BUENOS AIRES: Thousands of people marched through Argentina's capital on Friday to demand that a young protester, who has been missing since security forces clashed with indigenous activists in Patagonia 10 days ago, appear alive.
Human rights groups have demanded action this week to find Santiago Maldonado, a 28-year-old craftsman. They suspect he was taken by the country's National Gendarmerie during an Aug. 1 operation to end a land occupation in Chubut province by indigenous Mapuche.
"The state is the only one responsible for the disappearance of Santiago," Taty Almeida, an activist with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo rights group, said in a speech at the protest.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich has said "there is no indication" that the security force captured Maldonado, or that he was even at the site of the occupation, given that the protesters covered their faces.
Maldonado's family and witnesses have said he was at the site.
"There are searches in different places, without much help from that organisation, which espouses quite violent and undemocratic ideas," President Mauricio Macri told a local radio station on Friday in reference to a group supporting land rights for indigenous Mapuche. "But we're trying to see what happened."
Potential cases of abuse by security forces are sensitive in the South American country, where a dictatorship that ruled between 1976 and 1983 secretly detained, tortured and killed people in clandestine prisons. Rights groups say up to 30,000 people "disappeared" during the dictatorship.
The case has become a campaign issue ahead of Sunday's legislative election primaries, with former leftist President Cristina Fernandez and her allies talking with Maldonado's family and criticizing Macri's response.
"I never thought I'd once again have to hear painful testimony from relatives of a youth who's disappeared after an act of repression," Fernandez, who is leading Macri's candidate in polls for the Senate race in politically key Buenos Aires province, said at a rally.
Photos of Maldonado, sporting a long beard, dreadlocks and tattoos, have circulated on social media this week, along with requests for information and slogans denouncing political repression.
The Centre for Legal and Social Studies, a Buenos Aires-based human rights group, informed the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances of the case. The UN committee expressed concern for Maldonado's physical and psychological health and demanded government action.
"We need to know what happened with the National Gendarmerie," said Gabriela Kletzel, a director at CELS.
(Reporting by Maximiliano Rizzi and Miguel Lobianco; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Leslie Adler)