In an unprecedented vote, senators this evening authorised investigators to search three homes belonging to former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as part of the so-called 'cuadernos de las coimas' corruption case.
Claudio Bonadio, the federal judge leading the investigation in the multi-million dollar bribery case, had petitioned the Senate to partially lift the former president's immunity to allow the residences to be searched.
As a senator for Buenos Aires Province, Fernández de Kirchner enjoys congressional immunity from imprisonment – though not prosecution.
But all 67 senators present – including Fernández de Kirchner herself – approved the partial lifting of that immunity to allow the searches as Bonadio seeks evidence the former president accepted millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen in exchange for public works contracts.
In a fiery and defiant speech to the chamber, the 65-year-old reiterated her view that the cases against her were politically motivated.
"If there was something missing to consecrate the political persecution going on in Argentina, it was this .... I am going to be the first elected senator to be searched."
Facing trial in several other corruption cases, she has previously accused Bonadio of carrying out "judicial persecutions" aimed at derailing a possible run for the presidency next year.
Senators reached their decision after several hours of debate. The developments ran in stark contrast to last week, when the Senate was unable to even muster a quorum to debate the request.
This time however, senators appeared set to favour the magistrate's request from the start, with Fernández de Kirchner herself giving an indication she would bow to the seemingly inevitable.
She told lawmakers in a letter that she was willing to allow searches of her homes in Buenos Aires City, Santa Cruz and El Calafate on condition that they did not allow the searches to be filmed or photographed.
Time to 'repair damage'
Eduardo Costa, a UCR senator from Santa Cruz, part of President Mauricio Macri's Cambiemos (Let's Change) coalition, said he would vote in favour of Bonadio's request to allow him to move ahead with the case.
It was time "to repair the damage that corruption and officials do to the Argentine people," Costa said.
However, Justicialist-Victory Front (PJ-FpV) Senator Ana Almirón, from Corrientes, questioned "the purpose and the need for the search."
"They are trying to cover up the truth of what's happening in Argentina," she said, alluding to an economic crisis that has forced Macri to agree a US$50-billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.
Thousands of people demonstrated outside the Congress building in Buenos Aires the previous night and in cities across the country, demanding that Senators authorise the searches.
"Prison for Cristina!" protesters shouted, and also "Give back the money!"
As the Senate debated on Wednesday, a handful of her supporters awaited the decision outside, waving pro-Kirchnerite banners. Another small group demonstrated nearby, demanding lawmakers end her immunity.
More than a dozen elite businessmen and former government officials were arrested after an investigation in the La Nación newspaper revealed on August 1 that millions in bribes were delivered by a ministerial chauffeur to residences owned by the Kirchner's, both during Fernández de Kirchner's presidency and that of her late husband Néstor Kirchner.
The driver's meticulous records of the cash deliveries – allegedly payments from business leaders in exchange for public works contracts – form the basis of Bonadio's investigation.
According to driver Oscar Centeno's bombshell evidence, the Kirchners' residence in Buenos Aires was the venue for the handover of millions of dollars in cash, with others taking place at the Casa Rosada government headquarters and the Olivos presidential residence.
Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli has said a total of US$160 million in bribes was handed over during a 10-year period from 2005-15. Some analysts have alleged the figure could run even higher.
Fernández de Kirchner, who served as president from 2007 to 2015, is being investigated in five other cases, ranging from alleged foreign exchange manipulation to the signing of a memorandum with Tehran that Bonadio argues effectively protected Iranian suspects in the deadly 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre. The other court actions against her include allegations of money-laundering, possible illegal enrichment and fraud.
Still one of Argentina's most popular politicians, Fernández de Kirchner said last week she was victim of a right-wing effort across Latin America to discredit the work of previous leftist governments "that expanded rights and allowed millions of people out of poverty during the first decade and a half of the 21st Century."