In less than three months, two people have been killed by Argentine security forces during Mapuche protests in Patagonia. Here are the keys to understand the conflict.

This article is the result of  a collaborative work between Late magazine and Arena Documenta, in partnership with Democracia Abierta.



Argentines tend to make reality adjust to the cracks in society – that is, to the established dichotomies: “Unitarian/federal”, “Peronism/anti-Peronism”, “dictatorship/democracy”, “Kirchnerism/anti-Kirchnerism” – much as the cracks adapt to the Argentines. This is so until something rocks the boat, such as the deaths of Santiago Maldonado and Rafael Nahuel.

In a article published in the New York Times, we reconstructed the path followed by Santiago Maldonado: we mapped his journey to the Cushamen Pu Lof Community in Chubut and described the actors and the debates revolving around his disappearance and death. Here we want to talk about the background – about what underlies “Maldonado’s drowning by immersion” and Rafael Nahuel’s “uncertain death”.

A machine gun made with a wooden box shows its origin: "Oatmeal with Banana". (Pablo Linietsky)

A machine gun made with a wooden box shows its origin: “Oatmeal with Banana”. (Pablo Linietsky)

Santiago Maldonado was a 28-year-old from 25 de Mayo, a village in the Province of Buenos Aires, who traveled to southern Argentina – the Patagonian province of Chubut – to support a Mapuche protest on August 1. Repression by the Gendarmerie followed, and he disappeared. TV viewers and newspaper readers subsequently came to know quite a few things about him, but nothing about his whereabouts until October 17, when his body was found in the Chubut River. The autopsy determined that he had drowned under the weight of his wet clothes and hypothermia as a result of the freezing water. Santiago did not know how to swim and the repressive context was a decisive factor in his death. 

“Why does someone who does not know how to swim decide to jump into a river with three layers of clothes on which, when wet, must have weighed like lead? What was he afraid of? What was it that terrorized him to this extent? What was so fearsome that he chose to jump to his death?”Leila Guerriero at Diario El País

Rafael Nahuel was a 22 year-old from the suburbs of Bariloche, a young man of many trades, first among them blacksmith. He had been participating, since November 11, in a land occupation in the Nahuel Huapi National Park with his fellow Lafken Winkul Mapu community members. On September 25, even though negotiations with the State were progressing adequately, a judge ordered the eviction of the occupied land and the security forces that carried it out used lead bullets in the process. One of the bullets hit Rafael in the back as he was fleeing from the police. Two more protesters were injured.

Argentina, as a conquering country, has never fully finished its domination of that cold paradise called Patagonia. A vast land where rebellion has always been appeased with tragedy and which Charles Darwin saddled with the “curse of sterility”. A land where foreign millionaires have bought hectares of land for less than what a pair of Benetton trousers cost and where, after several generations casting blood into oblivion, a precariously organized indigenous movement is now questioning everything and is being punished for it. The background to Santiago’s and Rafael’s personal stories is the story of the plot in Latin America’s frozen foot.


Neither conquest nor desert

Argentina lives in denial ever since it advanced into Patagonian territory. It is estimated that the Argentine State, in the course of its “Desert Campaign” first and “Conquest of the Desert” later, killed some 30.000 “Indians”. And “founders” Rosas, Roca and Sarmiento, though ideologically opposed, coincided in their conception of the “Indians”.

After advancing into the territory, Argentina distributed the lands the Roman way – that is, among the generals who participated in the campaign and the financiers who funded the project: export-oriented landowners and English companies linked to the development of railways and communications. This is the way in which the country was formed – a country where, even today, a third of the territory is owned by 1% of the landowners and a third of the arable land is in foreign hands.

Protest in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires (Pablo Linietsky)

Protest in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires (Pablo Linietsky)

During its first century of existence, when Argentina was little more than a name for a country and a group of Creoles and Spanish descendants were trying to maximize land benefit, it became essential for them to materialize the institutions that would enable the building of a State in the North American and European way – that is, a “modern” State. Through the campaign for the conquest of the desert, enormous tracts of land were transformed into soil. This task was carried out with the help of the Remington rifle, the theodolite and the wire. The rifle allowed the final domination of the “Indians”, the theodolite measured the land and allowed its mapping, and the wire divided the land into fields. Behind this triad, came the quebracho tree and the pulse. Quebracho wood was for building the railroads. And the pulse was the electrical signal that traveled through the telegraph wire carrying government orders and early warnings of rebellions.

Adolfo Alsina, the Argentine Minister of War in 1877, developed a plan for increasing the settlement areas at the border zones of the country. In a report to the National Congress, he wrote: “This is an Executive Power plan against the Desert, for populating it, but not against the Indians, for destroying them”. But as Corbalán and Torroja have explained, “the territory was transformed with production as the sole aim in mind, and a collateral effect of this was that it could no longer be inhabited”.

Swedish botanist Carl Skottsberg toured Patagonia at the beginning of the 20th century. He published his notes in a book, Wild Patagonia, in which he described a territory that was so vast, that it looked empty, and that only plants growing in conditions of extreme dryness were to be found in the desert. The land had already been conquered. Skottsberg mentioned that the Mapuche and the Tehuelche, “who were once free, are now working as slaves.”

The advance of the new Argentine State brand over what was referred to as “the desert” was not a conquest, but rather a bloody change in the social production relations. And today, more than a century and a half after Skottsberg’s visit, the change has deepened.

History, it is said, is first a tragedy and then gets repeated as a farce. In the present decade, in a suburb of the largest city in Patagonia, San Carlos de Bariloche, a new branch of the wholesale supermarket of the first building union in the region has just been opened: it is called Tehuelche Hiper. Its Wikipedia page states that “since its foundation in 1970 in Río Gallegos, it has managed to prevail in the Patagonian market”. Paradoxically, it was precisely in Río Gallegos, 200 years ago, that the Tehuelche’s Longka María achieved its best negotiation agreement in a long time: it managed to get Henry Libanus Jones to stop processing 80.000 heads of wild cattle into Libanus Jones corned beef – for these, to natives, were “free” animals that grazed in the central steppe.

 "Tehuelche" Supermarket (Pablo Linietsky)

“Tehuelche” Supermarket (Pablo Linietsky)

In the 21st century, native identity works a branding strategy and Tehuelche creates empathy. Why Tehuelche and not Mapuche? If you ask the Leleque Museum manager – the museum was founded by the Benetton family to “explain the anthropology of the place” and has been declared of cultural interest by the Argentine State -, the answer is this: “because the Mapuche are Chilean”. In the museum there is no mention, for example, of the 900 year-old remains of a Mapuche maiden found in Neuquén in 2016.


In the land and on the land

The Argentine Southern Land Company was granted a special privilege when the Argentine State distributed lands after the “conquest”: a number of rhombus-shaped plots of some 40.000 hectares each in the valleys bordering the railway lines totaling some 900.000 hectares – a territory the size of the Falklands/Malvinas. In 1991, the Italian textile entrepreneur Luciano Benetton bought that land for less than a dollar per hectare. It is a plain bulging slightly towards the horizon that seems to be covered by nothing but dust. In the middle of the steppe, however, some wetlands emerge – this is where prosperity finds its place. These so-called mallines represent less than 1% of the area, but they concentrate 15% of the forage availability, which is of course essential for feeding the cattle. The Mapuche do not want the land in order to exploit it, but quite simply to subsist: they are in the land and not on the land. According to the last land register, the mallines are almost entirely in foreign hands.

One of the main businesses of the Italian businessman is the afforestation of an immense portion of Patagonia with subsidies from the State (Pablo Linietsky)

One of the main businesses of the Italian businessman is the afforestation of an immense portion of Patagonia with subsidies from the State (Pablo Linietsky)

Uno de los principales negocios del empresario italiano es la forestación de una inmesa porción de la Patagonia con subsidios del Estado (Pablo Linietsky)In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wool was what soy is today. The province of Buenos Aires was a huge corral, right up to the time when meat also went into expansion. Then, the sheep were displaced to the South and multiplied. Between 1890 and 1910, the Argentine sheep population multiplied by 16 and increased from 200.000 to 4 million heads per province, a growth basically driven by heads coming from the Province of Buenos Aires and the Falklands/Malvinas. In the same way as, a few years before, the “Indians” had to be displaced to make room for the State, now people had to be moved to make room for the sheep.

The sheep business was also a response to the unproductiveness of much of the territory. Hugo Bottaro, from the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA), states that “aridity is a strong limitation of productivity of the primary sector in the Patagonian steppe. This is aggravated by the pressure of human activity, which causes a decrease in vegetation due to overgrazing and firewood extraction. This, in turn, renders the soil more unstable and makes it lose water retention capacity “.

In 1998, the Argentine government decided – through Law 25.080 – to begin subsidizing forestation in a new attempt to compensate, in the case of Patagonia, the “un-productivity of the steppe”. The Benetton group decided to take advantage of the subsidies and undertook the afforesting of a huge portion of Patagonia, and in so doing promoted one of its main business interests with an investment close to zero, almost courtesy of the State. The Mapuche are currently “illegally” occupying less than 0.01% of the territory owned by Benetton.


Reliefs of rebellion

It happened so long ago that we hardly remember how things were back then. In Argentina, most of the population lives in towns and cities which were founded when not even grandparents were around. Along the rivers, at road junctions, at the foot of the hills or where valleys meet, the colonists’ vanguard always looked for the most topologically strategic place. But how and where a town is founded is always something of a mystery. In the case of the Mapuche villages, the mystery is solved by the machi, an established figure who does not make calculations and is unconcerned with geometry. Machis are generally women who carry the spirit of the family. When this spirit manifests itself (usually during adolescence) through a dream or vision, it indicates that this person has been designated. The machi is, at the same time, a healer, an oracle, and a religious authority who knows how to communicate with the Nehuen-spirit of each particular place in order to organize the territory. Interestingly, in the Mapuche communities, the figure in charge of healing the bodies is also in charge of healing the community and the environment – for any person, in order to develop him or herself, must find first his or her ritual place, in front of the door of his or her home. And the community must support this wisdom and protect the designated land. For the Mapuche, it is just impossible to “be well” far from the land of their Nehuene.

Betiana is 16 and she is the first machi born in Argentine territory in almost a century. For the State, designating a plot through the epiphany of a girl is little more than a childish whim – ancestral madness. According to the members of the Lafken Winkul Mapu community, after the security forces operation in which Rafael Nahuel got killed, a prefect who was fed up with listening to Betiana speak in Mapudungun grabbed her by the neck, and pressing her face to the ground, he yelled: “You love your land, don’t you? You eat it, then!”

Through his brutal act, he achieved a perfect metaphor: archaic punishment, together with gender violence, show that violence is a consequence of impotence: nobody in winka (white, in Mapudungun) Argentina knows what to do with a machi, which is the reason why, in the desert campaigns, it was busy murdering them all.

Both the Pu Lof and the Lafken Winkul Mapu are increasingly articulated. Ten out of the twelve Cushamen communities support Facundo Jones Huala:

Despite the awakening of a number of communities, the Mapuche are not a compact and monolithic people – they hold many different positions. Fritz Andino, a landowner from Esquel, for example, summed up the aim of his struggle to the authors in the following way: “I would settle for owning a helicopter”. Half Mapuche, a quarter Basque and a quarter German, Andino, as we were touring “his land”, told us that his own plot is some dozen hectares, located in the area of ​​Lago del Rosario, a few kilometers south of Esquel. He works with “Tano” Simeoni, a well-known construction contractor who has diversified his business thanks to his relationship with the government of the province of Chubut. One of Simeoni’s activities is taking entrepreneurs who are looking for investments on a helicopter ride through Patagonia. He recently flew a group of Chinese investors who were there to explore the possibility of mining gold, silver, copper and bronze.

If the Chinese whom Fritz Andino’s friend take for a ride are successful in finding what they are looking for, they will have to deal with the people of Esquel, one of the largest cities in Patagonia with a history of strong opposition to gold mining: the “No to the Mine” movement in 2003 is paradigmatic. Pelo Holmes, an artisan stone gatherer, was one of its referents: “When we learned that the mining company was coming to blow up the Tres Picos hill to extract gold with cyanide, we gathered. The mobilization was so strong that we held a plebiscite and the result was 85% for ‘No’ to the mine”.

Pelo Holmes (Pablo Linietsky)

Pelo Holmes (Pablo Linietsky)

The plebiscite was not binding, but the project was suspended and Esquel became a beacon of resistance to mining and of sustainability. Many of the Mapuche who today belong to Pu Lof and other “resistance” communities participated in the “No to the Mine” movement.


The return of the surprise attack

Colonization isolated the native ethnic groups in Argentina and Chile. Isolation destabilized them, destabilization led to their displacement, and displacement drove them to the suburbs of the cities. Some stayed in the land, living in poverty and claiming their right to their plot. This is the breeding ground for the Pu Lof, which emerged in 2015 as a group formed by young Mapuche from the cities, particularly Esquel and Bariloche, who had been active in Anarchist groups and had participated in the “No to the Mine” movement as well.

They are young suburban people who return to their rural origins and who want to find their ties with the place they are going back to. They have built their “class consciousness” through Anarchism and channel their proposals through the identity that their parents and grandparents advised them to forget. They are being accused of setting up a terrorist organization called Mapuche Ancestral Resistance (AMR), but nobody has as yet publicly acknowledged to being part of it and there is no legal evidence that the attacks on private property which have been assigned to the RAM have been perpetrated by the same people who are occupying land. There is no evidence that the RAM actually exists. The Anarchist Mapuche of Northern Patagonia in fact belong to the Puel Mapu Autonomist Movement (MAP) and their avowed aim is, apart from returning to their ancestral land, throwing out Benetton as a symbol of foreign landlords. They do not want only the land back: they have a political aim that no party or community in Argentina had dared to pursue. This is the reason why they are being repressed.


The mountain range as continuity

The violent relationship of the national State with the Mapuche is quite similar in Argentina and Chile. At the same time, two events on the Argentine side have made these similarities not only historical but also present: the emergence of the Pu Lof and the accession to power of Mauricio Macri.

On the western side of the Andes, as Late magazine’s Yasna Mussa reports, at least 133 children and teenagers have been physically and psychologically attacked in recent years by Chilean police. Their crime: belonging to the Mapuche people, as revealed by denunciations presented before the country’s Judiciary and in investigations of events which in some cases qualify as torture.

For the Mapuche, violence begins in the very first minutes of their life: a newborn comes to the world with her mother in shackles; a 5-year-old boy is separated from his parents for several hours and is interrogated by the police; an 8-year-old boy is verbally assaulted by his teachers who catch him speaking Mapudungun, his language; a 12 year-old is shot in his left leg; a 15 year-old is arrested while having breakfast at her boarding school; a 17 year-old is shot from close range in the back.

The children of the fighting Mapuche play the very same game on both sides of the Andes: the game is called “the gendarme, or the Momio, and the Mapuche”. The game consists in a group of children – who play the part of the gendarmes or the momios – pursuing, shooting at and insulting another group of children – who play the part of the Mapuche – who keep shouting: “Don’t chase me, this is my land!”.

Although their parents try to preserve them, it is inevitable that children witness situations of violence when repression is unleashed.

Although their parents try to preserve them, it is inevitable that children witness situations of violence when adults are repressed.

Although their parents try to preserve them, it is inevitable that children witness situations of violence when adults are repressed.


The dead

Elvira Gauna is a rural doctor. She works at the Esquel hospital and frequently visits peasant families living in the surrounding areas. “I learn a lot from working with Mapuche families. I thank them for teaching me some of their ancestral practices and for trusting my allopathic medicine on occasion”.

On January 12, the day after a violent search by security forces, Elvira Gauna arrived at dawn: next to the Pu Lof guard post, a Mapuche mother was holding her one-month-old son who was on the verge of hypothermia. The police had forced them to spend the night in the open and had kept them from moving – in other words, having them nearly freezing to death.

Elvira belongs to the Human Rights Permanent Assembly (APDH), an organization which is present throughout the country and has been joined by professionals from Patagonia who have reported abuses on minorities. It was the APDH that set up the first habeas corpus in the Maldonado case: “Santiago Maldonado disappeared when trying to cross a river channel located in the vicinity of the territory of the Community, when he was being pursued by members of the National Gendarmerie”.

Santiago Maldonado was a simple kid, one of those who walk by whistling so as to pass unnoticed. He had chosen a backpacker’s life, making a living on the road out of doing tattoos and handicrafts. He was an unexpected target. His brother Sergio sought him out with a grandmother of Plaza de Mayo.

The APDH was also active in the aftermath of Rafael Nahuel’s murder. Rafael was also a simple kid: “Rafita used to walk in the margins but he had decided to stay on the inside. If you have a Mapuche surname and you live where he lived, you always come last in the lists to get a job. Life is difficult for those who live in the Nahuel Hue neighborhood, in Upper Bariloche. But he had a fighting spirit. I met him when he came to us to learn some trades. He liked the tools very much, and he learned how to use them. He did not want to be stuck in anger and injustice, he wanted to move on”, says Alejandro “Duke” Palmas, one of the people in charge of the Al Margen Seedbed, in the Cosecha site, a non-formal education space for many kids from the Alto. The institutional anti-violence organization CORREPI has denounced the disappearance of 145 Mapuche – not counting the countless dead, like Rafael.

Rafael Nahuel (Facebook)

Rafael Nahuel (Facebook)

While all eyes are on Mauricio Macri’s government – quite logically, for violence by the Argentine security forces has been escalating steadily -, the deaths of Santiago Maldonado and Rafael Nahuel cannot be explained merely by what this government is doing, but also by what all the previous ones have done. And it is not only the Executive branch that is involved, but also the Judiciary and the Legislative branches. This year, for example, Congress was about to repeal a law regulating land return to the native communities – Law 26.160 – which, after the Maldonado case, has ended up being extended.

The deaths of Santiago and Rafael are State deaths – a State that has yet to recognize genocide. How could Anarchist “Indians” not have emerged at some point?

Even “conscious whites”, progressive Andean highlanders and journalists meaning well have to grope in the dark the limits of the modern State and warn on the unforeseen aspects of the rules we have.

When, in 1962, the Buenos Aires police arrested Felipe Vallese, the first disappeared Argentine of the modern era, a union placard read: “Can a person disappear?” The same question we can ask now about the Mapuche, Tehuelche, One, Wichi, Toba and Diaguita in Argentina: can a people disappear?

*Text: Daniel Wizenberg and Pablo Linietsky.

Sobre El Autor

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Los Especiales de Late son trabajos periodísticos realizados por varios periodistas latinoamericanos en diferentes sitios y en simultáneo.

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