With their distinctive white headscarves, the elderly women who march around Buenos Aires’ central plaza every week – doggedly appealing for information about their children who were “disappeared” by the former military junta – are a formidable campaigning organisation.
But over the past few weeks, a scandal has erupted that threatens to soil the reputation of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – and potentially affect the re-election chances of Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
There has been a very public falling-out between the Mothers’ octogenarian leader, Hebe de Bonafini, and the Schoklender brothers, former managers of a housing project for impoverished Argentineans that was set up by the Mothers. The brothers – already notorious in Argentina for murdering their parents in 1981 – are accused of pocketing funds destined for construction, money laundering and stealing key documents.
Authorities have raided eight of the brothers’ houses and the Mothers’ offices where they worked, taking away documents and computers. More importantly, it promises to shed light on some of the less savoury aspects of the Mothers’ leadership. Some commentators have questioned Hebe de Bonafini’s judgement and her militant management. With the Mothers already split into two factions following a 1986 schism, some are asking why there are so few checks and balances on those within their “circle of trust”.
“Decisions are taken by very few people,” explains Miguel De Luca, a professor of political science at Buenos Aires University (UBA). “It’s a fragile movement from an organisational point of view and fragile due to the absence of controls, including those relating to the management of funds.”
Released from prison in 1995, Sergio Schoklender’s lavish lifestyle and alleged shady dealings were well known – but de Bonafini refused to act. “Sergio would sweetly refer to Hebe as mamá while she would treat him like a son,” says Alberto Ferrari from the ANSA news agency. “To me it seems that Hebe found in Schoklender one of her sons that the dictatorship took away.”
President Kirchner gets a huge amount of political support from the Mothers and this scandal will do nothing to help her re-election campaign later this year, despite a seemingly strong position.
The Mothers are an Argentinean institution many see as untouchable. Ricardo Forster, writing in Página 12 newspaper recently, defended Hebe de Bonafini’s courageous voice that “broke the wall of silence” surrounding crimes from the past.
Every Thursday, the “Madres” meet in the Buenos Aires square after which their organisation takes its name, making speeches, marching and holding old black-and-white photos of loved ones they are still searching for.
At the last count, they’d marched over 1,700 times without missing a week – and it’s unlikely de Bonafini and the Mothers will let this latest debacle throw them off course. The movement has come too far and fought for too long for that.