Santiago Maldonado death: four gendarmes acquitted

The activist died during a police operation in a Mapuche community in Chubut in 2017

Santiago Maldonado march. Credit: Wikipedia

Trelew judge Gustavo Lleral has acquitted all four military police officers who were under investigation over the August 2017 disappearance and death of activist and craftsman Santiago Maldonado.

Maldonado went missing on August 1, 2017, after a group of gendarmes (military police) broke up a roadblock by the Indigenous Pu Lof Mapuche community in Cushamen, and then pursued the protesters. Maldonado was found dead 77 days later, on October 17, 2017, floating in the Chubut river, within the limits of the Mapuche lands.

The case sparked a public outcry, and the United Nations Committee Against Enforced Disappearances issued a petition for urgent action to the Argentine government, demanding that it take immediate action to locate him.

Gendarme Emmanuel Echazú was accused of the forced disappearance of Maldonado, and agents Juan Pablo Escola, Víctor Vaquila Ocampo, and Marcelo Ferreyra were accused of committing harm, abuse of authority, and breach of duty.

Echazú had already been acquitted in November 2018. Human rights nonprofit CELS, which is a plaintiff in the case, told the Herald that it would appeal the charges.

“The actions of the Argentine National Gendarmería […] were undeniably necessary and reasonable and, I reiterate once again, were as per the applicable legal precepts,” Lleral wrote in his 344-page ruling, which the Herald has seen.

He also said that none of the gendarmes’ actions were crimes, as they were complying with a judge’s order, and that the members of the Mapuche community “assaulted” them.

Lleral stated that Maldonado was found “in the place where he was seen for the last time” and drowned after sinking in the river “by himself, without anyone noticing” or “being able to help him.”

“The desperation, adrenaline, and excitement naturally provoked by the escape; the depth of the hole, the thick branches, and roots crossed at the bottom; the cold, icy water moistened his clothes and footwear until it reached his body,” he wrote. According to him, this caused his sinking and made it impossible for him to float or take a breath of oxygen.

Maldonado’s disappearance was a banner case for then-Security Minister Patricia Bullrich. She consistently stood up for the military police, whom human rights organizations and opposition politicians accused of being at least partially responsible for Maldonado’s disappearance.

“I’m not going to throw a gendarme under the bus,” she famously said.

Sergio Maldonado, Santiago’s brother, said on Twitter that “the impunity pact for Patricia Bullrich and the national Gendarmía has been confirmed” with the ruling. Sergio led the demand for justice for Santiago from the day he disappeared.

“He claimed that Santiago drowned by himself,” Sergio wrote.

“History repeats itself, hours before the elections of August 13, 2023, after the repression and the murder of Facundo Molares, the case is closed for the second time, freeing Bullrich’s Gendarmería from responsibility.”


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