Body found in icy river could sway Argentina's midterm elections
From The Guardian
Tests confirm body is Santiago Maldonado, an activist missing since a security forces raid in August
A body found floating in the icy waters of a southern Argentina river could determine the result of midterm elections seen as vital for the right-of-centre president, Mauricio Macri.
The body is that of missing backpacker Santiago Maldonado, whose disappearance 81 days ago caused a political storm as the president seeks a vote of confidence on Sunday to continue his economic austerity programme.
An attempt by Macri to defuse the anger directed at his government for its mishandling of the disappearance backfired horribly after Macri called the mother of the now confirmed dead 28-year-old backpacker on Friday evening to offer his condolences.
“Mauricio Macri is a hypocrite, calling my mother two days before the elections,” Maldonado’s older brother Sergio said in a television interview after the presidential call, saying Macri had called from an private “unknown” number so his mother was not able to screen the call. Sergio also accused the government of hindering the investigation into his brother’s disappearance and of not having contacted his family before. “They should show more respect and not be so hypocritical and such trash,” he said.
Santiago Maldonado: missing backpacker takes center stage in Argentina's elections
Santiago Maldonado’s body was found on Wednesday floating in a river that meanders through land owned by the Italian fashion giant Benetton, close to where the backpacker was last seen on 1 August during a raid by security forces on a protest camp set up by indigenous rights activists on land claimed by the Mapuche people.
Investigators hope an autopsy now under way will provide clues as to whether the body had been in the water since 1 August which would suggest Maldonado drowned in the river trying to escape arrest, or whether it was thrown into the water later, which would support allegations that he was killed by security forces who later attempted to cover up their crime.
Maldonado’s disappearance has taken on a grim resonance in a country where thousands of young activists vanished in the custody of the security forces during the bloody 1976-83 dictatorship.
Tensions around the case are so high that Argentina’s major political parties immediately suspended their electoral campaigns following the discovery of the body on Wednesday.
Even football legend Diego Maradona has blamed the president for Maldonado’s disappearance, recording a brief video that quickly went viral last month saying: “Macri, free Maldonado!”
“The Maldonado case exploded in the hands of President Macri,” said Mariela Belski, president of the Argentinian chapter of Amnesty International, who has been highly critical of the government’s response to the disappearance.
Since August, social media has been dominated by photos of Maldonado, whose piercing gaze and long dreadlocks have become instantly recognisable. But with confirmation of his death, those photos are now inscribed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with messages such as “The government is responsible,” “Infinite pain” and “Justice for Santiago”.
“The family is angry and it’s understandable,” justice minister Germán Garavano said in a television interview on Friday.
Macri’s government at first tried to pin blame for Maldonado’s disappearance on Mapuche activists. The security minister, Patricia Bullrich, has been the subject of intense criticism, first for attempting to blame the disappearance on the protesters and then for allowing the investigation to be led by the national gendarmerie, the security force that raided the Mapuche camp.
A snap survey by Macri’s party, reported by the Clarín newspaper on Thursday, showed 40% of respondents feel the discovery of the body will benefit the opposition in Sunday’s congressional elections, with only 35% saying it benefits the government.
The decision of Macri’s PRO (Republican Proposal) political party to suspend its electoral rallies followed unsympathetic comments by its congressional candidate Elisa Carrió.
Told during a live television interview that the frozen body might be well-preserved even two months after Maldonado’s disappearance, she replied “Like Walt Disney”, in an apparent reference to the urban myth that the cartoonist was cryogenically preserved after his death.
Her comment was widely criticised on social media, and Carrió was ordered by her party to suspend a series of planned media interviews.
Maldonado’s family has also expressed deep mistrust for the government; relatives rushed to the spot where the body was found on Wednesday and have since then refused to let it out of their sight.
“Nobody could shake out of our heads the idea that much more could have been done much earlier,” said the family in a statement Friday evening. “The national government’s negative response to the offer of collaboration by UN experts remains unexplainable to us.”
“We don’t trust anybody,” Sergio Maldonado said on Thursday.
The case has even overshadowed former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s attempt to relaunch herself on to the political stage. Fernández is challenging Macri’s former education minister Esteban Bullrich for a senate seat in Buenos Aires, and has taken up Maldonado’s disappearance as an electoral cudgel with which to beat the government.
Up until the appearance of the body on Wednesday, Bullrich led the former president by between two and four percentage points. But the new survey revealed 12% of people have decided to change their vote following the appearance of the body.