An Argentine civil rights heroine is embroiled in an alleged scam

Hebe de Bonafini — one of the original Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who defied the military dictatorship in the 1970s — insists she is being targeted because of her constant criticism of President Mauricio Macri.
August 5, 2016, 7:30pm
Imagen por Alberto Ortiz/EPA

An iconic leader within the struggle for human rights in Argentina, Hebe de Bonafini, has dismissed a court investigation into her role within an alleged housing scam as retaliation for her criticism of the government.

Bonafini heads the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo organization that began in the 1970s as a group of mothers seeking to pressure the then military dictatorship to release their disappeared children. She has portrayed President Mauricio Macri, who was inaugurated last December, as a right-wing diehard who wants to dismantle over a decade of social and political progress under left-wing governments.


"If we were just anybody they would not be doing this to us, but we are pain in the neck," Bonafini told local TV station CN5. "I can only be judged by the people. When the enemy attacks you, you know it is because you are on the right road."

Bonafini was speaking on Thursday, as hundreds of supporters settled down for the night outside the organization's headquarters in the capital Buenos Aires, determined to block the execution of a warrant to arrest her issued by a local court.

Judge Marcelo Martínez de Giorgi wants to question the 87-year-old international human rights heroine about her role in an alleged scam involving a philanthropic foundation associated with her organization called Sueños Compartidos, or Shared Dreams. The scheme allegedly saw the foundation help itself from government funds it had obtained to build social housing in poor areas during 2011.

The two brothers who headed Shared Dreams at the time — Sergio and Pablo Schoklender — have both been charged with skimming off 206 million pesos (almost $53 million at the time). The court has not charged Bonafini, but has subpoenaed her twice in relation to the investigation. The arrest warrant came after she refused to go.

"I have said everything I have to say," Bonafini said in a statement released on Thursday, in which she insisted her organization had already sent all the evidence the court required.

Related: Activists fear the history of Argentina's Dirty War is about to be rewritten

The case against Bonafini comes within a wave of similar investigations focused on figures associated with the 12-year Kirchnerista era — spanned by President Néstor Kirchner's single term from 2003 to 2007, and the two headed by his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, which ended with Macri's inauguration at the end of last year.

Bonafini worked closely with the Kirchners, who she credited with putting human rights on the agenda for the first time since the end of the dictatorship in 1983. The crowd that gathered to ensure Bonafini was no arrested on Thursday included Kirchnerista leaders. Andrés Larroque, the leader of the Kirchnerista youth movement, thanked the "Argentine people" for being "stepping up to the plate."


Bonafini's lawyers, meanwhile, have begun seeking a compromise. They said on Friday that they are hoping to get the court to agree to interview the activist in the offices of the Madres, as well as provide guarantees that she will not be sent to prison.

"At this time, it is not clear if Bonafini will be set free after she speaks in front of the judge," political commentator Paz Rodríguez told newspaper La Nación on Friday.

Arrest warrant or no arrest warrant Bonafini has insisted she will continue taking shots at the president. "We will not let them run over us," she told reporters on Thursday. "They've done enough in the last seven months. Now stop it, Macri!"

The activist herself was expected to throw down a gauntlet to police later today by appearing at a journalism congress in the coastal city of Mar del Plata, 260 miles south of Buenos Aires.

Related: Marchers condemn Obama's visit on the 40th anniversary of Argentina's dictatorship

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten