PENOS AIRES, Argentina (Associated Press) – When Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernandez got out of her car outside her apartment building and began shaking hands with a crowd of well-wishers, a man advanced with a gun, put it inches from his face and pulled the trigger with a distinct click.
The weapon is apparently jammed.
The armed Fernandez was seized and taken away by the security forces, and the 69-year-old former Argentine president appeared unharmed. But the assassination attempt that appeared to target the deeply divisive figure Thursday night has rocked Argentina – a country with a history of political violence – and further turbulent its turbulent political landscape.
Authorities identified the attacker as Fernando André Sapag-Montel, a 35-year-old street vendor and Brazilian national who has lived in Argentina since 1998 and has no criminal record. He was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.
Authorities have not shed light on a possible motive and were 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 incident was quickly condemned by the country’s political leaders, with President Alberto Fernandez conducting a national late-night broadcast to tell Argentines how close the vice president was to killing.
The president, who is not related to his deputy, said the man’s semi-automatic pistol was loaded with five bullets but “did not fire despite the trigger being pulled.”
The president declared Friday a national holiday following what he called “the most serious incident since the restoration of democracy” in 1983 after the military dictatorship.
Tens of thousands of people crowded the streets around the government headquarters in downtown Buenos Aires in the afternoon to show their support for the vice president and denounce the incident.
Many protesters carried banners calling for peace and unity or expressing their love for Fernandez. Chants against the political opposition can also be heard.
No politician awakens more passion in Argentina than Fernandez, who has ardent supporters and ardent critics.
A center-left leader is on trial on public works corruption charges when she was president from 2007 to 2015. Some of her loyal supporters have been gathering daily outside her apartment since August 22, when the attorney general called for a 12-year prison term for her and imposed a ban on her holding public office again. She has vigorously denied all charges and described herself as a victim of political persecution.
“If I touch Christina, what a mess we’re going to make!” Supporters shouted.
In recent days, some of its allies have accused its critics of trying to foment violence, with Security Minister Anibal Fernandez saying the opposition is “looking for someone to die in the street”.
In the wake of Thursday’s incident, some of her supporters pointed the finger at opposition to what they said was hate speech that could push people towards violence.
Before the apparent assassination attempt, Fernandez used to leave her apartment every day at noon, to greet supporters and sign autographs before getting into her car to go to the Senate. She had a similar routine every evening.
Over the weekend, her supporters clashed with police during an attempt by law enforcement to clear the area, then a strong police presence around the apartment was scaled back, although her supporters kept coming.
In Thursday’s incident, which was videotaped, it was not clear whether Fernandez had understood what had just happened. The video appeared to show her covering her face and swallowing. But from another angle, it looked as if she had dropped something and crouched down to pick it up.
Even as her security guards went on the job, Fernandez continued to greet supporters in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood of the Argentine capital.
Government officials and former leaders denounced the incident as a threat to democracy and the rule of law.
“When hatred and violence are imposed on the discussion of ideas, societies are destroyed and situations like the one we are witnessing today: an assassination attempt,” said Economy Minister Sergio Massa.
Patricia Bullrich, chair of the opposition Republican Proposal Party, accused President Fernandez of using the incident for political gain.
“Instead of seriously investigating a serious incident, he accuses the opposition and the press of declaring a national holiday to mobilize activists,” she said.
Fernandez has taken center stage in Argentine political life for nearly two decades, with some revered for his left-leaning social welfare policies and vilified by others as corrupt and power-hungry. She was the charismatic First Lady of the country during President Nestor Kirchner’s administration 2003-2007, then succeeded her husband.
As opposition to her rule grew, Fernandez increasingly portrayed herself as the victim of attacks from powerful vested interests for her defense of the poor and workers.
In one of the most dramatic incidents of her two-term presidency, the attorney general who accused Fernandez of making a deal with Iran to cover up its alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires died shortly before his appointment. to present evidence against her in 2015.
Allies of the former president insist that Alberto Nisman committed suicide. But the opposition has long maintained that he was killed or paid to kill himself.
Brazil’s authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly criticized Argentina’s left-leaning government, threw his weight on Friday’s alleged assassination attempt.
“I feel bad, and there are people who are really trying to blame me for this problem,” Bolsonaro said. “It is good that the attacker did not know how to use the weapon, otherwise he would have succeeded.”
Daniel Politi reported from Santiago, Chile.