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Violence Marks Transfer of Peron's Remains

October 18, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Defiled by grave robbers, banished from the presidential grounds and sliced for DNA samples, the battered body of former Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron was moved Tuesday to a new monument where, enthusiasts hope, the remains of his celebrated second 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 and brandished clubs, and at least one fired a pistol. Police in riot gear swarmed the area.

At least 46 people were injured, according to media reports. It remained unclear what sparked the confrontation, which 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," Julio Bazan, a veteran television reporter, declared from the site.

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

The melee came after a torrent of publicity about the transfer of the remains. The plan has resounded in a nation still grappling with the ambiguous legacy of the caudillo, or strongman, 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," retiree Alberto Piscella, 70, said 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 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 18 years. Mention of his name was even banned here for a time, before he was allowed to return in 1973. The following year he won reelection to the presidency, with his third and final wife, Maria Estela Peron -- known as Isabel -- as his vice president.

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

His shortcomings notwithstanding, Argentine lawmakers remain keen to attach themselves to the mantle of Peronismo, a populist, catchall movement that seeks to transcend divisions between the left and right.

His body, forced by a military junta from its initial burial site on the grounds of the presidential residence, has long been housed in a family crypt at the unpretentious Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires. But followers have sought a more elegant and secure resting place.

Officials removed the remains early Tuesday with the permission of Peron's widow, who lives in Spain.

"Chacarita is not an adequate place for such a man," noted Hernan Maccione, 55, a history teacher who left a flower at the tomb the other day. "He deserves to be in his own mausoleum, with Eva, our martyr."

Supporters raised more than $1 million for the new memorial, where Peron's body is to lie in a marble sarcophagus at a onetime Peron vacation retreat in San Vicente, 30 miles south 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 demanded a ransom of $8 million for return of the appendages, but the money was not paid, and the mutilation remains unsolved.

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

"I just want my identity," Holgado told the news media, though relatives of Peron call her a fortune hunter. "I look a lot like my father."

The remains of Eva Peron lie 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. Her corpse was smuggled to a secret burial ground in Italy, then brought to the late general's home-in-exile in Madrid. It finally returned to Argentina 22 years after she died from cancer, at 33, in 1952.



Andres D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.

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