“We Want Santiago Maldonado Alive and Safe” Argentine football’s traumatic relationship with violence

“We Want Santiago Maldonado Alive and Safe” Argentine football’s traumatic relationship with violence

Matthew Hawkins –

The rising snow capped Andes on the horizon backdrop an isolated scene. A group of indigenous Mapuche and allies stand off against a line of heavily armoured police on Argentina’s iconic wind swept Ruta 40, which cuts north to south alongside across scrub covered foothills. Often ignored by the national news, the conflict in the Patagonia province of Chubut is now at the centre of an intense and politicised search for Santiago Maldonado. According to witnesses, Maldonado was last seen taken into a vehicle of the Gendarmería, the national quasi-militarised police force, on August 1, 2017, along with several others following a raid on a Mapuche camp. Santiago’s name did not appear the next day on a list of the detained, and he has not been seen or heard from since.

Argentine football has become involved in the efforts to find Maldonado. In a press conference following Thursday’s draw against Uruguay, Argentine manager Jorge Sampaoli alluding to his youth growing up during Argentina’s civic-military dictatorship, stated, “for my generation and all that I have lived, what bothers me is that the issue of Santiago Maldonado hasn’t been resolved because we lived through this in my youth with a lot of fear and pain. For all of this to appear now a little surprising for me and hopefully it is resolved. From here, we all support the return of Santiago.”

Goalkeeper Nahuel Guzmán arrived for the national team training camp from Mexico wearing a shirt asking: “Where is Santiago?”

The relationship between football and Argentina’s history of state violence has been a widely debated. In recent months, a poorly researched claim that small symbolic acts of resistance to authoritarianism appeared at the bottom of goal posts reflects wishful attempts to promote the idea of football’s humanitarian tendencies. The reality is often much bleaker. The relative silence and in some ways complacency of football during the country’s civic-military dictatorship adds significance to the current displays made by clubs and football players asking for Santiago.

Two days after the raid, Germán Maldonado, Santiago’s brother, spoke at a press conference organised by the human rights organisation Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (Provincial Commission for Memory). “The Gendarmería took my brother, and now they say they haven’t detained him anywhere. We believe the situation is obvious: they have tortured Santiago and have left him in a cell and are waiting for the marks of violence to disappear before releasing him,” speculated Germán. As time has gone on, and the political pressure increased, most Argentines are now concerned with finding Santiago alive.

Maldonado had Recently Joined an Indigenous Mapuche Camp

Maldonado, 28, had only recently joined the indigenous Mapuche camp at the time of his disappearance. Located in traditional territories of the Mapuche now claimed and used by Italian fashion company Benetton Group for sheep grazing, the reoccupation by members of the Pu Lof community has been a slowly simmering conflict, the long-standing consequence of colonisation. More quickly forgotten than investigated, the current phase of the conflict has roots in 2015. Police have violently displaced localised blockades of highways by indigenous activists. But the raid on the camp took a different turn. Completed without court authorisation, the operation by 50 officers armed with rubber bullets, riot gear, and tear gases on August 1st sent camp members scattering. Maldonado, unable to swim, did not make it across a river alongside the camp. Others who did make it across the next day claimed that they saw from the other bank Santiago being taken by the Gendarmería.

Maldonado’s disappearance has brought forth traumatic memories in Argentina’s national consciousness of the enduring stain of politically-motivated torture and murder committed by government forces during the Argentina’s last civic-military dictatorship. Human rights groups estimate in total 30 000 people were killed by the dictatorship, while a truth commission initiated immediately following the fall of the dictatorship was able to document 8,961 forced disappearances.

During the dictatorship, members of political parties, union organisers, and student activists were amongst the most targeted by the state’s “Working Groups,” which consisted of members of the police, military and intelligence agencies. People were taken from the street and their homes in swift operations that moved them to clandestine detention centres or to be murdered. Many who survived the first hours of their kidnapping were then forced to endure torture, lasting up to several months or years: sleep deprivation, sound and light torture, water boarding, stress positions, violent beatings, and electrical shocks to genitals. When the detained were killed their bodies were disposed of in mass and unmarked graves, burned, or in the most sensational version of the state’s depravity, the victims were drugged and thrown alive from planes high above the estuary of the Rio Plate. When the bodies began washing up onshore, the official response dutifully reported by Argentina’s press was that the bodies belonged to victims of violent crime.

Loved ones who went to the local police to ask for the whereabouts of the missing and detained were turned away. Police and military officials claimed ignorance and blamed insurgent anti-government forces. Large parts of society worked to ignore what was being done in its name, preferring the government’s story that any violence was the consequence of the low-intensity civil-war against armed terrorist groups and a necessary component of security.

Disappearing – the act of making absent political opponents – worked on many levels. The absence of the person, the lack of the body, the absence of recognition, and the lack of voice. Fear and distrust, created in the absence of knowledge about the whereabouts of the disappeared, over took most conscious efforts to reveal the truth about the dictatorship’s violence.

At the time, a group of courageous mothers were among the few able to publicly demonstrate against the dictatorship’s violence. Weekly they would cover their hair with white handkerchiefs, symbolic shields of motherhood in a state obsessed with conservative family values, and circle the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential palace carrying pictures of their disappeared sons and daughters. The group became known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and their white handkerchiefs are now an iconic declaration of faith to the present through the memory of their loved ones and the defence of human rights in Argentina.

 Argentine Football is Deeply Entangled in the Story of the Disappeared

Argentine football is deeply involved in this story. As a location for intense public joy and sadness, the football stadium remained a favourite site of mass social interaction throughout the dictatorship. At the height of the disappearing and torture, Argentina hosted and became eventual champions of the 1978 World Cup. Human rights groups attempted to seise the moment to raise awareness but received limited attention even internationally. The juxtaposition of the euphoric eruption of joyous crowds celebrating the final in River Plate’s Estadio Monumental to the frightening depravity of life in the nearby clandestine torture centre located in the ESMA building has become a literary trope that was lived in reality used to exemplify the extremes of human condition that existed in Argentina at the time.

Maldonado and his disappearance brought back memories of the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina. (STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

Maldonado and his disappearance brought back memories of the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina. (STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

The focus is often placed on the role of the World Cup to the dictatorship. Much less discussed, however, is the relationship between football more broadly and the dictatorship’s violence. Argentine football teams are part of larger member-owned non-profit clubs. Many of the disappeared were themselves fans and members of these organisations. The absences of the missing has created holes in the social fabric of clubs and the ripples of pain for lost friends and family reverberate through clubs to this day. A recent publication by Julián Scher documents the disappeared of Racing club.

Clubs and fans were affected in other ways. San Lorenzo de Almagro lost its stadium through nefarious dealings initiated by the military-led government of the City of Buenos Aires. Rumours surround what role organized fan groups had in negotiating a political peace with the government and to presence of collaborating informants who gave information about their fellow fans to the state security. Fear of losing the anonymity of being in a crowd, of being continuously watched, kept some from the terraces.

On the other hand, there are recollections of brief moments when fans broke through the political silence to sing political songs and carry banners of opposition. One documented incident of the Peronist March being sung during a match on October 24, 1981 at the stadium of Nueva Chicago resulted in dozens of fans being marched and detained at a local police station.

More should be known about the symbolic protests made by fans, often at great risk to their personal safety. On the whole, however, it is a struggle to find redeeming moments of football’s contribution to resistance during the dictatorship. What is closest to the truth: football, its players, its clubs, and its fans, like much the broader Argentine, society remained woefully, in some cases willfully, ignorant and silent to the atrocities.

This national shame of silence has resulted in a deeper commitment in many sectors of Argentina’s civil society to memory, truth and justice. With this historical context, many parts of Argentina’s football community have joined a chorus of voices asking for Santiago Maldonado.

 San Lorenzo Showed Their Support for Maldonado

Ahead of its opening match against Racing Club, San Lorenzo de Almagro sent a letter to AFA President Claudio Tapia asking for the approval to display a banner “Aparición con vida de Santiago Maldonado” (Appearance with life of Santiago Maldonado) before kick-off. Initially the letter was returned from AFA headquarters with a “Not authorized” stamp, signed by an employee of the association. The immediate furor against AFA’s rejection reached Tapia’s attention and soon it was reported that the employee had erred and that AFA has no regulations against displays in favour of fundamental human rights.

Tapia told Pagina12, “AFA does not have a problem with the spreading of messages about human rights in football. It’s more, I will try to be in San Lorenzo’s stadium to accompany the initiative.”


Other clubs have participated in the mobilization including displays by Temperley and Banfield in their Superliga matches last week. Many clubs took part in the campaign on their social media. River Plate’s human rights commission, formed by members of the club, has committed to asking at each match for Santiago Maldonado till he is found.

Maldonado’s disappearance has become entangled in the polarized political situation in the country. Difficult economic reforms initiated by President Mauricio Macri’s government over the past two years have been met with protest and violent police reactions. Published opinion pieces are asking if the case of Santiago Maldonado is being used by opposition political parties to enflame distrust and anger against the government. Caught in the turbulence, Macri’s government offered on August 7 up to US$30,000 to anyone with information leading to the reappearance of Santiago Maldonado.

Federal Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich has become a lightening rod figure in the wake of the increased police violence. Her detractors accuse law-enforcement organizations under her control of turning towards authoritarian measures. Since August 1st, Bullrich has posted on her Twitter several messages about her ministry’s success in anti-drug raids, showing heavily armed police officers in masks with bundles of drugs, but has yet to mention Santiago Maldonado.

In front of the Senate on August 16, Bullrich spoke with colonialist overtones while broadly defending police actions against Mapuche activists. “The Mapuches are an extreme violent group,” Bullrich said adding without recognizing the role of police in the conflict that there needed to be “lower the levels of violence to achieve peace in the area.” More recently Bullrich has become more vocal in rejecting the notion that there was a “forced disappearance” of Santiago Maldonado while continuing to question the veracity of witnesses claims that the Gendarmería took Santiago.

In the world of football, Bullrich has been strongly against the return of away fans, banned from attending matches during the previous government. Bullrich has argued that Argentina’s clubs have not done enough to control violent elements within their own fanbases to ensure the safety of away fans. Other forms of social control, such as the recently implemented use of document checks at stadium gates make symbolic comparisons to the dictatorship more meaningful. The primary focus has been placed on the ongoing presence of barras brava, the organized supporters groups, who in several cases are linked to criminal activity.

 The Civic-Military Dictatorship Transformed Argentine Football

Argentine sociologist Pablo Alabarces has argued that Argentine football’s relationship with violence was dramatically changed because of the civic-military dictatorship. While football stadiums had a long history of fan violence, in the years following the end of Argentina’s dictatorship organized violence in and around stadiums became exceptionally deadly. Masculinized aguante is a word used to talk about bodily resistance and resilience amongst football supporters. For members of the barras brava aguante is demonstrated through acts of violence, which according to Alabarces and others researching with barras brava became a powerful motivating ideology for members of the barras in the 1980s and 90s. Absences of legitimate personal and national security in a society reeling from the trauma of its own capacity for violence against citizens led to alternate forms of self-expression through meaningful physical action as away for young men to gain presence and recognition.

Alongside the rise of fan-based violence, around the stadiums, a deep seeded mistrust of the police continues to flourish. Repressive reactions by police to this day receive jeers of “milico!” from the terraces. Silvio Aragón, an anthropologist, who was arrested alongside members of San Lorenzo’s barra brava while conducting research describes how police themselves reciprocate their own form of aguante. Aragon showed in his study how the confrontations between football fans and police devolved into contests of power and their mutual efforts to forcefully gain recognition. This reciprocal form of socialized violence extends far beyond Argentina’s football stadiums into the confrontations between riot police and political protestors.

Trauma from mass violence rests in societies in unexpected ways; trauma plays out in the making and unmaking of social relationships. Healing collective trauma is an enduring social process that lasts as long as the memory of violence survives. Football in this setting is not a site of altruistic resistance, a champion of human rights, nor its dark seeded source. It is rather a refraction of a society’s struggle to come to terms with itself in all of its lived conditions. Football’s call for Santiago Maldonado to be returned with life thus is part the story of football’s own history with state violence.

Friday September 1st, one month since Santiago Maldonado disappeared, hundreds of thousands of Argentines from across the country including tens of thousands on the Plaza de Mayo accompanied by the remaining Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, occupied public space to ask: “Where is Santiago?”


Matt Hawkins has a PhD in Anthropology at the Carleton University, Ottawa. His research covered the intersections of football and politics in Argentina. His dissertation focuses on the Return to Boedo campaign by supporters of Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. He infrequently writes on supporter culture for stonymondayriot.com and can be followed on Twitter @mhawkin2