Apparent assassination attempt against vice president roils Argentina

A blurry image taken from video of a man in a crowd pointing gun at Argentina's vice president
This image taken from a video shows a man pointing a gun at Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández outside her home in Buenos Aires. He pulled the trigger, but the gun apparently jammed.
(Televisión Pública Argentina)

As Argentina’s Vice President Cristina Fernández stepped from her car outside her apartment building and began greeting a throng of well-wishers, a man pushed forward with a gun, pointed it inches from her face and pulled the trigger.

The loaded weapon evidently jammed.

Fernández’s security team seized the gunman and took him away, and the 69-year-old vice president was unhurt. But Thursday night’s apparent assassination attempt against the powerful but controversial former president shook Argentina — a country with a history of political violence — and worsened tensions in the divided nation.

Authorities identified the gunman as Fernando André Sabag Montiel, 35, a Brazilian street vendor who has lived in Argentina since 1998 and had no criminal record. He was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.


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Sabag Montiel wielded a .38-caliber semiautomatic handgun that was “operating normally” and “capable of firing,” according to a judicial official who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Authorities shed no light on a possible motive and were investigating whether Sabag Montiel had acted alone or as part of a larger plot.

The country’s political leaders quickly condemned the attempted shooting as an assault on democracy and the rule of law.

President Alberto Fernández held a late-night broadcast to tell Argentines how close the vice president had come to being killed.

The president, who is not related to the vice president, said the gun was loaded with five bullets but “didn’t fire even though the trigger was pulled.”


He declared a national holiday Friday over what he called “the most serious incident since we recovered democracy” in 1983 after a military dictatorship.

Tens of thousands filled the streets around Government House in downtown Buenos Aires on Friday afternoon to show their support for Vice President Fernández and denounce the attempted shooting.

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Some condemned the political opposition, saying its verbal attacks against her motivated the gunman. Several political leaders similarly accused opposition politicians and media outlets of fomenting violence.

Demonstrator Andrés Casaola said: “That bullet represents hate speech.”

No politician awakens more passion in Argentina than the vice president, revered by some for her left-leaning social welfare policies and reviled by others as corrupt and power-hungry.

Fernández is on trial, charged with corruption while she was president, from 2007 to 2015. Supporters had been gathering daily outside her apartment since Aug. 22, when a prosecutor called for a 12-year prison sentence and a ban on her holding public office again.

She has denied all charges and cast herself as a victim of political persecution.

“If you touch Cristina, what chaos we’ll make!” supporters had chanted.

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Last weekend, her followers clashed with police who were trying to clear the area. The strong police presence around the apartment was then reduced, though her supporters kept coming.

In recent days, some of her allies had charged that her detractors were trying to spark violence.

In Thursday’s incident, captured on video, it was not clear whether Fernández understood what had happened. As her security team reacted, she kept greeting supporters.

The gunman illegally possessed the weapon, an example of the “obsolete” guns that circulate among small-time criminals in Argentina, said Gabriel González Da Silva, a prosecutor whose office investigates weapons-related crimes.

Patricia Bullrich, president of the opposition Republican Proposal party, accused President Fernández of using the shooting attempt for political gain.

“Instead of seriously investigating a serious incident, he accuses the opposition and the press, decreeing a national holiday to mobilize activists,” she said.

Vice President Fernández has been at the center of Argentine politics for almost two decades. She was first lady from 2003 to 2007, during the administration of her husband, Néstor Kirchner, then succeeded him as president.

As opposition to her rule rose, she increasingly portrayed herself as the victim of attacks from special interests due to her defense of workers and the poor.

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In 2015, during Fernández’s second term as president, a prosecutor who had accused her 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 he was to present evidence against her.

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The attempted shooting of quickly gave rise to new conspiracy theories, dividing those who say that “the whole thing was staged, and those who think it was real,” said Mariel Fornoni, director of Management & Fit political consultancy.

Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has frequently criticized the left-leaning Argentine government, weighed in Friday on the apparent assassination attempt.

“I lament it, and there are people already trying to blame me for that problem,” he said. “It is good that the attacker didn’t know how to use a gun, otherwise he would have been successful.”

Calatrava reported from Buenos Aires and Politi reported from Santiago, Chile.