LIMA, Peru — For most Argentines, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, with their famous white shawls and decades of dignified protests in Buenos Aires’ main square, are the nearest thing the country has to living saints.
The group of grieving mothers campaigned for justice for their children, who had been murdered or “disappeared” by Argentina’s rightwing military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, using the clout of moral authority to avoid the police crackdowns that other dissidents suffered.
But now, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo has found itself caught up in allegations of financial fraud and political corruption that threaten to tarnish its reputation forever.
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In the eye of the storm is one of the nation’s most contentious characters, Sergio Schoklender, the former administrator of the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo.
He is accused of funneling 50 million pesos ($11.5 million) of taxpayers’ money intended for the group into his personal accounts. He is believed to own two private planes, a yacht and a fleet of luxury cars, allegedly bought with that cash.
Yet for many, the biggest surprise is that someone with Schoklender’s shocking history ever became associated with the group in the first place. The 53-year-old first made headlines back in 1981 when he and his younger brother Pablo killed their parents in a murder that rocked Argentina.
The boy’s father, Mauricio Schoklender, was a major arms dealer and one of the country’s most successful businessmen, which ensured that the national media gave the case wall-to-wall coverage for months.
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The brothers said that their parents had sexually abused them. The boys were convicted of the murders, however, and Sergio spent 14 years behind bars.
It was in jail, he has said, that he first became radicalized, qualifying as both a lawyer and psychologist, and discovering what was to become his life’s vocation: leftwing political activism.
During that time, he also met Hebe de Bonafini, the driving force behind the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The pair hit it off immediately and she, still mourning the disappearance of her two sons in 1977, all but adopted him as her own.
On his release, Schoklender lived in her house, and over the years became increasingly involved in the management of the group. In numerous interviews, the pair spoke of each other in glowing terms.
Now, however, that has changed.
Prosecutors are preparing to try Schoklender and 63 other suspects, including de Bonafini’s daughter Alejandra, on charges including money laundering, fraud, falsifying documents and conspiracy.
The charges revolve around 765 million pesos (around $178 million) given by the government to the Madres de Plaza de Mayo to build social housing under a program called Shared Dreams.
The apartments were built, but prosecutors say the cost of the project was inflated, and that some of the cash was siphoned off for the personal enrichment of the accused. Alejandra de Bonafini’s alleged role remains unclear but she faces the same charges as Schoklender.
The trial is expected to start in February.
Hebe de Bonafini, 83, who hasn’t been implicated in the scandal, has called Schoklender a “traitor and thief.”
Last month, she dedicated a congressional medal she received to her daughter, saying Alejandra was “passing through a bad moment, without eating or drinking, and this recognition is for her.”
Schoklender, meanwhile, has claimed that Hebe de Bonafini, has “stopped defending principles,” adding that she had instead cozied up to the ruling Peronist party of President Cristina Kirchner, which has been accused by local media of cronyism, with senior party members allegedly becoming rich since the Kirchners first took office in 2003.
Now, he has launched a high-profile media campaign to clear his name – and point a finger at the Peronists.
He claims that the supposed corruption of Shared Dreams was par for the course in Argentina’s bureaucratic public-works programs and that it was impossible to receive government cash without also participating.
In particular, he has accused Kirchner’s late husband, the former president Nestor Kirchner, of presiding over a political machine that routinely failed to put state contracts up for open bidding, while also charging kickbacks of between 15 and 25 percent.
Meanwhile, the Argentine media are asking why de Bonafini’s group, originally set up to champion victims’ of state terrorism, ended up mushrooming into a major political movement involved in campaigning on behalf of the Peronists and running anti-poverty programs.
De Bonafini says the mothers were simply trying to carry on the political work of their murdered children, many of whom were targeted for being leftwing dissidents.
“What are they going to accuse us of, of having given the blood of our children for this wonderful country?” she said recently, when asked about the scandal.
Yet despite Schoklender’s disturbing past, and the fact that he now has nothing left to lose, his claims of corruption reaching to some of the highest levels of government are being taken seriously by many in Argentina.
Ricardo Kirschbaum, general editor of Clarin, Argentina’s best known newspaper, which has also had its own battles with the Peronist government, recently accused the government of being complicit with the fraud allegedly carried out at the Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
“Schoklender’s revelations should naturally pass through the sieve of justice,” Kirschbaum wrote. “That means that they should be investigated, to test their veracity.”
Now, almost three decades since the fall of the military regime, many in Argentina are wondering whether this scandal will be the final, sad chapter in the tale of a group of brave, grieving women who once inspired a nation.