The family of Argentinian artist Santiago Maldonado, who drowned in the waters of the southern Chubut River after surrendering to authorities at a Mapuche demonstration, has met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome.
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The Pontiff, who also hails from Argentina, received relatives of the 28-year-old fine-arts graduate for an hour-long private audience, notably Santiago’s brother, Sergio; Sergio’s partner, Andrea Antico; and Santiago’s mother, Stella Maris Peloso.
"He was very warm, affectionate and exciting; very nice," Sergio told Argentinian newspaper Todo Noticias, noting that the Pope had given each of them a rosary. "I did not think he was going to affect me so much."
Sergio told the newspaper that his mother explained to Pope Francis who Santiago was, and in response the Pontiff assured the family that he would join them in their quest to uncover the truth about what happened to the young tattoo artist.
"He is informed of everything; he does not need to come to Argentina to be made aware of the situation there," Sergio said.
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Santiago, who had spent seven months backpacking around Argentina, disappeared on August 1 in Pu Lof, shortly after he was arrested during a demonstration in support of Argentina’s Indigenous Mapuche community. His body was found in the Chubut River on October 19, caught in the branches of willow trees.
His death, according to Judge Gustavo Leal, was caused by hypothermia as he "remained underwater." Meanwhile, Maldonado’s family is calling for the case to be investigated as a "forced disappearance followed by death."
"Francisco is worried about the situation with Santiago, of Rafael Nahuel and their families," said Santiago’s sister-in-law Andrea Antico, referring to the 22-year-old Mapuche man recently shot dead by police. "We are talking about how we can make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else."
Pope Francis first reached out to the Maldonado family in October, through a letter sent to Santiago’s mother. "In these moments of so much pain and sadness, I bring you the security of my closeness and my prayer," the Pontiff wrote. "I pray for you and for your children. May Jesus bless you and the Holy Virgin take care of you."