President Nestor Kirchner's close escapes from several potentially fatal incidents have convinced many Argentines that he is the target of assassins.
In the latest episode, a man scaled the 8-foot wall of the heavily guarded presidential residence in the wee hours on Oct. 24. He apparently went undetected for more than three hours while Kirchner and his family slept.
Just what the intruder did during that time is unclear, but before vanishing he made sure someone knew he was there. He asked the maid who was watching the quarters of Kirchner's daughter Florencia for a drink of water before disappearing.
Five days earlier, the left engine on Kirchner's Tango 01, Argentina's equivalent of Air Force One, failed shortly after taking off from Buenos Aires. The plane was forced to make an emergency landing. Witnesses report hearing explosions from the Boeing 757-200 as it took off and seeing fire stream out of the engine. The near-disaster followed helicopter scares for Kirchner last March and in August 2003.
Were the incidents unrelated or is there a plot to kill Kirchner? Are some of his many enemies, or possibly extortionists, trying to intimidate him?
There are precedents in Argentine politics for all these motives, and Kirchner has made many enemies since he took office on May 25, 2003.
Kirchner has fired corrupt police bosses. He has infuriated the military by pushing to overturn amnesty laws and punish generals for grave human-rights abuses during the country's 1976-1983 dictatorship. He has refused to repay foreign and domestic creditors more than $100 billion that Argentina owes from its 2001 debt default. He has meddled in elections next door in Uruguay, worsened tensions with neighboring Chile and angered Brazilian business groups with protectionist trade policies.
Then there are the unhappy former presidents. Carlos Menem, who bowed out of a runoff race against Kirchner in 2003 and now is exiled in Chile, has a running war of insults with him. President K, as he is called, also is at odds with Eduardo Duhalde, the caretaker president who lent the then-unknown Kirchner his political machine in the populous province of Buenos Aires to get elected.
Kirchner fired his security detail after the intrusion at his residence but hasn't explained why. In a subsequent speech in the provinces, he vowed not to be bullied by "interests or the frights they might try to give me."
Some are sure Kirchner is an assassin's target.
"It seems to me that they are toying with the president, who should take these things more seriously," Elisa Carrio, a former presidential candidate, told the Buenos Aires daily newspaper La Nacion.
Congressman Jose Maria Diaz Bancalari, a Kirchner ally, said last month that the intruder at the presidential residence was someone "wanting to say here we are and we can do it again in another way."
A U.S. official familiar with Argentina, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Kirchner's plane had not been sabotaged. Black-box information from the flight, which was shared with the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, indicated that straightforward mechanical problems disabled the Rolls Royce jet engine.
An extortion attempt may explain the intruder, ventured a former Argentine spy who is familiar with palace intrigues.
President Raul Alfonsin, the country's first lead in the post-dictatorship era, experienced a nearly identical intrusion of the presidential residence in the 1980s, the former spy recounted, speaking on the condition that he not be named. That time, military guards failed to detect the intruder, who had entered the compound armed with a machine gun and silencer. The point, the former spy said, was to persuade Alfonsin to hire the intruder's allies as residence guards and pay them from off-budget discretionary security accounts that taxpayers never see.
The latest intrusion is "scandalous, clownish and nobody who knows gives it any veracity," the ex-spy said. "For those who know the security of the presidential residence, nobody could have wandered three hours without being detected, and have overcome three rings of security at the entrance and exit."