The Many Trials of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

Argentina’s vice president survived an assassination attempt. Will she make it out of court?

By , a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner leaves a courthouse
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner leaves a courthouse
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner leaves a courthouse in Buenos Aires on Sept. 3, 2018. Agustin Marcarian via Getty Images)

On Sept. 2, a van carrying several gray-haired women in white head scarves inched toward the presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires, a sea of bodies swelling all around it. Thousands of people had gathered in the capital and across Argentina to express their solidarity with the country’s vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and to demonstrate their commitment to democracy more broadly.

Less than 24 hours before, a man brandished a gun in Fernández de Kirchner’s face and pulled the trigger while she was greeting supporters outside her apartment in the upscale neighborhood of Recoleta; miraculously, the gun did not fire. Fernando André Sabag Montiel, 35, was quickly arrested and charged in the assassination attempt. Now, alongside officials from the ruling Frente de Todos (“Everyone’s Front”) party, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who garnered international renown for their defiance of Argentina’s military dictatorship a generation ago, were gathering in front of the Casa Rosada, the country’s presidential office, like white blood cells fighting an infection.

“When I defend the other, I’m defending myself,” said Hebe de Bonafini, one of the co-founders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, in a recorded address. “Today, the other is Cristina.”

On Sept. 2, a van carrying several gray-haired women in white head scarves inched toward the presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires, a sea of bodies swelling all around it. Thousands of people had gathered in the capital and across Argentina to express their solidarity with the country’s vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and to demonstrate their commitment to democracy more broadly.

Less than 24 hours before, a man brandished a gun in Fernández de Kirchner’s face and pulled the trigger while she was greeting supporters outside her apartment in the upscale neighborhood of Recoleta; miraculously, the gun did not fire. Fernando André Sabag Montiel, 35, was quickly arrested and charged in the assassination attempt. Now, alongside officials from the ruling Frente de Todos (“Everyone’s Front”) party, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who garnered international renown for their defiance of Argentina’s military dictatorship a generation ago, were gathering in front of the Casa Rosada, the country’s presidential office, like white blood cells fighting an infection.

“When I defend the other, I’m defending myself,” said Hebe de Bonafini, one of the co-founders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, in a recorded address. “Today, the other is Cristina.”

“I couldn’t be absent during this historic moment in Argentina,” offered Eduardo García Jurado, a retired 70-year-old lawyer. “I’m not saying that Cristina is innocent, but we can’t allow the hatred of her in the media, which represents the economic [interests] of the country, to weaponize [the public].”

The attempt on the vice president’s life punctuates what has been a uniquely turbulent year for her and her administration. Fernández de Kirchner currently faces up to 12 years in prison and a lifetime ban from holding public office for allegedly directing construction contracts to a personal contact as part of the corruption scandal “La Causa Vialidad” (The Road Case). Meanwhile, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the onset of the war in Ukraine, inflation in July soared 70 percent over 2021, with some economists predicting that number will reach 90 percent by the end of the year. These numbers are staggering even for a country that has grown accustomed to economic upheaval in recent decades. As a result, the center-left Frente de Todos has seen its approval numbers plummet: One recent poll indicates it has the support of less than 20 percent of the population.

Cecilia, a 38-year-old lecturer on international political economy who was among the masses in the capital, asked not to provide her last name, later saying she was “scared” that an extreme right-wing movement may be on the rise in Argentina. “I’m not a Kirchnerista”—a supporter of the vice president or her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, who served as president of Argentina from 2003 to 2007—“but I still think it’s important to be here,” she said. “This is not an outlier. This is the consequence of a global process of polarization brought on by economic distress.”

Fernández de Kirchner has called La Causa Vialidad a “media judicial firing squad.” Whether she has been unjustly persecuted depends almost entirely on one’s political orientation, as the former president and first lady remains perhaps the country’s most polarizing figure. Regardless, these kinds of investigations raise pressing questions about how judiciaries in Latin America often embolden the forces of reaction. And as cases like Vialidad in Argentina and the sweeping criminal probe known as Operation Car Wash in Brazil make clear, the consequences can be far-reaching and unexpected.


The latest charges against Fernández de Kirchner date back to the early aughts. According to a federal prosecutor, the then-senator for Santa Cruz began directing state funds to a close friend and associate via public works contracts. Nearly half of those contracts were never completed, and the money was allegedly routed through a shell company over a 12-year period. In 2019, a federal court sentenced one of Fernández de Kirchner’s co-defendants and former ministers, José Lopez, to six years in prison for stashing $9 million and an automatic weapon in a Buenos Aires convent.

Shortly after oral arguments in Fernández de Kirchner’s case began in August, Presidents Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Gustavo Petro of Colombia, and Luis Arce of Bolivia issued a joint statement with Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández (no relation to the vice president) denouncing her “unjustifiable judicial persecution.” This statement followed a separate missive from the Fernández government earlier that month deriding the judiciary’s use of “lawfare”—a legal means of persecution by which the courts can delegitimize a politician and subvert the will of the people.

In Argentina, however, lawfare is in the eye of the beholder.

“It’s important to remember that this is not the first case of corruption involving the administrations of Nestor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner ,” said Ignacio Labaqui, a professor of Latin American politics and theory at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina. “I can’t speak to the case against her; that’s for the judges to decide. But she has the ability to appeal to higher courts, including the Supreme Court.”

Fernández de Kirchner is no stranger to scandal, as Labaqui notes. In addition to Vialidad, the Peronist firebrand faces charges stemming from a separate investigation known as “La Causa de los Cuadernos” (The Notebook Case). While the courts dismissed two charges against her in 2019 and another in 2021, the Cuadernos probe, which centers around alleged bribes paid to public officials in both Kirchner administrations, is expected to go to trial. But since then-President Fernández de Kirchner’s failed attempt to reform the justice system in 2013, the motivations of the judiciary in pursuing these probes remain murky.

“That was really the opening salvo in what has become an open war [on Cristina Fernández de Kirchner],” said María Esperanza Casullo, a political scientist and professor at the National University of Río Negro. “Anti-corruption probes have evolved into a tool to be wielded against leftist or national popular governments, and I don’t think there’s a lot of controversy in saying this. Maybe there’s compelling evidence against Kirchner in this trial, but if you look at the totality of these cases, it’s hard to escape the notion that there’s a wider political intention here.”

Neither are the circumstances surrounding the Vialidad and Cuadernos probes unique to Argentina. In 2014, a money laundering investigation in Curitiba, Brazil, that was later dubbed Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) eventually came to enmesh broad swaths of the country’s political establishment, including members of the center-left Workers’ Party and the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party, along with officials at the state-owned oil company Petrobras.

More significantly, Operation Car Wash led to the trial and subsequent conviction of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on charges that he offered public works contracts in exchange for a beachfront apartment in the small coastal city of Guarujá. That conviction was ultimately voided, but not before Lula was prevented from running for office in 2018, paving the way for the far-right Jair Bolsonaro’s victory. (Sergio Moro, the federal judge who spearheaded the investigation, received a post in the Bolsonaro administration, while Lula was sent to prison.)

“Argentina and Brazil are similar in the sense that, like most Latin American democracies, corruption is part of how the game is played,” said Eduardo Mello, an assistant professor of politics and international relations at the Fundação Getulio Vargas. “It’s not a left or a right or a center thing. Corruption is integral to the political system. These kinds of probes happen under all presidents, but they tend to move forward when an administration is deeply unpopular.”

“It’s not that lawfare doesn’t exist,” he added. “It’s that it doesn’t have an explicit political orientation.”

Recent history would appear to bear out Mello’s thesis. Although Lula was not in office at the outset of Operation Car Wash, the investigation gained momentum as the economy contracted under his successor, Dilma Rousseff. Similarly, the case against Fernández de Kirchner has advanced during a Fernández administration buckling beneath rampant inflation and several global catastrophes. Whereas Lula was disqualified from the 2018 election in Brazil, Fernández de Kirchner would be allowed to hold public office until she has exhausted the appeals process. Still, it seems inevitable that the trial and others like it will tarnish the public’s perception of the vice president, even if the full extent of the damage may prove difficult to assess. In the lower house of the Argentine Congress, at least one member of the opposition, Francisco Sánchez, has called for Fernández de Kirchner to receive the death penalty—a call that he has since retracted. Others have even intimated that the assassination attempt was staged.

“What we’re seeing is an asymmetric radicalization in Argentina, with a far right confronting a more moderate left,” said Ernesto Semán, a political scientist and Latin American historian at the University of Bergen in Norway. “The right is [embracing] more violent and vitriolic rhetoric against individual leaders but also against the very idea of populism, which it treats as intrinsically criminal or corrupt. All of these elements come together in this latest assassination attempt.”


This month, police have arrested four people, including the apparent would-be assassin Sabag Montiel’s 23-year-old girlfriend, Brenda Uliarte, for their alleged roles in the plot. An investigation into their possible ties to far-right organizations is ongoing, and the probe has already been marred by a possible breakdown in the chain of custody, but a few things about the alleged gunman are known: He bears a neo-Nazi tattoo on his elbow, and he’s a virulent anti-Kirchnerist who has openly railed against her political movement’s efforts to expand social benefits for the poor. In the aftermath of the botched assassination, authorities in the nearby city of La Plata also raided the so-called Kyle Rittenhouse Cultural Center—named for the teenager who shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin—after one of its patrons praised Sabag Montiel on Facebook.

“There might be 150 people in Argentina who know who Kyle Rittenhouse is,” Casullo, the political scientist, said. “What’s interesting to me is how this global flow of [right-wing] memes and information combines with elements of each country. In Argentina, it’s anti-Kirchnerism. In Brazil or Chile, maybe it’s something else.”

Since the fall of the military junta in 1983, Argentine democracy has proved remarkably resilient, withstanding multiple political and economic crises. Yet if Brazil’s descent into authoritarianism offers any kind of instruction, it’s that nothing is guaranteed.

“We have a lot of problems in Argentina, but one that we didn’t have was the fear that someone could be hurt while speaking in public,” Casullo added. “The ability to speak face-to-face with the people is a very important part of doing politics in the country, especially for Peronists. If that were to change, it would be incredibly corrosive.”

On the morning of the march, Nora Cortiñas, another co-founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, issued a warning to Radio Provincia. “It’s not possible to tolerate this hatred, nor this poison that is released by the right,” she said. That rage “will keep increasing between now and 2023.”

Jacob Sugarman is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires. His writing has appeared in the Nation, In These Times, and Salon, among other publications. Twitter: @jakesugarman

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