One person’s shadow will loom large over Argentina’s legislative elections on Sunday.
It isn’t Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s, the former two-term president running for a senatorial seat that could either propel her into a third presidential bid or potentially end her life-long political career.
It isn’t that of Education Minister Esteban Bullrich, Fernandez’s main opponent.
Instead, the name that will be at the forefront of voters minds will be Santiago Maldonado, a 28-year-old tattoo artist and indigenous rights activist from Veinticinco de Mayo, whose body was found on Thursday, nearly 80 days after his disappearance in a case that has captivated the attention and political discussions of the entire country.
“We were able to see the body, we recognised his tattoos, we are sure it is him,” Sergio Maldonado, Santiago’s brother, announced to the press gathered in front of the Buenos Aires judicial morgue on Friday.
“The calvary that has affected our family since the day we found out that he had disappeared will not end until we obtain Justice,” read a statement released by the Maldonado family later that day.
The judge who oversaw the autopsy confirmed the body was that of Maldonado’s, adding it had no evidence of injuries, and that more time was needed to determine a cause of death, local media reported.
Maldonado had last been seen in the southern province of Chubut, near the river of the same name, on August 1, during a confrontation between security forces and a group of indigenous rights activists protesting the Italian fashion company Benetton’s exploitation of the Mapuche tribe’s ancestral land.
His disappearance sent shockwaves through Argentine society and led to massive protests across the country, the latest of which took place on Thursday following the discovery of the body in the Chubut River.
Political parties brought their campaigns to a grinding halt and hundreds gathered in front of the Casa Rosada, the Argentine president’s office.
“We are in the streets demanding memory, truth, and justice,” said Enrique, a 39-year-old teacher and protester, who asked only to go by his first name.
“It is not only about finding out what they did to Maldonado, but also to prevent something of the sort happening again,” he added after a protest this week in Buenos Aires.
President Mauricio Macri has yet to publicly respond to the discovery of the body, but, according to La Nacion newspaper, he spoke privately to Maldonado’s mother for the first time on Friday.
The Argentine League for Human Rights has opened a legal case against Macri himself for “enforced disappearance” and for concealing evidence in the investigation in the case.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances have all demanded the Argentine government act swiftly to resolve the matter.
The UN committee reiterated its demand earlier this month saying that it was “highly preoccupied” by the “lack of progress” in the investigation, and calling for an immediate clarification of the security forces’ role in Maldonado’s disappearance.
Macri’s government has repeatedly assured that it was doing everything it could to find Santiago Maldonado and to clarify the circumstances of his disappearance. The government rejected allegations that security forces detained the missing activist, saying there was no such evidence to support the claims.
Effect on elections
However, many Argentines, including the country’s main opposition figures, have cast doubt on the government’s response.
Throughout the campaign Fernandez was fiercely critical of the government’s response to Maldonado’s disappearance, going as far as telling news website Infobae that she no longer believed there was “rule of law” in Argentina.
The government, in turn, accused its political opponents of instrumentalising Maldonado’s disappearance for political motives.
“Unfortunately the politicisation of this case has been very high, which is not good,” Justice Minister German Garavano told the TV channel Todo Noticias.
Enrique, who has been at every protest in Buenos Aires since Maldonado disappeared, said that “when security forces are used by the state to repress internal protests, and these security forces disappear a citizen, it becomes a state crime so in a sense political instrumentalisation is inevitable”.
Immediately after the body was found on Thursday the ruling party commissioned a survey to find out the impact of the discovery on Sunday’s elections.
The results, reported by the newspaper Clarin, were not positive for the government, with 73 percent of respondents saying they believed security forces were responsible for Maldonado’s death and 40 percent believed the discovery of the body would help the opposition.
It remains unclear whether this will be enough to swing the election in the opposition’s favour.
What is clear, however, is that in recent years few stories have gripped Argentine society like Maldonado’s.
Memories of ‘desparecidos’ during dictatorship
The story of someone, and a young social activist in particular, disappearing after a confrontation with the police is one that is all too fresh in the Argentine psyche.
There were up to 30,000 “desaparecidos”, politically motivated disappearances, during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. The term in Argentina is synonymous with the darkest chapter of the country’s modern history.
It is no coincidence that Thursday’s protest for Maldonado was held in coordination with the Mother’s of Plaza de Mayo’s weekly march to demand memory, truth and justice in the name of their children disappeared during the dictatorship.
Most Argentines thought the disappearances were a thing of the past and had no place following the country’s transition to democracy initiated in 1983.
“The idea of having someone disappear, and an election going on at the same time is an oxymoron, it is incompatible with the way it is understood democracy works in Argentina,” Ernesto Seman, an Argentine historian and author who teaches at the University of Richmond, told Al Jazeera.
The link with the dictatorship comes at a time where Macri’s government has come under fire for minimising its dark legacy and revising its history.
When asked by a journalist from Argentine newspaper Perfil whether he thought that the number of disappeared during the dictatorship was 30,000, Macri responded: “I have no idea. If there were 9,000 or 30,000 … I think it’s a discussion that makes no sense.”
According to Seman, the memory and rejection of the dictatorship is quasi-unanimous in Argentine society, regardless of political affiliations, but, he added that this government has been trying to erode this common ground.
“[The government] can have authoritarian tendencies … but it understands the democratic logic, these guys want to win elections, contrary to the right-wing of the past, they are interested in winning elections,” Seman said.
“So they are trying to change the democratic logic, while at the same time taking it into account.”
While Seman does not believe the “government sent the security forces to kill” Maldonado, he said that “there is evidence … that there were talks between the government and security forces in the south about ‘getting tougher’ about ‘giving them a lesson’ to show the limits of social protests”.
Regarding the impact Maldonado’s case will have on Sunday’s election, Seman said it will “surely become a key point in the history of this government, not only for the disappearance itself, but also because of the incredible way in which the government initially reacted, oscillating between indifference and concealment”.