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Attack raises doubts about Argentine VP’s security protocols

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina –

Every day for the past two weeks, the routine was the same: Argentina’s powerful Vice President Cristina Fernandez was met by a crowd of feverish supporters who wanted to touch their leader. And every day she obliged and approached them.

But on Thursday the routine pressing of the flesh took a sinister turn when a man in the sea of supporters pointed a handgun inches from the vice president’s face and pulled the trigger with a distinct click.

The loaded .38-calibre semi-automatic weapon evidently jammed, and the suspect was arrested. Now the apparent assassination attempt is raising questions about whether the most influential woman in Argentine politics for the past two decades should change her relationship with the many loyal followers who constantly seek a handshake or autograph.

“Cristina was cornered,” said Silvana Venegas, a 43-year-old woman who witnessed the event. “She was easy prey, very easy.”

For a few minutes afterward, Fernandez continued signing autographs and waving. Her security detail seized the gunman but did not remove her from the area.

Argentina media have reported that Fernandez told the investigating judge she was unaware a gun had been pointed at her until she got inside her apartment. She also confirmed speculation that when she appeared to duck, she was actually crouching to pick up a book that had fallen to the ground.

Jorge Vidal, a public security expert who used to work for the Buenos Aires city government, said the security response to the incident was “far from being a professional performance.”

While security teams must do as they are told by those they guard, he said, “politicians must understand that not all the hands that are stretched out to touch or greet them are to caress or shake.”

No politician awakens more passion in Argentina than Fernandez, 69, who is revered by some for her left-leaning social welfare policies and reviled by others as corrupt and power-hungry, and she has long derived political strength from her closeness to the crowds that venerate her.

Supporters compare her to Eva Peron, the wife of Juan Domingo Peron, a military officer elected president in 1946. As First Lady, Peron espoused women’s rights and was known as a benefactor of the poor. After her early death in 1952, she became enshrined in Argentina’s national mythology.

Outpourings of devotion to Fernandez have intensified recently after a prosecutor sought to send her to prison for 12 years over corruption allegations involving public works while she was president from 2007 to 2015.

Fernandez and her backers say the case is an act of political revenge, and the front of her apartment building in the downtown Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Recoleta has become a sanctuary for hundreds of followers outraged by the accusations against her.

As she left and returned each day, she clasped the hands of men and women who shouted “Cristina, I love you!” She also signed dozens of copies of her political autobiography, titled “Sinceramente,” or Spanish for “sincerely.”

A young man who was in the crowd Thursday night said he was right in front of Fernandez when the handgun emerged.

“I tell Cristina that I loved her, and she caresses me. I see an arm sticking out … with a gun,” the man, who was identified only as Javier for security reasons, told reporters Friday after giving his account to the investigating judge.

The only previous incident occurred last Saturday, when tension developed between Fernandez followers and police who sought to remove them due to neighbours’ complaints.

The vice president complained about the treatment of her supporters and accused Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta of keeping her under siege, and security around the building was soon relaxed.

“We noticed that there were fewer police officers. I saw two from the federal (police). It was full of people,” Venegas said.

Javier, the young witness, declared in court that he and other supporters detained the suspect, not the police.

“I grab him, and also others,” he said.

The vice president has not spoken publicly since the incident. Some friends and political allies have been able to see her.

“Cristina is shocked, shocked,” said Sen. Oscar Parrilli, who is close to the vice president. “She is fine, luckily, because she has her spirit and her temper intact.”

The attempted shooting shook Argentina, a country that has a history of political violence but has not seen a similar attack since democracy was restored in 1983 after years of dictatorship.

President Alberto Fernandez, who is not related to the vice president, has said that the weapon was loaded with five bullets and that for “a reason not yet technically confirmed, it was not fired.”

The suspect has been identified as Fernando Andre Sabag Montiel, a 35-year-old street vendor from Brazil who has lived in Argentina since 1998 and has no prior criminal record. He was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. Authorities have shed no light on a possible motive and are investigating whether the gunman acted alone or as part of a larger plot.

The day after the incident, Fernandez’ supporters demonstrated throughout the country under the slogan “Everybody with Cristina.”

Buenos Aires’ central Plaza de Mayo filled with people of all ages brandishing handwritten signs with messages such as “Always with Cristina, the people do not forget” and “Cristina is of the people and no one touches her.”

At her home, meanwhile, dozens of federal agents stood guard.

Fernandez emerged and approached a group of supporters to greet them, then got into a car to go to an unknown destination.

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