Questions have arisen over the handling of the investigation into the failed shooting attack on Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner after it emerged Sunday that vital information on the perpetrator’s mobile phone could be lost.
The mobile phone belonging to Fernando André Sabag Montiel, the 35-year-old Brazilian national who attempted to shoot the vice-president outside her flat last Thursday as she greeted supporters outside her home in Recoleta, has reportedly been “reset to factory settings” after being seized.
Unnamed judicial sources told Noticias Argentinas news agency that the loss of information is a “possibility,” but those leading the case are confident that "all the information can be recovered" from the device.
The mobile phone was reportedly reset during one of the first attempts to extract information by the Federal Police (PFA) and crucial evidence related to the investigation is at risk of being lost. Information from the phone’s SIM card and memory card has already been extracted.
On Friday night, Federal Judge María Eugenia Capuchetti – who is leading the probe into the attack – had given the device to the Argentina's Airport Security Police (PSA) for assistance, according to reports.
Computer experts from the Federal Police and the Airport Security Police on Sunday were summoned to testify before Judge Capuchetti, who requested statements after it transpired that neither of the two forces were able to access the contents of the device.
The phone, explained sources with access to the information, had been kept in the court’s safe after it had been seized from Sabag Montiel. PFA agents made the first attempt to access it and after failing to do so, it was sent to PSA experts.
Technicians from that force then tried to access the equipment, but were shown a message saying the phone had been restored.
Judge Capuchetti is trying to now determine the chain of custody of the device. She has already received security camera footage from the Buenos Aires City government and other private cameras which are being analysed to establish the route taken by the assailant prior to the attack.
Various local news outlets on Sunday also reported that no fingerprints were found on the Bersa Thunder .32-calibre semi-automatic handgun allegedly used by Sabag Montiel in the attack during initial testing.
Sources close to the case told the Noticias Argentinas news agency that this was likely down to the “handling” of the gun in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Investigators believe the firearm was trodden on by several people in the melee, as supporters of the vice-president, her security team and police officers attempted to wrestle Sabag Montiel away from Fernández de Kirchner.
According to reports, Fernández de Kirchner told the investigating judge on Sunday that she had been unaware that a gun was even pointed at her face. When she ducked down as the attack happened, rather than protecting herself she was crouching to pick up a book that had fallen to the floor.
The gun was apparently stolen ten days ago from the family of a friend of the shooter, they confirmed. When the perpetrator was attacked, the weapon had five bullets though none were in the chamber.
In any case, Sabag's link to the gun for now was complicated because in principle "it did not have his fingerprints on it", but investigators speculate that this could be the case because the gun could have been stepped on by several people.
The last owner of the gun in question was a former security employee, who died about a year ago, sources said. The Bersa Thunder was found in a suitcase with personal items belonging to the deceased, but according to the security guard's sister, it had disappeared about ten days ago.
Judge Capuchetti and Prosecutor Carlos Rívolo and the special team of the Federal Police engaged in the case are now trying to determine if the theft was carried out by Sabag Montiel himself or if he had the help of an accomplice.
Sabag Montiel has met with the judge and prosecutor, but to date has refused to testify. He is likely to be charged with "attempted homicide," a crime for which he could face between 15 and 22 years in prison.
Judge Capuchetti has nine more days to decide whether to indict the suspect or dismiss the case.
A number of eye-witnesses have already given testimony, along with an apparent friend of the alleged attacker known as 'Mario.'