A lavish reburial ceremony for Argentine strongman Juan Domingo Peron degenerated into a violence Tuesday, as rival factions hurled rocks at one another and riot police dispersed them with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The fighting between club-wielding groups of men on the fringes of a large and mostly peaceful crowd of thousands resulted in at least 40 injuries, according to local media reports. One man was televised firing a gun.
The violence was apparently sparked by members of rival factions of the Peronist party angry about not being able to gain entrance to the ceremony, according to local TV and newspaper reports. However, authorities had no immediate confirmation on the motives for the battles or the groups involved.
As Peron’s cortege traveled from his old tomb in downtown Buenos Aires to the new mausoleum at his former weekend estate, thousands of weeping admirers tossed carnations and confetti.
Riot police tightly ringed the flag-draped coffin as it made its way toward the new crypt. As Peron’s body was laid into the new mausoleum, hundreds of supporters clapped and yelled “Viva! Long live Peron!”
The independent television network TodosNoticias captured the mid-afternoon violence and showed one man with what appeared to be a handgun in a small group of men. The televised footage showed his gun recoiling four times in a matter of seconds, smoke rising from the barrel.
Hail of rocks
Before Peron’s body arrived, men outside the estate, shirtless, unleashed a fusillade of rocks and sticks against the stout wooden entrance gate before. The violence lasted several minutes before groups inside put ladders up against the brick walls of the estate and lobbed rocks back in defense.
“This was supposed to be a fiesta, a historic day. Instead it is a great shame,” said one woman fleeing with her family. Others left in cars with windows shattered by rocks.
Removed from the Peron family’s relatively humble crypt at the Chacarita cemetery, Peron’s body was borne in a coffin topped by a military cap and saber in an hourslong procession led by guards on horseback to a new $1.1 million mausoleum outside the capital. Authorities closed a major highway ahead of the sunset reburial — Peron’s third since his death in 1974.
“We are paying homage to our Peronist party, to the political party of our grandfathers and our fathers!” said 24-year-old Daniel Ferreri.
Peron dominated Argentine politics like no other 20th-century leader with his glamorous wife Evita at his side, cultivating an enormous working-class following by redirecting agricultural wealth to legions of urban poor through projects to build schools, hospitals and homes. Peron was elected president three times and died in office at age 78 in 1974.
Relatives of the late Eva Peron, or Evita, who died from cancer in 1952 at age 33, have opposed moving her coffin from her family’s tomb in the Recoleta cemetery in downtown Buenos Aires to lie beside her husband.
On Tuesday, hundreds of labor activists waved large photographs of the Perons and banners reading “Peron, Immortal! Evita, Immortal!” as Peron’s coffin was taken to a midday tribute at a union hall.
Nonetheless, the ceremonies underscored how the movement that bears Peron’s name has suffered deep fissures since his death: former presidents Carlos Menem and Eduardo Duhalde, rivals of current President Nestor Kirchner, and all Peronists, said they would not take part. Kirchner canceled plans to attend after the violence broke out.
Supporters say Peron deserves a resting place befitting a national hero, a place more grand than the crowded urban cemetery where grave robbers broke in and stole his hands in 1987.
Workers on Monday tore open his crypt to remove the heavy metal coffin horizontally and avoid further damage to his corpse, said Alejandro Rodriguez Peron, a nephew.
An authoritarian leader who also had enemies, Peron radically reshaped Argentina’s economic and political life by nationalizing railroads and other industries to bankroll state programs for the working classes.
The young, blonde Evita became a national icon, and after her death, her body lay in state in Congress for weeks as hundreds of thousands of mourners thronged to her coffin’s open viewing.
When military leaders overthrew Juan Peron in 1955, they were apparently so worried about a death cult that they secretly moved Evita’s body to an unmarked grave in Italy. In 1971 it was delivered to Juan Peron’s home in exile in Spain.
Peron returned to Argentina soon after and ruled briefly until his death. He was succeeded by his third wife, Isabel, who brought Evita’s body to rest by his in the presidential residence in Buenos Aires. But after she too was ousted in a 1976 coup, the military quietly dispatched both bodies to their families’ respective crypts.