At the center of the forced disappearance of Santiago Maldonado and his subsequent death lay a global fashion company, Argentina’s long-standing extractive model, and the repression of displaced Indigenous communities.
Santiago Maldonado is the name that shook Argentina since the first day of August. The 28-year-old disappeared during a crackdown on a Mapuche community in Patagonia by the gendarmerie, or border patrol. In a country with 30,000 disappeared people as a result of a civil-military dictatorship, his forced disappearance prompted massive mobilizations, but also government protection of the armed force responsible for the repression, officials suspecting the victim, and an anti-Mapuche smear campaign. At the center of it all is the Italian multinational fashion company Benetton, the biggest landholder in the country with 900,000 hectares.
A question was repeated over and over in Argentina’s every corner, and even around the globe: where is Santiago Maldonado? On Oct. 18, the country found out when his dead body appeared floating in a river.
Argentina’s repressive extractivism
Large-scale mining, oil exploitation, agribusiness, and monoculture tree plantations are state policy in Argentina. With legislation dating back to the 1990s, the extractive industries have been rapidly advancing for the last two decades. In this respect, President Mauricio Macri’s administration has only continued and deepened Kirchnerist policies that preceded him since 2oo3 under Nestor Kirchner, who was later succeeded by his wife Cristina Fernandez. One of Macri’s first measures was to eliminate export taxes for large-scale mining and agribusiness operations.
The major obstacle to such activities are the peasants, Indigenous peoples, and social organizations rejecting them, many of which are part of a coalition of citizens’ assemblies known as UAC.
According to Amnesty International Argentina, which has mapped Indigenous conflicts in the country, there are a minimum of 200 cases.
“This is just a representative number of current conflicts in the country, where Indigenous communities are demanding governments, companies, judges, and public attorneys who disregard the applicable law to enforce their rights,”stated Amnesty.
In 2013, for the first and only time, the Undersecretariat of Family Agriculture published an official survey on rural conflicts. The results showed there are 9.3 million hectares under dispute in 857 cases affecting 63,843 families. The disputed area is equivalent to 455 times the city of Buenos Aires.
In August 2016, an internal document of the Ministry of Security, headed by Patricia Bullrich, was leaked to the press. It singled out the Mapuche people as an internal enemy of the State and accused them of federal crimes and other criminal offenses without any proof. The official document, titled “Re-evaluation of the Law. Problems on Mapuche territory,” acknowledged that airport police was carrying out illegal “investigation tasks,” the details of which are unclear. Furthermore, it characterized the Mapuche’s demands as “threats to public security.”
In the document, the Ministry of Security also adopted the discourse of oil companies, which label the land defense in oil producing areas as “usurpation.” The government focused on two specific zones: the hydrocarbon geological formation called Vaca Muerta in the Neuquén province, and an area farther down south in Chubut, where Indigenous communities are in conflict with global fashion giant Benetton.
The leaked document garnered repudiation from Mapuche communities and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Service of Peace and Justice, and the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights. The organizations warned that the “Ministry of Security is treating the territorial Mapuche claims as threats to public security … The State is putting the interests of oil companies first, and criminalizing the Mapuche people.”
Last June, almost 100 border patrol agents were sent to the Mapuche community Campo Maripein Vaca Muerta where they blocked roads and escorted work crews of the state-owned oil company YPF so they could drill a new well. Members of the community requested an explanation, asked to see a court order (which was never shown) and demanded the withdrawal of the crews from Indigenous territory. The border agents even prevented members of the community from moving freely within their own lands.
“YPF is using the border patrol to get into Mapuche territory illegally,” argued the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquen at the time. “They entered without consultation or authorization, with a completely disproportionate procedure, without saying a word or showing a court order.” The confederation also questioned the “militarization” of the area and held the minister of security, Patricia Bullrich, responsible for the “escalation of repression.”