Body found in icy river could sway Argentina's midterm elections
Forensic tests on a body found floating in the icy waters of a river in southern Argentina could determine the result of midterm elections seen as vital for the right-of-centre president, Mauricio Macri, who is seeking a vote of confidence to continue his economic austerity programme.
Preparations for congressional elections this Sunday have been thrown into last-minute turmoil this week after the body of a young man was found on land owned by the Italian fashion giant Benetton.
Forensic tests have not been concluded, but court officials are working under the assumption that the body is that of Santiago Maldonado, a 28-year-old backpacker who disappeared 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.
Maldonado’s ID was found in a pocket of the clothes found on the corpse, and authorities say fingerprint results could confirm its identity by as soon as Friday evening.
Investigators hope that the autopsy 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 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
The security minister, Patricia Bullrich, has come under 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 very security force that raided the Mapuche camp.
A snap survey by Macri’s party, reported by the Clarín newspaper on Thursday, showed that 86% of voters believe the body is that of Maldonado and that 73% believe he was killed by security forces, despite the government’s initial claims that Maldonado had been kidnapped by Mapuche activists or that he was hiding in neighbouring Chile.
The survey also showed that 40% of respondents feel the discovery of the body benefits the opposition, 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.
“We don’t trust anybody,” Maldonado’s older brother Sergio Maldonado told the press.
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 emergency survey revealed that 12% of voters have decided to change their vote following the appearance of the body.
“I don’t trust this government or that the body is Maldonado – these people are capable of doing anything at all to win the elections,” said one female caller to the the Del Plata radio station on Thursday afternoon.