SAN VICENTE, Argentina – Rival groups battled each other at the entrance to a new mausoleum for Juan Domingo Peron on Tuesday as a motorized caravan bearing the Argentine strongman's remains approached, marring plans for a lavish reburial ceremony.
As Peron's cortege traveled from downtown Buenos Aires to the new mausoleum at his former weekend estate, thousands of weeping admirers tossed carnations and confetti. The crowd, which had been walking alongside the caravan, scattered and at least two men were seen bleeding after the burst of violence. Scores of riot police swarmed the estate, repulsing groups of attackers with bursts of rubber bullets and tear gas.
The independent television network TodosNoticias showed one man with what appeared to be a handgun in the small group of men. Some men outside the estate, shirtless, unleashed a fusillade of rocks and sticks against the stout wooden entrance gate. The violence lasted several minutes before groups inside put ladders up against the brick walls of the estate and lobbed rocks back in defense.
"This was supposed to be a fiesta, a historic day. Instead it is a great shame," said one woman fleeing with her family. Others left in cars with windows shattered by rocks.
Removed from the Peron family's relatively humble crypt at the Chacarita cemetery, Peron's body was borne in a flag-draped coffin topped by a military cap and saber in an hourslong procession led by guards on horseback to a new $1.1 million mausoleum outside the capital. Authorities closed a major highway ahead of the sunset reburial — Peron's third since his death in 1974.
"We are paying homage to our Peronist party, to the political party of our grandfathers and our fathers!" said 24-year-old Daniel Ferreri.
Peron dominated Argentine politics like no other 20th-century leader with the glamorous Evita at his side, cultivating an enormous working-class following by redirecting agricultural wealth to legions of urban poor through projects to build schools, hospitals and homes. Peron was elected president three times and died in office at age 78.
Relatives of the late Eva Peron, or Evita, have opposed moving her coffin from her family's tomb in the downtown Recoleta cemetery, where it has remained since a bizarre drama involving two trans-Atlantic crossings since her death from cancer in 1952 at age 33.
On Tuesday, hundreds of labor activists waved large photographs of the Perons and banners reading "Peron, Immortal! Evita, Immortal!" as Peron's coffin was taken to a midday tribute at a union hall.
Nonetheless, the ceremonies underscored how the movement that bears Peron's name has suffered deep fissures since his death: former presidents Carlos Menem and Eduardo Duhalde, rivals of current President Nestor Kirchner, said they would not take part.
The nature of the dispute at the mausoleum in rural San Vicente, 30 miles southwest of the capital, was unclear, but local reports said rival labor groups were believed to have provoked the outburst of violence. One police officer was reported wounded by gunfire, independent news agency Diarios y Noticias reported, citing unnamed police officials.
Supporters say Peron deserves a resting place befitting a national hero, a place more grand than the crowded urban cemetery where grave robbers broke in and stole his hands in 1987.
Workers on Monday tore open his crypt to remove the heavy metal coffin horizontally and avoid further damage to his corpse, said Alejandro Rodriguez Peron, nephew of the late caudillo.
Peron's body will now rest in a marble sarcophagus set in a lofty, modern atrium at the estate, named "Oct. 17" after the date in 1945 when Peron — then a vice president and secretary of war — was released amid massive protests after opponents in the military threw him in jail for allegedly plotting a coup. Peron was elected president months later.
An authoritarian leader who also had enemies, Peron radically reshaped Argentina's economic and political life by nationalizing railroads and other industries to bankroll state programs for the working classes.
The young, blonde Evita became a national icon, and after her death, her body lay in state in Congress for weeks as hundreds of thousands of mourners thronged to her coffin's open viewing.
When military leaders overthrew Juan Peron in 1955, they were apparently so worried about a death cult that they secretly moved Evita's body to an unmarked grave in Italy. In 1971 it was delivered to Juan Peron's home in exile in Spain.
Peron returned to Argentina soon after and ruled briefly until his death. He was succeeded by his third wife, Isabel, who brought Evita's body to rest by his in the presidential residence in Buenos Aires. But after she too was ousted in a 1976 coup, the military quietly dispatched both bodies to their families' respective crypts.