BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Tens of thousands of Argentines demonstrated in cities across the country on Friday holding photos of a missing activist who was last seen when border police evicted a group of indigenous Mapuche from lands in Patagonia owned by Italian clothing company Benetton.
Demonstrators in the Argentine capital marched to the Plaza de Mayo square in front of the presidential palace to demand the government find 28-year-old Santiago Maldonado alive.
The march marked the one-month anniversary of Maldonado's disappearance. Since then, everyone — from soccer great Diego Maradona to Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla to politicians from opposing political parties — have joined human rights activists in a social media campaign under the slogan: "Where is Santiago Maldonado?"
The disappearance has hit a raw nerve in Argentina, where human rights groups estimate that about 30,000 people died or were forcibly disappeared during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
"We've gone back in time 40 years. I can't accept it," said Rosa de Roisinblit, 98, the vice president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights groups. During the dictatorship years, she marched every week in the same square in Buenos Aires, fighting alongside other women in the group to recover their children and grandchildren.
"I can't believe that this is happening in a constitutional, democratically-elected government," she said.
Friday's march was largely peaceful but at the end clashes erupted between groups that had apparently infiltrated the march and police.
Maldonado's case has become problematic for the government of President Mauricio Macri as human rights groups accuse it of being part of a cover up and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has urged Argentina to find the missing artisan and tattoo artist.
Maldonado's family says border police detained him when he and others were blocking a road in Chubut province, in the southern region of Patagonia. Authorities deny wrongdoing.
Maldonado's case is being investigated as a forced disappearance. But in a report published by local media authored by local prosecutor Silvina Avila to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, she says that there is no proof yet that border police were involved in the disappearance.
Maldonado had joined the Mapuche cause while living in southern Argentina. The Aug. 1 protesters were demanding the release of Facundo Jones Huala, an imprisoned Mapuche leader who is wanted by Chile. The lands belong to Compania de Tierras Sud Argentino, a wool-producing company owned by Benetton. Mapuches claim the lands as their ancestral territory and have been occupying them since 2015.
Some members of the Mapuche indigenous community have told reporters on condition of anonymity that Maldonado was taken by border police. But they have yet to ratify the information to authorities.
"We want a serious and impartial investigation," Santiago's brother, Sergio Maldonado, told demonstrators on Friday. "How much more must we ask ourselves: Where is Santiago?"
Associated Press writer Debora Rey contributed to this report.