He is Santiago Maldonado.
More than one month after the 28-year-old artisan went missing at an indigenous-rights demonstration in the south of the country, there are still no answers about his whereabouts. Citizens have launched a massive campaign to plaster images of Maldonado’s face on walls and signs in public spaces to pressure government action in the case.
“It’s all about making the campaign for Santiago visible,” said Luciana, a photographer who works with the photography collective Movimiento Argentino de Fotógrafxs Independientes Autoconvocadxs, or M.A.F.I.A., the group organizing the campaign. “It makes an impact,” she added. She asked that her name not be published due to the group's illegal defacing of public property.
A number of witnesses say Maldonado was arrested and beaten August 1, when a dispute erupted between border police officers and supporters of a Mapuche indigenous community that is being displaced from an area controlled by the United Colors of Benetton, the Italian clothing company.
The police have repeatedly denied detaining Maldonado.
In a country with a history of disappearances, the case has sent hundreds of thousands into the streets in protest.
After initially denying police involvement, the government has joined calls to investigate police officers for wrongdoing.
Maldonado was first reported missing after police tried to take down the protestors’ roadblock on Route 40, the country’s main highway, which criss-crosses from north to south.
Violence broke out when border police arrived. Protesters ran towards the river to escape but Maldonado didn’t make it across, according to witnesses, who say police captured him.
Maldonado, an activist who supported a number of human rights causes, was demanding the release of a jailed Mapuche community leader who organized the occupation of the Benetton-owned land in the Patagonian province of Chubut, claiming ancestral rights.
At a press conference last week, attorney Verónica Heredia, who represents the Maldonado family, said witnesses told a federal judge that Maldonado “was brutally beaten by three border police, lifted into an army truck and then taken away by another van.”
She asserted that other evidence had been covered up and tampered with. “This is what the authorities do not want to hear, see or take responsibility for,” she said.
The border police’s records were seized on August 17. “They’ve all been fiddled with: there are extra sheets stuck-in with scotch tape,” the lawyer said.
The police have not responded and the Secretary for Human Rights, Claudio Avruj, said the case is now in the hands of a judge.
Maldonado had two Argentine cell phones and one Chilean phone, none of which have been located. On August 2, a friend of Maldonado’s called his cell and was met with 22 seconds of silence. The call was traced as being answered from Chile.
Investigators also said key photos and footage of police entering the occupied Mapuche land are missing. Security forces record their operations on cameras and cell phones.
Maldonado’s brother Sergio has called for Security Minister Patricia Bullrich to resign, branding her “incapable.” The family reports it took the government nine days to get in touch with them after Maldonado went missing, and only as public pressure mounted.
In photos: 'Where is Santiago Maldonado?'
Memories of the ‘Dirty War’
Argentina has a dark history of disappearances. Human rights groups say up to 30,000 people “disappeared” when a brutal military dictatorship ruled from 1976 to 1983.
Bullrich initially defended the police force’s actions saying, “The police are not the same as 40 years ago,” in reference to Argentina's military dictatorship.
But she later contradicted herself, telling the Human Rights Comission, “maybe an officer went too far.”
Earlier this month, over 250,000 citizens, human rights activists, union leaders and left-wing groups united under Maldonado’s name to march in Buenos Aires. It was the biggest yet in a string of marches which have taken place across Argentina and Europe.
Veronica Ramis, a young mother, had traveled two-and-a-half hours to get to the capital. She broke down in tears as she said, “We never want this to happen again. I think everyone here realizes it could be any one of us."
At the end of the march, the Maldonado family was joined on a stage by elderly women from Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who lost their children during the dictatorship, along with Argentine Nobel Peace Prize Winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. Crowds cheered “Santiago Presente; Ahora y Siempre!” (Santigo present, now and forever!) Many of the mothers were seated in wheelchairs.
Rumor and division
The case has underscored deep partisan divisions in the country.
President Mauricio Macri from the ruling right party, says there is still not enough evidence to charge anyone.
"Our biggest concern is that the case is stagnant and it’s not clear where to go from here," a member of the government’s judicial team told Clarin newspaper last week.
In a radio interview, Avruj affirmed, “the main hypothesis in the Maldonado disappearence points to the border police.”
Avruj has presented documentation to a judge, including the internal investigation carried out among the 73 border police involved in operations the day of Maldonado’s disappearance. The department is also waiting for the DNA tests of the trucks and seized objects from raids in Chubut.
The family has called for the judge, Guido Otranto, to step aside.
The Governor of the province of Chubut confirmed that the Head of the Cabinet for the Ministry of National Security, Pablo Noceti, designed the repressive operation, after which Santiago vanished. Noceti is the key person responsible for the actions and orders of border police.
Former left-wing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is popular among the suburban working class and rural poor, has been whipping up her own debate around the disappearance, which coincided with the first round of congressional elections.
“The official media are in cohoots with the government to spread lies,” the ex-President wrote on Facebook.
Taking a direct hit at Bullrich, she added, “If the minister has other hypotheses about the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado, why does she knowingly lie? Who is she protecting?”
“I do not want Argentina to go back to being a country where an individual who thinks differently is afraid. Where is Santiago Maldonado?”
The face on the streets
Working under the radar and mostly at night, M.A.F.I.A continues to spread Maldonado’s image. “We won’t stop until he’s found,” Luciana said.
They set up a website where anyone can download the image.
Maldonado’s face has even appeared outside of Argentina - in North and South America, and in Europe.
Enrique Maldonado, the father of the missing young man, told La Nacion newspaper last week, “I can’t bear to see my son’s face on a flag or a mural. I want him back. That’s what I want. Where is he? What have they done to him? We are waiting for him.”
Yet the photographers maintain their campaign is working.
“We understand the pain of his father’s statement,” Luciana said. “But the strategy is key.”