Bolivian army chief arrested after coup attempt

Military troops deploy outside the Quemado Palace at the Plaza de Armas in La Paz on June 26, 2024 (AIZAR RALDES)
Military troops deploy outside the Quemado Palace at the Plaza de Armas in La Paz on June 26, 2024 (AIZAR RALDES)

Bolivia's army chief was arrested Wednesday after sending soldiers and tanks to take up position in front of government buildings in what President Luis Arce called an attempted "coup d'etat".

The troops and tanks entered Plaza Murillo, a historic square where the presidency and Congress are situated, in the afternoon, prompting global condemnation of an attack on democracy.

One of the tanks tried to break down a metal door of the presidential palace.

Surrounded by soldiers and eight tanks, the now-dismissed army chief General Juan Jose Zuniga said the "armed forces intend to restructure democracy, to make it a true democracy and not one run by the same few people for 30, 40 years."

Shortly thereafter, AFP reporters saw soldiers and tanks pulling back from the square.

Later Wednesday, Zuniga was captured and forced into a police car as he addressed reporters outside a military barracks, footage on state television showed.

"General, you are under arrest," Deputy Interior Minister Jhonny Aguilera told Zuniga.

"No one can take away the democracy we have won," Arce said from a balcony of the government palace in front of hundreds of supporters.

Earlier he had urged "the Bolivian people to organize and mobilize against the coup d'etat in favor of democracy," in a televised message to the country alongside his ministers inside the presidential palace.

He also swore in new military leaders, firing Zuniga.

Former president Evo Morales wrote on X that "a coup d'etat is brewing" and also urged a "national mobilization to defend democracy."

- Zuniga's anti-democratic remarks -

Bolivia is deeply polarized after years of political instability and the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) is riven by internal conflict between supporters of Arce and his former mentor Morales.

Morales, who was Bolivia's first Indigenous president, was extremely popular until he tried to bypass the constitution and seek a fourth term in office in 2019.

The leftist and former coca union leader won that vote but was forced to resign amid deadly protests over alleged election fraud, and fled the country.

He returned after Arce won the presidency in October 2020.

Since then a power struggle has grown between the two men, and Morales has increasingly criticized the government and accused it of corruption, tolerating drug trafficking, and sidelining him politically.

Six months ago, the Constitutional Court disqualified Morales from the 2025 elections, however he is still seeking nomination as the MAS candidate.

Arce has not said whether he will seek re-election.

Zuniga appeared on television on Monday and said he would arrest Morales if he insisted on running for office again in 2025.

"Legally he is disqualified, that man cannot be president of this country again," he said.

Since that interview, rumors have swirled that Zuniga was on the verge of being dismissed.

- Calls for calm -

The US administration of Joe Biden said it was keeping a close eye on events in Bolivia and "calls for calm," according to a spokesperson for the National Security Council.

Condemnations of the troop movements also poured in from across Latin America, with leaders of Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela calling for democracy to be respected.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wrote on X: "I am a lover of democracy and I want it to prevail throughout Latin America. We condemn any form of coup d'etat in Bolivia."

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Wednesday called for "respect for democracy and the rule of law," in a message on X.

The Organization of American States (OAS) said the international community would "not tolerate any form of breach of the legitimate constitutional order in Bolivia."