(Bloomberg) -- The mysterious disappearance of a protester in a desolate corner of the Argentine Patagonia during a clash with police has gripped the nation and is providing Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner with a much needed campaign jolt.
Santiago Maldonado, a 28-year-old craftsman, went missing on Aug. 1 during a protest by the indigenous Mapuche community on land belonging to the Italian businessman Luciano Benetton in Chubut province. His disappearance in broad daylight has shocked many Argentines, with an ensuing media furor after witnesses said they saw Maldonado being carried away by border police.
For former president Fernandez the controversy comes at a perfect time. It showcases President Mauricio Macri’s Achilles heel -- his apparent inability to relate to ordinary people -- as she tries to revive her political career. While Fernandez is on course to win a congressional seat in elections next month, she got fewer votes than expected in a primary in August and her campaign threatened to lose momentum.
The Maldonado case “plays into an image of Macri promoted by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as someone from the oligarchic elite who neither cares about people like Santiago Maldonado and perhaps even sympathizes with the way the police ‘dealt’ with the problem,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston.
While Macri failed to comment on the case for almost a month, Fernandez was joining the protests and repeatedly tweeted demanding Maldonado’s return -- alive.
“The border guards we have now are the same ones we had in 2015,” Fernandez said at a political rally on Aug. 30, blaming President Macri for the Maldonado’s fate. “What has changed? The government changed and who gives them orders. The military receives orders, the security forces receive orders."
The government initially ruled out any foul play by the police. Security Minister Patricia Bullrich suggested Maldonado could have been injured in an attack on the caretaker of the Benetton estate or that he had been smuggled over the border into Chile.
Posters of Maldonado asking for his information can now be seen all over Buenos Aires, including inside the presidential palace. A rally last week in front of Casa Rosada, as the presidential palace is known, turned violent and ended up with 31 people arrested.
The government has started to step up its response.
Last week, President Macri promised to intensify the efforts to locate Maldonado. He dispatched the Secretary for Human Rights, Claudio Avruj, to Patagonia to meet with the judge investigating the case, while the government raised the reward for information about Maldonado’s whereabouts to 2 million pesos ($116,000).
The government also changed tack in regards to the potential participation of security forces. Avruj said in a radio interview on Sept. 6 that the government “knows that the strongest hypothesis points at the border police.”
Investors are treating October’s legislative elections as a test of support for Macri’s efforts to open up the economy and have focused their attention on Fernandez’s fight in Buenos Aires province, which represents about 40 percent of both Argentina’s population and its gross domestic product.
“If the Maldonado case didn’t exist then we’d be looking at a rapidly widening gap between Esteban Bullrich and her,” Jones said. It “really is a lifeline for her campaign in the province of Buenos Aires.”