Argentina Shaken by Attempted Assassination of Vice President
Judicial and law enforcement authorities were investigating Friday whether a Brazilian citizen who appears to have tried to assassinate Argentina’s politically powerful Vice President Cristina Fernández was a lone gunman or whether he was part of a larger organization.
Fernando André Sabag Montiel is a 35-year-old street vendor who has lived in Argentina since 1998, a Security Ministry official told The Associated Press.
“There is no confirmed hypothesis,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk on the record. “Everything is being investigated.”
Montiel does not have a criminal record.
The assassination attempt has shaken Argentina, a country with a history of political violence, and allies of Fernández, who was president 2007-2015, have called for a march in downtown Buenos Aires to express their support and repudiate the incident.
Earlier, officials had said the alleged gunman used a .32-caliber Bersa to try to kill Fernández.
The only reason the assassination attempt failed was because the handgun misfired, President Alberto Fernández, who is not related to the vice president, said Thursday night in a national broadcast in which he declared a national holiday Friday in light of the incident.
“A man pointed a firearm at her head and pulled the trigger,” the president said, adding the firearm was loaded with five bullets but “didn’t fire even though the trigger was pulled.”
The man was quickly overpowered by the vice president’s security officers in the incident Thursday night, officials said.
The vice president did not appear to have suffered any injury.
Pope Francis, who is Argentine, expressed his solidarity with the vice president. “Having received the disturbing news of the attack that your excellency suffered yesterday afternoon, I wish to express my solidarity and closeness in this delicate moment,” he said in a statement Friday.
Gina De Bai, a witness who was near the vice president during the incident, told The Associated Press she heard “the sound of the trigger being pulled.” She said she didn’t realize it was a handgun until the man was rushed by security personnel.
President Fernández called it “the most serious incident since we recovered democracy” in 1983 after a military dictatorship and urged political leaders, and society at large, to repudiate the attempted shooting.
Schools were closed Friday and many businesses appeared to adhere to the president’s call for a holiday as the streets of Buenos Aires were eerily quiet for a weekday morning.
The attack came as the vice president is facing a trial for alleged acts of corruption during her 2007-2015 presidency — charges that she vehemently denies and that have led her supporters to surround her home in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood of Argentina’s capital.
Video broadcast on local television channels showed Fernández exiting her vehicle surrounded by supporters when a man is seen extending his hand with what looks like a pistol. The vice president ducks as people around the apparent gunman appear shocked at what is happening.
Unverified video posted on social media shows the pistol almost touched Fernández’s face.
Supporters of the vice president have been gathering in the streets surrounding her home since last week, when a prosecutor called for a 12-year sentence for Fernández as well as a life-long prohibition in holding public office in the corruption case.
Shortly after the incident, government officials were quick to decry what they called an assassination attempt.
“When hate and violence are imposed over the debate of ideas, societies are destroyed and generate situations like the one seen today: an assassination attempt,” Economy Minister Sergio Massa said.
Cabinet ministers issued a news release saying they “energetically condemn the attempted homicide” of the vice president. “What happened tonight is of extreme gravity and threatens democracy, institutions and the rule of law.”
Former President Mauricio Macri, a conservative who succeeded the left-of-center Fernández in the presidency, also condemned the attack. “This very serious event demands an immediate and profound clarification by the judiciary and security forces,” Macri wrote on Twitter.
Patricia Bullrich, president of the opposition Republican Proposal party, criticized President Fernández’s reaction to the attack, accusing him of “playing with fire.” She said that “instead of seriously investigating a serious incident, he accuses the opposition and the press, decreeing a national holiday to mobilize activists.”
Tensions have been running high in the Recoleta neighborhood since the weekend, when the vice president’s supporters clashed with police in the streets surrounding her apartment amid an effort by law enforcement officers to clear the area. Following the clashes, what had been a strong police presence around the vice president’s apartment was reduced.
When Fernández leaves her apartment every day at around noon, she greets supporters and signs autographs before getting in her vehicle to go to the Senate. She repeats the same routine every evening.
Following the incident, allies of the vice president quickly pointed the finger at the opposition for what they said is hateful speech that promotes violence.
Regional leaders condemned the attack.
“We send our solidarity to the vice president in this attempt against her life,” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said on Twitter.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, who is a candidate in that nation’s presidential election next month, also expressed solidarity with Fernández, calling her a “victim of a fascist criminal who doesn’t know how to respect differences and diversity.”