Where is Santiago Maldonado?A missing-person case looms over Argentina’s midterm elections

A FEW months ago Santiago Maldonado, a 28-year-old craftsman and tattoo artist, moved to Patagonia, motivated by an affinity for the indigenous Mapuche people. On July 31st, according to his brother, he visited a campsite in the province of Chubut, where Mapuches are protesting to demand title to their ancestral land. He intended to participate in a ceremony for Pachamama, an Andean goddess.
But on the morning of August 1st protesters threw stones at a group of military police officers, injuring two of them. In response, 32 officers entered the camp. The police say they did not arrest anyone. But four witnesses have told a judge they saw the officers load Mr Maldonado into a white truck. He has not been seen since.
The case has become a political Rorschach test in a divided country where “disappearances” have a grim history. In the 1970s a right-wing military dictatorship abducted tens of thousands of citizens—no one knows exactly how many. A large number were murdered, often by being thrown out of aeroplanes.
From 2003 to 2015 Argentina was ruled by a left-wing couple: first by Néstor Kirchner, who died in 2010, and then by his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Under both presidents, many members of the dictatorship were brought to justice. In 2015 voters opted for Mauricio Macri, a centre-right former businessman. Mr Macri has been less tolerant of protests that block roads than his predecessors were, and during his term prosecutors have detained Milagro Sala, an indigenous activist, on charges of embezzling public funds. Now that Mr Maldonado has vanished, the president’s opponents are on edge.
On September 1st tens of thousands of people marched in Buenos Aires. They bore Mr Maldonado’s bearded, dreadlocked image, beneath a slogan plastered across social media: “Where is Santiago Maldonado?” For Mrs Kirchner, who hopes to win back her old Senate seat at mid-term elections in October, Mr Maldonado’s disappearance offers an opportunity to tie Mr Macri’s administration to the bleakest chapters of Argentina’s past. “I don’t want to go back to the times of darkness,” she said on September 2nd.
The president has kept mum, while his cabinet has sent mixed signals. The security minister, Patricia Bullrich, has criticised Mapuche activists for violent provocations and Mr Maldonado’s family for failing to aid the police. But Claudio Avruj, the human-rights secretary, says that investigators’ “strongest hypothesis points to the police”. The government is offering 2m pesos ($116,000) for information on the case.
Some witnesses say they saw Mr Maldonado trying to cross a river to flee the police, though reportedly he did not know how to swim. Authorities are now searching for him in Chile. His case is sure to dominate headlines until the elections. But his family say they can’t bear to see his face on a flag. They just want him back alive.
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