The Federal Appeals Court of Comodoro Rivadavia on Friday ordered the reopening of the investigation into the death of Santiago Maldonado, the late artisan and activist who was found dead in Chubut two years ago.
Maldonado’s death in 2017 proved to highly divisive, prompting furore, mass demonstrations on the streets and accusations the government’s security forces had carried out his “forced disappearance.” The discovery of his body two-and-a-half months later, just 300 metres from where he had gone missing prompted a subsequent investigation, from which a panel of experts concluded he had drowned, with no sign of violence on the body.
The new arm of the investigation will not examine the cause of his disappearance, but rather whether agents of the Gendarmerie (Border Guard) were guilty of the “dereliction of duty” when they permitted Maldonado and other indigenous activists to flee towards a nearby river, despite facing the danger of drowning, after officers had broken up a roadblock.
The court has also revoked the acquittal, ruled by Judge Gustavo Lleral, of charges against Gendarmerie officer Emmanuel Echazú, to date the only person who has been charged in the case.
The ruling of judges Hebe Corchuelo de Huberman, Aldo Suarez and Javier Leal de Ibarra, who met on Friday, criticised the closing of the investigation by Lleral, who merely investigated a potential “forced disappearance,” rather than if the actions of the Gendarmerie amounted to “dereliction of duty.”
The judges accepted Lleral’s conclusion that Maldonado drowned in the Chubut River, but was not killed. They hope to inquire if Gendarmerie officials, who on various occasions said demonstrators “escaped towards the river,” should shoulder responsibility for the drowning.
Controversy surrounding Maldonado’s disappearance began between July 31 and August 1, 2017, when the Gendarmerie dismantled a blockade on Route 40 made by members of the Mapuche Pu Lof community from Resistencia de Cushamen, Chubut, and fellow activists. That night, Maldonado – who reportedly fled from security officials – went missing.
When Judge Lleral terminated the case in November 2018, which was first overseen by federal judge Esquel Guido Otranto, he determined that Maldonado’s death had “the inexistence of a crime.” He cited a report from a group of experts, who had concluded that Maldonado’s body did not show signs of violence when it was found on October 17, 2017, some 300 metres from where he had last been seen.
In his 263-page opinion, Lleral also absolved Gendarmerie officer Emmanuel Echazú of the charges against him.
After detailing the facts of the case and acknowledging the case’s conflicting testimonies and evidence, Lleral concluded that Maldonado accidentally drowned while trying to cross the Chubut river.
The Federal Appeals Court of Comodoro Rivadavia stated in its 15-page opinion on Friday, however, that Lleral had investigated “one criminal hypothesis” without considering “the possible causal nexus between a potential omission by Gendarmerie personnel and those that entered the river with Maldonado.”
The opinion echoes conclusions from the CELS (the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales) human rights organisation and other groups that the judge “had not followed other paths of investigation.”
Maldonado’s father, Sergio, told El Destape Radio on Friday that “everything that happened today is what we have been saying for months.”
“We continue to insist that this was a forced disappearance,” Maldonado said in the interview.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich has maintained since the controversy began that Gendarmerie officers had any responsibility in Maldonado’s death, saying in August that the activists would still be alive today if he had turned himself in.