by Mariela Eva Rodríguez, National Council of Science and Technological Research (CONICET) and University of Buenos Aires, and Ana Vivaldi, Simon Fraser University

On August 1st 2017, Santiago Maldonado, a 28-year-old ally supporting Mapuche land claims in Argentina and Chile, was forcefully disappeared during a violent repression by the Argentine National Gendarmerie[1]. The repression was carried out in the Pu Lof en Resistencia, a Mapuche-Tehuelche community located in the Cushamen Department in Chubut, a province in the Argentine Patagonia. This community had recovered lands from the Italian clothing company Benetton at the beginning 2015. Benetton is dedicated in the area to sheep-raising in the almost 1 million hectares of land they have bought at a low cost from the Argentine government in the 1990s. Unlike the few previous disappearances that took place in Argentina after its return to democracy in 1983,[2] an official from the National Security Ministry was present during this operation, signaling the imbrication of political power in the case. The week of the repression, the Center of the Social and Legal Studies (CELS), an Argentine Human Rights NGO, presented an “Urgent Action” to the United Nations Committee against Enforced Disappearances demanding that the Argentine State immediately investigate the case and find Santiago Maldonado.

These events raised concerns on human rights violations in two interconnected fields. First, they highlighted the historical tensions around the implementation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and the ongoing struggles over lands. Currently, the National Congress is discussing the continuation of Law 26,160 that orders a territorial survey of indigenous communities’ occupation and temporarily stops land evictions. Secondly, the events were just a few of the many violent interventions of the Provincial Police and National Gendarmerie on indigenous communities in the area. They thus presented a very worrisome new articulation of state security forces acting to suppress social struggles through the use of unlawful violence. According to the evidence gathered by NGOs and other civil society organizations, Maldonado’s disappearance was a result of coordinated actions between a high official of the National Security Ministry (dependent on the National Executive Power), the National Gendarmerie, the provincial police and local landowners.

To understand these events, it is necessary to review Argentine history. As in other countries of settler colonialism, the dominant narrative guiding the nation-building process in Argentina was structured around the goal of creating a “white nation.” This political, cultural, and ideological project rendered Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendants invisible, while subordinating these groups and forcing their assimilation to the imagined “white nation.” Built as an “exception” in comparison to the rest of Latin America, Argentina did not celebrate mestizaje as a national ideology, but condemned it as a threat to the desired homogeneity of a “white race,” considering itself as the product of a European melting pot. This narrative was made effective through a dual political process: campaigns of extermination against Indigenous Peoples in the 19th century were guided by the motto “order, civilization and progress,” and the encouragement of European immigration, which generated a massive arrival European immigrants between the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century.

The campaigns against indigenous people, called the “Conquest of the Desert,” officially began in 1879 in Patagonia and ended in 1917 in the Gran Chaco region, to the north of the country along the border with Paraguay. They had, in fact, started much earlier and continued through several decades in the 20th century. Surviving indigenous people were forcefully recruited into the military, sent to work in sugar plantations, confined in concentration camps, displaced, and even deported. The indigenous survivors were therefore incorporated as second-class citizens[3] and as the lowest-paid laborers in the capitalist economy. Their territories became “public lands” under the control of the state bureaucracy and were promptly sold as private property. These processes of dispossession explain why Benetton is today the largest landowner in Patagonia, among other foreign business owners, while most indigenous communities lack property titles and are under the constant threat of eviction.

The “Conquest of the Desert” thus represented not only a military defeat for Indigenous Peoples and a permanent seizure of their lands, but also erased a long history of negotiations with both the colonial and the independent states and the continuity of indigenous existence. Since the beginning of the construction of both national states, Patagonia has been a site of tension for sovereignty between Chile and Argentina. Argentine state officials, scientists, and ecclesiastic agents obsessed with defining borders with Chile, identified the Mapuche people, previously living on a territory along  both sides of the border, as “Chilean foreigners,” while declaring the Tehuelche people as the “true Argentine Indians.” These pseudo-scientific and bureaucratic reports also assumed that the former were responsible for the “extinction” of the Tehuelche, either because they murdered them or because they merged with them, imposing their own biological and cultural features on them. In the mid-20th century state officials classified the progeny of “pure Indians” as not truly indigenous. Framed in the eugenics ideology that blended biological and cultural traits, they considered the indigenous offspring who did not speak their native languages as degraded individuals distorted by a process of biological, cultural, and moral “degenerative mestizaje” and referred to them euphemistically as “descendants.” These cultural-racial classifications are still active in the present in nuanced discourses around authenticity, and inform the recent events. In a single move, the government calls into question the authenticity of the majority of indigenous people in the country and delegitimizes their right to self-recognition.

A final point in the context of the repression of Pu Lof en Resistencia, is the new wave of expansion of agribusiness and natural resources extraction, particularly mining and oil, that result from the dependence of the Argentine economy on the export of these commodities and resources. The repression of the community can be seen as the government’s gesture indicating its absolute support for international investment, in this case the Benetton company, and a lack of interest to enter into negotiations with indigenous claims. While Argentina’s economic dependence upon resource extraction and commodity-generating agribusiness began several decades ago, during the current Macri administration the policies regarding extractivist activities have radically favored the interests of the international market and the transnational corporations that profit from them. Favor towards the big producers has accelerated the expansion of the agricultural frontier. This “expansion” has constituted, in effect, a new wave of land dispossession to Indigenous Peoples and poor peasants with no land titles. This political turn is therefore affecting Indigenous Peoples and peasants who are fighting with corporations that remain on their lands and are struggling against environmental hazards introduced by these activities. One example of such struggles is the attempt to stop the predatory use of water by oil and mining companies. Using old rhetoric, the government, backed up by an aggressive mass-media campaign targeting Indigenous Peoples as “violent savages against progress” and “terrorists,” denies the nation’s ethnic and cultural diversity and dismisses national and international regulations that recognize their preexistence, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 that was ratified by the Argentine state.

According to many scholars working on the area[4], throughout the 20th and 21st century indigenous survivors have continued recreating their own social, economic, and political organizations and appealed to different strategies to call into question the stability of this national narrative of “invisibilization,” for instance by soliciting permissions to settle in their former territories. Because of the precariousness of these state permits, many communities continue to be forcibly displaced today. Communities, however, continue to struggle to obtain their communal land titles and some of them, like the case of the Mapuche-Tehuelche Community Pu Lof, have started a process of land recovery by returning to their traditional ancestral territories (the lands of their parents and grandparents). The “recoveries,” therefore, are not terrorist acts or threats to national security, as the Ministry of National Security sustains. Instead, they highlight other narratives that were silenced by the official history of colonization, the consequences of the indigenous land dispossession, the intervention of extractivist capitalism and the ongoing coloniality in the present.

Postscript: On October 21, 2017, forensic experts confirmed that remains found in a river near Mapuche-Tehuelche were those of Santiago Maldonado. The government continues to deny any state engagement in the events.


Further readings

Briones, Claudia. 2007. “‘Our Struggle Has Just Began’: Experiences of Belonging and Mapuche Formations of Self.” In Indigenous Experience Today, edited by Marisol de la Cadena and Orin Starn, 99–121. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Geler, Lea and Mariela Eva Rodríguez. 2016. “Argentina.” En The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism, Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedias in Social Sciences, edited by John Stone, Rutledge M. Dennis, Polly S. Rizova, Anthony D. Smith, and Xiaoshuo Hou. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Gordillo, Gastón and Silvia Hirsch. 2003. “Indigenous Struggles and Contested Identities in Argentina Histories of Invisibilization and Reemergence.” JLCA Journal of Latin American Anthropology 8 (3): 4–30.

Lazzari, Axel and Diana Lenton. 2002. “Araucanization and Nation, or How to Inscribe Foreign Indians Upon the Pampas during the Last Century”. In Contemporary Perspectives on the Native Peoples of Pampa, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego: Living on the Edge, edited by Claudia Briones and José Luis Lanata, 33-46. Westport: Bergin & Garvey.

Ramos, Ana Margarita. 2010. “‘The Good Memory of This Land’: Reflections on the Processes of Memory and Forgetting.” Memory Studies 3 (1): 55–72.

Rodríguez, Mariela Eva. 2016. “Invisible Indians,” “degenerate descendants”: Idiosyncrasies of mestizaje in Southern Patagonia. In Rethinking Race in Modern Argentina, edited by Paulina Alberto and Eduardo Elena, 126–154. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

News and Communications

BBC News. 2017. “Argentina Asks: Where’s Santiago Maldonado?” BBC News, August 27. Retrieved October 11, 2017.

Center of Legal and Social Studies (CELS). 2017. “Santiago Maldonado’s Disappearance in Argentina: The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances Demands Urgent State Action.” Retrieved October 11, 2017.

The Guardian. 2017. “Santiago Maldonado: Missing Backpacker Takes Center Stage in Argentina’s Elections | World News | The Guardian.” Retrieved October 11, 2017.


[1] The Argentine National Gendarmerie is a border control force, which intervenes in contexts of social unrest, such as road pickets.

[2] Former disappearances after 1983 were attributed to small “cells” of former repressors acting in secrecy.

[3] For example, the Argentinean government neglected to provide national Identification Documents to indigenous people restricting their right to vote until mid 20th century, even when the constitution granted this right.

[4] The list of research is too long to refer to in this short piece. We just mention some of the works that inspired this text.

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