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Man detained after attempted assassination of Argentina VP Cristina Kirchner

A 35-year-old Brazilian national is in custody after pushing through a crowd of supporters, raising a pistol at point-blank range, and pulling the trigger — but the gun didn't fire.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — Argentina Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner survived an assassination attempt while greeting supporters outside her home in the capital of Buenos Aires on Thursday.

Crowds have gathered over the last couple of weeks, holding vigil in support of the vice president who faces corruption charges. The gunman filtered through the supporters outside of her home in the wealthy Recoleta neighborhood, aimed a pistol at her from point-blank range and pulled the trigger. The gun failed to fire.

The gunman, identified as 35-year-old Brazilian national Fernando Andrés Sabag Montiel, was taken into custody after being apprehended by the politician’s security service. He is already known to law enforcement, having been arrested last year for possessing a knife when stopped at a vehicle control point.

“A man pointed a firearm at her head and pulled the trigger,” said President Alberto Fernández during a televised nationwide address Thursday. “Cristina is still alive because, for some reason yet to be confirmed, the gun did not fire.”

The president described the attack as “the most serious that has happened since we recovered our democracy” in 1983 after a bloody dictatorship. In his speech delivered close to midnight, he declared a national holiday for the following day, calling on the people to march against political violence.

The country’s largest trade union federation, the CGT, which represents millions of workers, declared that they are “in a state of alert” after the attack and are weighing up the possibility of a general strike in solidarity with the vice president.

On Friday, tens of thousands of people took part in marches across the country, with thousands descending on the nation’s spiritual center, Plaza de Mayo, the backdrop of many of the nation’s most iconic moments in history.

“I feel that what I’ve experienced today, I have never experienced before in my life,” said Laurence Bari, a 27-year-old language professor from Greater Buenos Aires. “It is the first time that a political representative has been in severe danger. Beyond the political differences and different ideas one may have about Cristina, an attempt against the integrity of any democratically elected political representative is an attempt not only against her life but also against the whole community, the rule of law, peace and representativeness.”

Bari went to the capital’s main square with a group of friends. “Plaza de Mayo was, as always, a refuge for the people. We were all calm, trying to celebrate the fact that Cristina was alive — probably by a miracle. There is a feeling in the air of irreparable damage, of anguish and pity. Our society has been put in check.”

Looking out into the crowd spread out across the iconic square, Bari said: “We felt democracy breaking into a thousand pieces, but we also felt how we were there trying to repair it in spite of everything.”

Fernández de Kircher, a charismatic center-left politician from the broad Peronist party, is one of the most influential public officials in the country. She served as president from 2007 to 2015 and is currently the vice president after choosing Alberto Fernández (no relation) to run as president in the 2019 elections.

The Bersa .380 caliber pistol used by the gunman was loaded with five bullets. As authorities work to identify the motive for the failed assassination, there has been international condemnation from world leaders as well as broad support for the vice president across the deep political divide that exists in Argentina.

Pope Francis, who is Argentine, called Fernández de Kircher by phone on Friday to express his solidarity. Presidents from across Latin America expressed their solidarity with Fernández de Kircher and their rejection of political violence, from Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Gabriel Boric in Chile to Luis Arce in Bolivia and Pedro Castillo in Peru.

Former Argentina president and leader of the center-right PRO party, Mauricio Macri, who is a strong critic of the vice president and also faces court cases of his own, expressed “absolute repudiation of the attack.” The mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta of the PRO party, expressed “total solidarity” with the vice president, calling the attack “a turning point in the democratic history of our country. Today, more than ever, all Argentines have to work together for peace.”

Other national politicians have refused to condemn the attack. The current head of the PRO party, Patricia Bullrich, took aim at the president for declaring a public holiday. “The president is playing with fire,” she said, accusing him of politicizing “an individual act of violence.”

Influential libertarian politician Javier Milei, whose anti-establishment position has catapulted him into the political center of Argentina in recent years, has so far refused to publicly comment on the attack.

The attempt on the vice president’s life comes weeks after another PRO politician, Francisco Sánchez, called for the reintroduction of the death penalty for those guilty of corruption. He was speaking in response to the 12-year jail sentence asked by prosecutors in the lengthy corruption case against Fernández de Kircher, who is accused of heading “probably the biggest corruption scheme that has ever been known in the country,” according to federal prosecutor Diego Luciani.

Fernández de Kirchner firmly denies the allegations and claims to be the victim of lawfare directed by political and judicial persecution.

The attempted assassination of the vice president occurred on the same day that U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a stark speech on the health of American democracy in light of the Jan. 6 hearings. Biden warned of the attempts to undermine democracy and the danger of descending into political violence.

The attack on Argentina’s vice president highlights the fragile state of democracy across continents. Yet many citizens refuse to let their countries descend into an era of political violence. For many, they’re holding the weight of uncertainty, attempting to repair the damages done to democracy. “To repair it with love,” Bari said, “with passion, with ingenuity and above all with tenderness. Because with tenderness we will win.”

Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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