BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — As powerful Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández got out of her car outside her apartment building and began shaking hands with a crowd of well-wishers, a man came forward with a gun, placed inches from his face and pulled the trigger with a distinct click.
The weapon apparently jammed.
Fernández’s security services grabbed the shooter and took him away, and the 69-year-old former Argentine president emerged unharmed. But the apparent assassination attempt on the deeply divisive figure on Thursday night shook the country and threatened to further trouble its tumultuous political scene.
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.
Authorities have shed no light on a possible motive and are investigating whether he acted alone or was part of a larger conspiracy.
“There is no confirmed hypothesis,” said a security ministry official who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everything is under investigation.”
The country’s political leaders were quick to condemn the incident, with President Alberto Fernández hosting a late-night national broadcast to tell Argentines how close the vice president was to being killed.
The president, who is not related to his vice president, said the man’s semi-automatic handgun was loaded with five bullets but ‘did not fire even though the trigger was pulled’ .
Argentina, a country with a history of political violence, appeared to be in shock Friday morning. The streets of Buenos Aires were calm after the president declared a national holiday following what he called “the most serious incident since we regained democracy” in 1983 after a military dictatorship.
Allies of Fernández, who served as president from 2007 to 2015, called for a march in Buenos Aires to express their support and denounce the incident.
No politician arouses more passion in Argentina than Fernández, who has both strong supporters and ardent detractors.
The centre-left leader is on trial on corruption charges involving public works while she was president. Some of her staunchest supporters had gathered outside her apartment daily since August 22, when a prosecutor demanded a 12-year prison sentence against her and a ban on her 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 will cause!” chanted the supporters.
In recent days, some of his allies have accused his critics of trying to start the violence, with Security Minister Aníbal Fernández saying the opposition was “looking for someone to die on the street”.
After Thursday’s incident, some of his supporters pointed the finger at the opposition for what they said was hate speech that could incite people to violence.
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.
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.
During Thursday’s incident, which was caught on video, those around the vice president looked shocked and confused.
It was unclear whether Fernández understood what had just happened. The video emerged to show her covering her face and ducking. But from another angle, it looked like she had dropped something and crouched down to pick it up.
Even as his security detail swung into action, Fernández continued to greet supporters in the upscale Recoleta district of the Argentine capital.
Government officials and former leaders denounced the episode as a threat to democracy and the rule of law.
“When hatred and violence impose themselves on the debate of ideas, societies are destroyed and generate situations like the one we see today: an assassination attempt”, declared the Minister of Economy Sergio Massa.
Patricia Bullrich, chairwoman of the opposition Republican Proposal party, accused President Fernández of using the episode 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 nearly two decades, revered by some for her left-wing welfare policies and vilified by others as corrupt and power-hungry. 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 Nisman died by suicide. But the opposition has long maintained that he was murdered or driven to commit suicide.
Brazil’s authoritarian 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 didn’t know how to use a gun, otherwise he would have succeeded.”
Daniel Politi reported from Santiago, Chile.
. assassination attempt apparent against vice president shakes Argentina