17 people arrested in attempted coup that rocked Bolivia, government says – Chicago Tribune

LA PAZ, Bolivia — The Bolivian government announced Thursday that a total of 17 people had been arrested for their alleged involvement in the attempted coup that rocked the economically troubled country the previous day.

The South American nation of 12 million watched in shock and bewilderment Wednesday as military forces appeared to turn on the government of President Luis Arce, taking control of the capital’s main square with armored vehicles, crashing a tank into the presidential palace and firing tear gas at protesters. In the hours that followed, the army general behind the coup attempt, Juan José Zúñiga, and an alleged co-conspirator, former navy vice admiral Juan Arnez Salvador, were both arrested and remain in custody.

Senior government official Eduardo del Castillo did not provide further details about the other 15 people arrested. He said one of them was a civilian identified as Aníbal Aguilar Gómez, whom he called the “mastermind” of the foiled coup.

Del Castillo said the government was looking for more suspects and that the alleged conspirators began plotting in May.

Supporters of the Bolivian president gathered outside his palace on Thursday, giving the embattled leader some political breathing space by chanting pro-democracy slogans.

Riot police guarded the palace gates and Arce, who is struggling to cope with the country's shortages of foreign currency and fuel, condemned Zúñiga.

Analysts say Arce's wave of popular support, even if fleeting, offers him a much-needed respite from the country's economic quagmire and political turmoil. The president is locked in a growing rivalry with popular former President Evo Morales, his onetime ally who has threatened to challenge Arce in the 2025 primaries.

“The president's management is very bad, there are no dollars, there is no gasoline,” said Paul Coca, a political analyst based in La Paz. “Yesterday's military intervention will improve its image a little, but it is not a solution.”

Protesters gathered outside the police station where the former army general was being held, shouting that he should be jailed. “It’s a shame what Zúñiga did,” said Dora Quispe, 47, one of the demonstrators. “We are in a democracy, not a dictatorship. »

Before his arrest Wednesday night, Zúñiga had claimed, without providing evidence, that Arce had ordered the general to carry out the coup attempt in order to boost the president’s popularity. That has fueled a frenzy of speculation about what really happened, with opposition senators and government critics echoing the accusations, calling the mutiny a “self-proclaimed coup” — a claim Arce’s government strongly denies.

In Murillo Square, the main square of La Paz, supporters of Luis Arce shouted “Lucho, you are not alone!” » as fireworks exploded above their heads. Lucho, Luis' common nickname, also means “fight” in Spanish.

Some Bolivians said they believed General Zúñiga's claims on national television that the coup attempt was a hoax.

“They are playing with the intelligence of the people, because no one believes that this is a real coup,” said Evaristo Mamani, a 48-year-old lawyer.

Parliamentarians and former officials have also reinforced these accusations. “It’s a set-up,” said Carlos Romero, a former Morales government official. “Zúñiga followed the script as he received it. »

Soon after the military action began, it became clear that any attempt at taking power had no significant political support. The rebellion ended without bloodshed by the end of the working day. Arce appointed a new army commander, who immediately ordered the troops to retreat.

“We are here, firmly, at the presidential palace, to face any coup attempt,” Arce said after confronting Zúñiga. Hundreds of the president's supporters filled the streets surrounding the palace Wednesday evening, singing the national anthem and cheering Arce.

Authorities quickly arrested Zúñiga as his soldiers retreated from central La Paz.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Management Rich Verma condemned Zuniga's actions and, speaking in Paraguay on Thursday, noted that “democracy remains fragile in our hemisphere.”

The short-lived mutiny followed months of growing tensions between Arce and former President Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Morales has staged a dramatic political comeback since mass protests and a deadly crackdown forced him to resign and flee in 2019 — a military-backed ouster that his supporters call a coup.

Morales vowed to run against Arce in the 2025 election despite a Constitutional Court ruling that declared him ineligible because he had already served. The possibility of a new candidacy by Morales has shaken Arce, whose popularity has plunged as the country's foreign exchange reserves dwindle, its natural gas exports plummet and its currency's peg to the U.S. dollar slumps. collapses.

The liquidity crisis has intensified pressure on Arce to remove food and oil subsidies that are straining state finances, a combustible measure as elections approach.

Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo said Wednesday's unrest stemmed from a private meeting in which Arce sidelined Zuñiga following the army chief's threats to arrest Morales if he decided to to join the 2025 presidential race. Arce also denied the legitimacy of Morales' presidential candidacy.

During their meeting, Zuñiga gave no indication to officials that he was preparing to take power, Novillo said.

“He admitted to some excesses,” he said of Zuñiga. “We said goodbye to him in the most friendly way, with hugs. Zuñiga said he would always be at the president's side.

A few hours later, panic gripped the capital La Paz. Followed by armored vehicles and supporters, Zuñiga burst into government headquarters and declared that the armed forces were seeking to “restore democracy to Bolivia.”

The influx of soldiers has sent Bolivians into a frenzy, crowding ATMs, lining up at gas stations and ransacking grocery stores. By one count, Bolivia has seen more than 190 coup attempts and revolutions since gaining independence in 1825.

The country's fragmented opposition rejected the coup before it was clear it had failed. Former interim president Jeanine Áñez, detained for her role in Morales' ouster in 2019, said soldiers sought to “destroy the constitutional order” but called on Arce and Morales not to run for office of 2025.

Santa Cruz Gov. Luis Fernando Camacho, also detained for allegedly orchestrating a coup in 2019, demanded answers from Arce's government on Thursday.

“Was it a media spectacle organized by the government itself, as General Zúñiga says? Was it just military madness? Was it just another example of lack of control?” he wrote on the social media platform X.

Zúñiga's response came as a shock, telling reporters that Arce had asked him directly to storm the palace and bring armored vehicles into central La Paz.

“The president told me: 'The situation is very bad, very critical. We have to prepare something to increase my popularity,'” Zúñiga said.

Bolivian authorities have denied Zúñiga's accusations, saying the general lied to justify his actions. Prosecutors have said they will seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zúñiga, who is accused of “attacking the constitution.”

Political experts are struggling to understand the reasons behind Wednesday's unrest.

“This is the strangest coup attempt I’ve ever seen,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a research group based in Bolivia. “Bolivian democracy remains very fragile, and certainly much more fragile today than it was yesterday.”

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