Three years after the alleged forced disappearance of Argentinian activist Santiago Maldonado, the Benetton family continues to violate indigenous rights in Patagonia.
On 1 August 2017, the Argentinian activist Santiago Maldonado disappeared while protesting in defence of Mapuche indigenous rights on land owned by the Italian fashion company Benetton in the Chubut region of Patagonia. Following public outrage over the alleged involvement of security forces in his disappearance, Maldonado’s body was finally found on 17 October, in a river close to where he had last been seen.
An autopsy ruled that the cause of the activist’s death was ‘drowning and hypothermia’ and the case was closed in late 2018. However, forensic expert Enrique Prueger subsequently declared it impossible that Maldonado’s corpse had spent 78 days in the river and that it must have been placed there, some time between a few hours and ten days before it was discovered.
Prueger pointed out the unlikelihood that Maldonado had drowned in water only 30cms deep, while pollen found on his clothes should have dissipated after an extended period submerged. Moreover, how was it possible that divers had searched that stretch of river seven times and not seen the body?
In 2019, multiple complaints, including from Argentina’s Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH) and Maldonado’s family, contested the original autopsy ruling. In September 2019, the Federal Court of Appeal established that Santiago died a violent death due to the actions of the National Gendarmerie of Argentina (GNA). Maldonado’s family and the APDH argued that the crimes included aggravated homicide by security forces and forced disappearance followed by death.
On 3 August 2020, the Alberto Fernández government, which took office in December 2019, accused several high-ranking officials in the preceding Mauricio Macri administration (2015-2019) of responsibility in the death of Santiago Maldonado. Those accused are former cabinet chief of the Ministry of Security, Pablo Nocetti, former national director of the Gendarmerie, Gerardo Otero, and Otero’s second-in-command, Ernesto Oscar Robino.
The accusations allege that the Macri government systematically violated the human rights of political opponents through illegal spying, the interference of intelligence services in the federal justice system and arbitrary detentions. Although Maldonado is not the only victim of state repression in democratic times in Argentina, his case is emblematic as it sheds light on the prioritisation of international profit over human rights, as well as corruption and authoritarianism under the Macri administration.
Beyond Santiago: Mapuche rights vs Benetton money
Maldonado disappeared in 2017 while demanding the return of ancestral Mapuche land, but the movement dates back to 2002 when the Benetton family – which bought the land in 1991 – displaced the indigenous community living there. The evicted Mapuche started a process of recuperation, arguing that the land belonged to them by right, as sustained by the Argentinian Constitution. This recognises the ethnic and cultural pre-existence of indigenous people and the possession and communitarian property of their traditional territories. Furthermore, the Benetton family was violating international law, such as the European Union’s Code of Conduct. By depriving Mapuche communities of economic subsistence, Benetton was also violating International Labour Organisation (ILO) legislation regarding indigenous communities.
The Mapuche are indigenous inhabitants of Wallmapu, the name given to their ancestral lands located across the region that today forms southern Chile and Argentina. After the two countries achieved independence in the early-19th century, national governments launched state expansion projects which persecuted and displaced indigenous people from their ancestral lands – or wiped them out altogether. Today, these territories are controlled by multinational companies for extractive megaprojects, industrial farming and timber production, generating serious tensions with the Mapuche population.
Within this context, the rightwing Macri government criminalised Mapuche people by defining them as an internal enemy and a threat to social security. Further, the Benetton family hired the international press agency Jeffrey Group to carry out a national campaign demonising the Mapuche struggle by linking it to anarchists and international terrorism. On 12 and 13 January 2017, the Mapuche community occupying the lands that Benetton claims to own suffered violent repression from security forces.
The Benetton family owns the clothing chain United Colors of Benetton, which has more than 5,000 stores in 120 countries and defines itself as ‘a responsible group that plans for the future and lives in the present, with a watchful eye to the environment, to human dignity, and a society in transformation’. With 900,000 hectares in Patagonia, Benetton is also the biggest landowner in Argentina. The Italian company is involved in the forestation of pine trees – and the development of transgenic ones – as well as in mega-mining and agrotoxins, which have both caused serious environmental damage in southern Argentina. Benetton’s stock includes monocultures of soya in Buenos Aires province, monocultures of pine trees in Patagonia and five metalliferous mining megaprojects.
Under Macri, Benetton colluded with the Argentinian state, as it provided the Argentinian Gendarmerie with cars and helicopters, among other favours. While three years have passed since the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado, and the case remains in impunity, Benetton continues violating human rights in Patagonia. In February 2020, Luciano Benetton blocked a country road, leaving the Mapuche community of Nehuentuain Inchiñ isolated without food or paraffin.
The Mapuche struggle demands the right to practice ancestral culture and respect for their heritage, including access to land, rather than see it exploited in the name of profit. They and their supporters will be hoping that, under the progressive Alberto Fernández government, they can engage in dialogue and increase their participation in decision-making regarding their territory.