Two months after the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado it is becoming increasingly clear that the 28-year-old, who was participating in a protest with indigenous Mapuche people in the province of Chubut, was taken by the Gendarmerie. Eyewitnesses have stated that they saw members of the security force beating and carrying a person away in one of their vehicles.
The Macri government has consistently defamed and refused to meet his family. They have even gone so far as to claim that he has likely gone into hiding to make the police look bad, and launched raids on Mapuche communities on the pretext that he may be hiding there, which he was not.
Worryingly, in a country where the military dictatorship killed around 30,000 people from 1976-1983, the Argentinian government has refused to call this case what it is: a forced disappearance by the military police. Instead, they have done their upmost to resist conducting a proper independent investigation, and have chosen to invest in criminalising and further defaming both the Mapuche community and Santiago’s family.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and a United Nations committee, have all called for urgent action from Argentine President, Mauricio Macri. And on 1st September tens of thousands of people marched on the Argentinian capital to demanding to know the whereabouts of Santiago Maldonado. This marked the first disappearance of Macri’s premiership.
A minister with an agenda
Disturbingly, Security Minster Bullrich has persistently refused to hold the police to account. Indeed, it has been a feature of her tenure to place the police as beyond reproach, and ignore all evidence of misconduct against them.
Patricia Bullrich has said that the unrest in the South of Argentina is due primarily to an organisation called the Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche (RAM). She has claimed that the security forces have “completely confirmed” that RAM is being financed by an English organisation.
We have found ourselves in a storm of controversy over this, as Argentinian media outlets have astutely identified our organisation, Mapuche International Link (MIL), as the only plausible candidate that Bullrich could have been referring to. The accusation that we are funding a group that Argentina labels a terrorist organisation is as serious as they come.
And yet it is also completely laughable, as our organisation is run entirely by volunteers who have been affected by, or are sympathetic to, the repression that Mapuche people continue to face in Chile and Argentina. And yet despite our repeated requests, Patricia Bullrich, has failed to either produce evidence against us or retract her accusation.
From our perspective, Bullrich’s accusations are not particularly harmful to us. They have given us an opportunity to explain to sympathetic sections of the Argentinian media outlets the work that we do, and draw further attention to the historical injustices that shape indigenous people’s experiences in Argentina to this day. However, while we are ostensibly the targets of Bullrich’s claims, the real victims are the indigenous Mapuche who live in Argentina.
Bullrich has used these allegations to fuel anti-British sentiment among Argentines, who still recall the Falkland Islands conflict. These accusations have served as a way of inciting racism towards indigenous Mapuche people, who have now been painted by sections of the far right as collaborating with foreign powers in order to undermine Argentine sovereignty.
Instead of addressing the structural, historical and political causes of unrest in Argentina, the far-right, with Bullrich as their new icon, have been able to conveniently explain away unrest as simply the result of foreign interference. The political tactic of blaming outsiders for internal strife is as old as they come, and Bullrich likely has one eye on Argentina’s upcoming elections later this month.
The missing color of Benetton
Santiago Maldonado was taking part in a protest with the indigenous Mapuche Pu Lof community of Cushamen on the day that he was disappeared. The Pu Lof community has been in dispute with the Benetton company, which owns large swathes of indigenous ancestral land. Benetton is the largest land owner in Argentina, owning around 2 million acres.
Much of the land was acquired in 1991 when the government sold off large amounts of state-owned and indigenous land to multi-national companies. The sell-off was done without consultation of indigenous people, in direct contravention of article 17, section 2 of ILO Convention 169, which Argentina delayed ratifying until 2000.
Benetton claim that they have been reluctantly dragged into this conflict, however they have been quick to employ the services of the local Gendarmerie to violently remove families from land under dispute. Land that the Mapuche have lived on for centuries.
The Mapuche conflict with Benetton has been long and is ongoing. However, the violence towards the Mapuche has been escalating in recent months. On January 10th, 2017 Argentinian armed forces opened fire on Mapuche in the Chubut region, who were reclaiming ancestral lands currently in the hands of Benetton. Around 200 Gendarmes attacked the community of Lof en Resistencia, Cushamen, which comprises fewer than two dozen adults and five children.
The attack left many community residents injured, two seriously. The armed forces then ransacked the main house, and arrested at least ten members of the community. There have been reports of harassment and physical abuse of women and children. Amnesty International have condemned the police actions.
The hypocrisy in Benetton’s business practices is hugely dispiriting. On the one hand, they cynically exploit the notion of a world of multicultural and ethnic harmony for profit, as reflected in their ‘United Colors of Benetton’ tagline.
Yet while profiteering on this image, they are simultaneously investing in land that was illegally and immorally seized from indigenous communities – depriving them of the basic means of subsistence and their ancestral homes. Their political and economic power has given tacit support to the violent evictions of Mapuche families from disputed lands, the latest incident resulting in the sinister disappearance of Santiago Maldonado.
From these actions, it is clear that the Mapuche are the missing colour of Benetton.
Patricia Bullrich’s contempt in neglecting indigenous people’s legitimate land claims by dismissing their resistance as instigated by foreign agitators and terrorists may well prove fatal to her party’s chances at the upcoming elections. Her slow and lacklustre response to the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado has generated outrage and may well bolster opposition parties, some of whom have reacted with the sense of urgency that his disappearance quite rightly requires.
On the two-month anniversary of his disappearance, it is important to continue the fight for Santiago’s return. And international pressure is building on this issue.
While we keep up this struggle, it is of upmost importance to remember the cause he was campaigning for when he was taken away: the disenfranchised Mapuche in Argentina. If we are to move forward in addressing the unrest in Argentina, then we must to look backwards with honesty to the causes of that unrest.
Mapuche people have long been the victims of the Argentinian state violence. In 1879 thousands of Mapuche were massacred in the ‘Conquest of the Desert’. The land that they had resided on and defended for centuries was violently seized. This is but one of a series of atrocities that have characterised the Argentinian and Chilean states relationship with Mapuche people.
The colonial history of the region has yet to be put to rest. It is only through engaging in consultation with Mapuche self-organised structures, and recognising the legitimacy of their claims to ancestral lands, that Argentina can move forward. Politicians behaving in the way that Patricia Bullrich has done do nothing to further that reconciliation.
Atus Mariqueo-Russell is the public relations officer of Mapuche International Link. He is a postgraduate philosophy student at Birkbeck University, and a former Green Party of England and Wales council candidate. He tweets at: @AtusMariqueo
Carole Concha Bell is the press officer of Mapuche International Link. She is a postgraduate creative writing student at Anglia Ruskin University. You can find her blog here. She tweets at: @nextgenchileans