BUENOS AIRES – As Argentina’s powerful Vice President Cristina Fernández stepped from her car outside her apartment building and began shaking hands with a throng of well-wishers, a man pushed forward with a gun, pointed it just inches from her face and pulled the trigger with a distinct click.
The loaded weapon evidently jammed.
Fernández's security detail seized the gunman and took him away, and the 69-year-old former president of Argentina was unhurt. But the apparent assassination attempt against the deeply divisive figure Thursday night shook Argentina — a country with a history of political violence — and worsened tensions in the sharply divided nation.
The gunman was identified as Fernando André Sabag Montiel, a 35-year-old street vendor and Brazilian citizen who has lived in Argentina since 1998 and had no criminal record, authorities said. He was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.
Sabag Montiel wielded a .38-caliber semiautomatic handgun that was “capable of firing” and was “operating normally,” 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 he acted alone or was 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, with President Alberto Fernández holding a late-night national broadcast to tell Argentines just how close the vice president came to being killed.
The president, who is not related to his vice president, said the gun was loaded with five bullets but “didn’t fire even though the trigger was pulled.”
The president declared a national holiday Friday in the wake of what he called “the most serious incident since we recovered democracy” in 1983 after a military dictatorship.
Tens of thousands of people packed the streets surrounding Government House in downtown Buenos Aires in the afternoon to show their support for the vice president and denounce the attempted shooting.
Some condemned the political opposition, saying its verbal attacks against the vice president 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."
“We have to achieve ... respect between Argentines and to no longer promote hatred, because people start accumulating hate, and then that leads to a person like this,” Mabel Lescano, another protester, said of the gunman.
No politician awakens more passion in Argentina than Fernández, revered by some for her left-leaning social welfare policies and reviled by others as corrupt and power-hungry.
The left-of-center leader is on trial on corruption charges involving public works while she was president from 2007 to 2015. Some of her staunchest supporters had been gathering daily outside her apartment since Aug. 22, when a prosecutor called for a 12-year prison sentence for her and a ban on holding public office ever again. She has vehemently denied all charges and cast herself as a victim of political persecution.
“If you touch Cristina, what chaos we’ll make!" supporters had chanted.
Over the weekend, her followers clashed with police during an effort by law enforcement to clear the area, and the strong police presence around the apartment was then reduced, though her supporters kept coming.
In recent days, some of her allies charged that her detractors were trying to spark violence, with Security Minister Aníbal Fernández saying the opposition "is looking for someone to die on the street.”
Before the apparent attempt on her life, Fernández had made a habit of leaving her apartment every day around noon, greeting supporters and signing autographs before getting in her vehicle to go to the Senate. She had a similar routine every evening.
In Thursday's incident, captured on video, it was not clear whether she understood what had just happened. Even as her security detail went into action, she continued greeting supporters in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood of Argentina’s capital.
The gunman illegally possessed the weapon, an example of the old and "obsolete” guns that circulate among small-time criminals in Argentina, said Gabriel González Da Silva, a prosecutor who leads an office that 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.
Fernández has been at the center stage of Argentine political life for almost two decades. She was the country's charismatic first lady during President Néstor Kirchner’s 2003-07 administration, then succeeded her husband.
As opposition to her rule began rising, Fernández increasingly portrayed herself as the victim of attacks from powerful special interests because of her defense of the poor and workers.
In one of the most dramatic incidents of her two-term presidency, a prosecutor who had accused Fernández of making a deal with Iran to cover up its alleged involvement in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires died shortly before he was set to present evidence against her in 2015.
Allies of the former president insist Alberto Nisman died by suicide. But the opposition has long contended that he was murdered or driven to kill himself.
In the country's deeply polarized environment, the attempted shooting of the vice president quickly gave rise to new conspiracy theories, dividing those who say “the whole thing was staged and those who think it was real,” said Mariel Fornoni, director of Management and Fit, a 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,” Bolsonaro said. “It is good that the attacker didn’t know how to use a gun, otherwise he would have been successful. ”
Politi reported from Santiago, Chile.