BUENOS AIRES — Gen. Juan Domingo Peron--three times elected president of Argentina, patriarch of a historic Latin American political movement, husband of the beloved and ubiquitous Evita--does not rest in peace.
In fact, there is little peace in Argentine cemeteries. Politicians, lawyers, pathologists, soldiers and grave robbers are forever disturbing the corpses of the Perons and other famous dead people.
Argentines have an obsession with illustrious cadavers, a penchant for shrouding their fallen leaders in nostalgia, superstition, intrigue and political symbolism. Recent history is full of episodes in which corpses have been dug up, desecrated or revered in outpourings of nationalism. Author Tomas Eloy Martinez believes that necrophilia--of the emotional, rather than physical, variety--is a national pastime.
"Since the nation's origins, necrophilia has been almost a sign of Argentine identity," said Eloy Martinez, an authority on the Perons. His new novel, "Saint Evita," describes the odyssey of Eva Peron's corpse, which was smuggled out of Argentina and not returned here until 1974, 22 years after her death.
The preoccupation with the remains of bygone leaders expresses a longing for more heroic times, for "the nation's promised grandeur," Eloy Martinez said. It also appears to have roots in a cultural blend of melancholy, fervent Roman Catholicism and Southern European mystical beliefs transplanted to a vast and lonely landscape.
"I think this obsession has its roots in places like Galicia in Spain, and in some regions of Italy," said Miguel Rodriguez Arias, a psychologist and political analyst here. "You often discover great truths by looking at our past, where we came from."
In the latest morbid episode, a federal judge has authorized pathologists to open the coffin of Juan Peron as soon as this week and extract a DNA sample from the body. The procedure is to be part of a lawsuit by a woman who claims to be the general's illegitimate daughter and wants a piece of his fortune.
The news brought moans from Peron's legion of admirers. Norma Kennedy, a veteran leader of the ruling Peronist party, went to court Wednesday to try to block the procedure. She railed against "the offensive and denigrating intention of touching his sacred remains."
It will not be the first time those remains have been touched. Two years after Peron's death in 1974, a hostile military regime removed his coffin from the official grave on the presidential estate and banished it to the family crypt in a Buenos Aires cemetery. In 1987, despite elaborate security defenses protecting the coffin, robbers broke into the crypt, smashed through a slab of bulletproof glass and sliced off the general's hands with an electric saw.
The mystery of the stolen hands remains "one of the great enigmas of Argentine history," the newspaper Clarin said recently.
Interpol debunked a theory that the robbers wanted to use the general's fingerprints to get into his Swiss bank accounts. There was talk of vengeful rightists and Masonic rites. In a letter to the president of the Peronist party, a group using the enigmatic nickname "Hermes and the 13" demanded an $8-million ransom for the historic hands.
The aftermath was sinister: The party president, the magistrate assigned to the case, the chief investigator, the cemetery watchman and other witnesses and investigators all met violent or suspicious deaths. The hands were never found. The case is being investigated by its fourth magistrate.
This strange story is one of many. In 1990, the chemically preserved heart of a 19th century priest, an architect of Argentine democracy, was plucked from his casket and then returned days later without explanation. Last year, the cadaver of a cousin of Juan Peron disappeared from a provincial cemetery.
And in June, Zulema Yoma, the estranged wife of President Carlos Menem, got a court order to exhume the body of their son Carlos, who died in a helicopter accident last year. She wanted to make sure another body had not been substituted for his. She alleges the accident resulted from foul play, though no evidence supports that claim.
Menem himself, according to Eloy Martinez, is a master of the populist tactic of "using corpses as political weapons." Menem oversaw the transfer in 1991 of the remains of Juan Bautista Alberdi, an architect of Argentina's constitution, from Buenos Aires to Bautista's native province, Tucuman. The president took advantage of the occasion to endorse a candidate for governor.
In the name of "national reconciliation with the past," the Menem administration brought back to Argentina another long-deceased leader, dictator Juan Manuel Rosas, who died in exile in England. The fanfare distracted the public from economic worries in 1989, according to skeptics who believe the timing was no coincidence. Members of the National Congress introduced a flurry of proposals to relocate the graves of other leaders.