BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine investigators think they have found the body of a protester whose disappearance more than two months ago prompted large demonstrations demanding the government find him alive, officials said Wednesday.
Coast Guard divers discovered the body in a river in southern Argentina and an investigator involved said there are reasons to believe it is Santiago Maldonado. He said Maldonado’s national identity card and a jacket that a witness said he was wearing when he went missing were found with the body. The investigator spoke on condition of anonymity because he lacked authorization to speak publicly.
The details about the ID and the jacket were later confirmed by family members during a news conference, but they said they had not yet identified the body.
“Right now, we can’t confirm if it’s Santiago’s body or not,” said Maldonado’s brother, Sergio Maldonado. “Until I’m 100 percent sure, I’m not going to confirm it, even when we have some of his personal belongings.”
The body was found near the location of the protest Aug. 1, when Maldonado was last seen. Protesters were demanding the release of a jailed Mapuche indigenous leader and the return of lands belonging to Italian clothing company Benetton that are claimed by the Mapuche as their ancestral territory.
People at the protest said they saw police beat and detain Maldonado after he and others blocked a road in Chubut province, about 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) southwest of the Argentine capital.
Police never confirmed the arrest and denied wrongdoing.
But the case struck a chord in Argentina, where thousands died or were forcibly disappeared during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Maldonado’s disappearance prompted tens of thousands to protest and led to expressions of concern by international rights groups. U2 lead singer and social activist Bono raised the issue last week with President Mauricio Macri, whose government has been accused by some rights groups of being part a cover-up.
Federal Judge Gustavo Lleral told journalists the body had been found after an “ardous” search of the Chubut river. Lleral said he could not provide details about the state of the body or any other information out of respect for Maldonado’s family.
The discovery led political parties running in a midterm election on Sunday to suspend campaigning. Politicians from opposing parties had demanded the safe return of the 28-year-old artisan and tattoo artist.
Some had accused Macri’s government of failing to act in the case. Macri has yet to comment on the discovery of the body.
An attorney for Maldonado’s family said the body will be transferred by plane to Buenos Aires for identification on Wednesday or Thursday.
Members of Maldonado’s family blame border police for his disappearance and question how the body could have been found in an area of the river that had been searched before.
Activist Mabel Sanchez of Argentina’s Permanent Human Rights Assembly said she had been present with the family in previous searches, leading her to believe the body had been planted in the area. Maldonado’s brother, Sergio, also repeated this claim during the Wednesday press conference.
“I can’t be sure of it, but I think it’s possible,” he said.
Political and activist groups planned to stage marches in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires on Wednesday to demand answers on Maldonado’s disappearance.
Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.