Violence mars Peron's reburial

October 18, 2006|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Defiled by grave robbers, banished from the presidential grounds and sliced for DNA samples, the battered remains of former Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron was moved yesterday to a new monument where enthusiasts hope the remains of his celebrated former wife Eva "Evita" Peron will one day join him.

But violent clashes among rival union groups at the mausoleum site southwest of Buenos Aires marred the planned ceremony. Men at the scene tossed rocks, brandished clubs and at least one fired a pistol. Police in riot gear swarmed the area.

At least 46 people were injured, according to news reports. It remained unclear what sparked the confrontation, which inevitably reminded many of the turbulent and often violent times of Peron's volatile leadership.

"This is a black afternoon that blemishes the memory of Peron," a veteran television reporter, Julio Bazan, declared from the site.

A much-anticipated appearance at the mausoleum by President Nestor Kirchner was put off, possibly because of the violence.

The transfer has resounded in recent days in a nation still grappling with the ambivalent legacy of the caudillo more than three decades after his passing.

Shouts of "Viva Peron!" echoed as thousands lined the route of the official motorcade that accompanied the former army colonel's coffin, draped in the blue-and-white Argentine flag and towed by a military jeep. Many bystanders tossed flowers, and some had tears in their eyes.

"He made this country," declared retiree Alberto Piscella, 70, as he paid homage outside a union hall where the cortege stopped. "Everyone that came afterward called themselves Peronistas, but none could emerge from the shadow of Peron."

Despite an autocratic style that prompted some to label him a dictator, Peron is still widely admired in Argentina for redirecting government resources to the working classes and poor.

First elected president in 1946, Peron was ousted in a coup in 1955 amid economic turmoil and went into exile for 17 years. Mention of his name was even banned for a time, before he was allowed to return in 1972. The next year he won re-election to the presidency, with his third and final wife, Maria Estela Isabel Peron, as his vice president.

He died in office July 1, 1974, at age 78. His passing preceded Argentina's dark descent into economic and political chaos and years of military dictatorship.

Peron's body, ousted by a military junta from its initial burial site on the grounds of the presidential residence, has long been housed inside a family crypt at the unpretentious Chacaritas cemetery in Buenos Aires. But followers have sought a more elegant and secure resting place. Officials removed the remains from the crypt early yesterday with the permission of Peron's widow, who lives in Spain.

"Chacaritas is not an adequate place for such a man," said Hernan Maccione, 55, a history teacher who passed by Peron's tomb the other day to leave a flower. "He deserves to be in his own mausoleum, with Eva, our martyr."

The remains of Eva Peron are in a family plot in the capital's upscale Recoleta district, an irony for the working-class icon.

But her family has resisted efforts to move her remains, which endured their own bizarre odyssey. They were smuggled to a secret burial ground in Italy and then brought to Peron's home-in-exile in Madrid. They were finally returned to Argentina 22 years after her death from cancer in 1952 at age 33.

Supporters raised more than $1 million for the new memorial, where Juan Peron is to lie in a marble sarcophagus amid a one-time Peron vacation retreat in San Vicente, 30 miles southwest of the capital.

The general goes to his likely final resting place without resolution of a macabre mystery: Who sawed off his hands 19 years ago? The apparent thieves initially demanded a ransom of $8 million for their return, but the money was never paid, and the mutilation remains unsolved.

Meanwhile, experts have removed slivers of Peron's remaining bones to perform DNA testing in the case of Martha Susana Holgado, 72, who has waged a decades-long battle to prove she is the out-of-wedlock daughter of the ostensibly childless Peron.

Patrick J. McDonnell writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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