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Argentina's Disappeared Activist Stokes Memories Of The Dirty War


All right, to Argentina now where a mysterious, mysterious murder brought thousands of people out onto the streets this week - Buenos Aires protesters demanding answers about the case of one man, an activist, who went missing three months ago. His body was recently found in a river. It's an all too familiar story for people who lived through Argentina's military dictatorship. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The wounds left by Argentina's dark past are easy to find on these streets. We're beside a morgue in Buenos Aires. Inside lies Santiago Maldonado. Outside, along the morgue's stone wall, there's a shrine honoring him. The shrine began to appear spontaneously some two weeks back when Maldonado's corpse was delivered here, and it's been growing ever since.

There are notes about Santiago demanding justice, notes to his family, notes expressing sorrow - and they've been written on just old bits of paper and bits of cardboard - and lots of flowers, carnations, roses jammed into the railings.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: An elderly woman plants a candle by the wall and lights it. The woman says she's called Elena but declines to give her full name because of security concerns.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She reads some words painted on the sidewalk about how during Argentina's military dictatorship in the '70s and '80s, hundreds of autopsies were held in this same morgue by judges and medical officials who systematically covered up crimes by the state. That's why Elena is here.

ELENA: I came here because Santiago was a young man. He was an innocent person. And he was killed - probably killed.

REEVES: If someone did kill Maldonado, Argentines need to know who, she explains. This spontaneous shrine comes as no surprise to her.

ELENA: Because this country, these people have a history - a history of people disappearing.

REEVES: Santiago Maldonado disappeared in Argentina's deep south in Patagonia. He'd been taking part in a protest there by indigenous Mapuche people who say an international textile company's on their land. There were clashes with the security forces. Witnesses reportedly say they saw Maldonado being detained and beaten. The security forces deny wrongdoing.

Some two weeks ago, Maldonado's body was fished out of a river near the scene of the protest. The Maldonado case is now a huge political issue in Argentina. It's so controversial that authorities have set up a hotline for parents who are upset that teachers are talking about it in class. Fifty-five people attended the preliminary autopsy. This found no bodily injuries, suggesting he drowned. Many Argentines continue to harbor suspicions.

JUAN ORTIZ: (Through interpreter) We've been living in democracy for 35 years. And things like this are happening again.

ORTIZ: Juan Ortiz is 49 and a craftsman like Maldonado. Yet Argentina is different from the dark days of mass disappearances. Henrique Svolinski's standing a few yards from the shrine.

HENRIQUE SVOLINSKI: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Svolinski thinks that now the country is more democratic. These issues are easier to address. He hopes this will help prevent Argentina repeating past mistakes.

SVOLINSKI: I remember the past. It's very bad.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Buenos Aires.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.