BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — As powerful Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández got out of her car outside her building and began shaking hands with a crowd of well-wishers, a man came forward with a gun, the pointing inches away from his face and pulled the trigger with a distinct click.
The loaded weapon obviously jammed.
Fernández’s security services seized the shooter and took him away, and the 69-year-old former Argentine president was not injured. But the apparent assassination attempt on the deeply divisive figure on Thursday night rocked Argentina – a country with a history of political violence – and heightened tensions in the sharply divided nation.
The shooter was identified as Fernando André Sabag Montiel, a 35-year-old street vendor and Brazilian citizen who has lived in Argentina since 1998 and had no criminal record, authorities said. He was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.
Sabag Montiel wielded a .38 caliber semi-automatic handgun that was “capable of firing” and “functioning normally”, according to a court officer who was not authorized to publicly discuss the case and who spoke under cover of anonymity.
Authorities have shed no light on a possible motive and are investigating whether he acted alone or was part of a larger conspiracy.
The country’s political leaders were quick to condemn the attempted shooting as an attack on democracy and the rule of law, with President Alberto Fernández hosting a late-night national broadcast to tell Argentines how much the vice president was about to be killed.
The president, who is not related to his vice president, said the gun was loaded with five bullets but “did not fire even though the trigger was pulled”.
The president declared a national holiday on Friday following what he called “the most serious incident since we regained democracy” in 1983 after a military dictatorship.
In the afternoon, tens of thousands of people filled the streets around the Government House in downtown Buenos Aires to show their support for the vice president and to denounce the attempted shooting.
Some have condemned the political opposition, saying their verbal attacks on the vice president motivated the shooter. Several political leaders have also accused opposition politicians and the media of fomenting the violence.
Protester Andrés Casaola said: “This bullet represents hate speech.”
“We have to achieve (…) respect between Argentines and no longer promote hatred, because people are starting to accumulate hatred, and that leads to a person like this,” said Mabel Lescano, another protester. , about the shooter.
No politician stirs more passion in Argentina than Fernández, revered by some for her leftist welfare policies and vilified by others as corrupt and power-hungry.
The center-left leader is on trial on corruption charges involving public works while she was president from 2007 to 2015. Some of her staunchest supporters had been gathering outside her apartment daily since August 22, when a prosecutor called to a 12- year prison sentence for her and a ban on holding public office again. She vehemently denied all charges and presented herself as a victim of political persecution.
“If you touch Cristina, what chaos we’re going to cause!” Chanted the supporters.
Over the weekend, his supporters clashed with police during a law enforcement effort to clear the area, and the heavy police presence around the apartment was subsequently reduced, although his supporters kept coming.
In recent days, some of his allies have accused his critics of trying to spark violence, with Security Minister Aníbal Fernández saying the opposition was “looking for someone to die in the street”.
Prior to the apparent assassination attempt, Fernández had made a habit of leaving his apartment around noon every day, greeting his supporters and signing autographs before getting into his vehicle to drive to the Senate. She had a similar routine every night.
In Thursday’s incident, captured on video, it was unclear whether she understood what had just happened. Even as her security detail swung into action, she continued to greet supporters in the upscale Recoleta district of the Argentine capital.
The shooter illegally possessed the gun, an example of the old and “obsolete” guns circulating among petty criminals in Argentina, said Gabriel González Da Silva, a prosecutor who heads an office that investigates gun crimes.
Patricia Bullrich, chairwoman of the opposition Republican Proposal party, accused President Fernández of using the attempted shooting for political purposes.
“Instead of seriously investigating a serious incident, he blames the opposition and the press, decreeing a national holiday to mobilize activists,” she said.
Fernández has been at the center of Argentine political life for almost two decades. She served as the country’s charismatic first lady under the administration of President Néstor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007, then succeeded her husband.
As opposition to his rule began to mount, Fernández increasingly presented himself as the victim of attacks by powerful special interests because of his defense of the poor and working people.
In one of the most dramatic incidents of his two terms as president, a prosecutor who accused Fernández of making a deal with Iran to cover up his alleged involvement in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires died shortly before his arrest. to present evidence against her in 2015.
Allies of the former president insist that Alberto Nisman died by suicide. But the opposition has long maintained that he was murdered or driven to commit suicide.
In the country’s deeply polarized environment, the vice president’s assassination attempt quickly sparked new conspiracy theories, dividing those who say ‘it was all staged and those who think it was real’ , said Mariel Fornoni, director of Management and Fit. , a political consulting firm.
Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has frequently criticized Argentina’s leftist government, weighed in on the apparent assassination attempt on Friday.
“I deplore it, and there are already people trying to blame me for this problem,” Bolsonaro said. “It’s good that the attacker doesn’t know how to use a firearm, otherwise he would have succeeded. ”
Politi reported from Santiago, Chile.
Almudena Calatrava and Daniel Politi, The Associated Press