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Bringing Bolivia’s Coup Leaders to Justice Is Essential for Protecting the Democratic Process

The arrest of Bolivia's post-coup president Jeanine Añez has been denounced by most Western governments. But the legal proceedings against the figures behind the 2019 coup aren't an act of political persecution — they're essential steps to protect the integrity of the democratic process.

Jeanine Añez is escorted by police members of the FELCC (Special Anti-Criminal Force) after being arrested in La Paz, on March 13, 2021. (Aizar Raldes / AFP via Getty Images)

On March 12, the Bolivian prosecutor’s office issued a groundbreaking statement, calling for the arrest of those responsible for the massacres in Senkata and Sacaba in November 2019, and human rights abuses that persisted throughout 2020. In particular, the apprehension of post-coup president Jeanine Añez marked a significant step toward justice for the dozens of Bolivians killed and the thousands arrested during her year-long regime.

The main police operation captured Añez in her home state of Beni. Shortly after footage of her arrest went viral across the world (she was found hiding in a box under her bed), she was transferred to the holding cells of the FELCC (Special Anti-Criminal Force) and eventually incarcerated in a women’s prison in Miraflores, La Paz. She is currently serving six months of pretrial detention.

Last week also saw the arrest of her right-hand man Arturo Murillo by US authorities. He was apprehended in South Florida following an investigation into money laundering, bribery and corruption charges related to the purchase of $6.1 million worth of tear gas and anti-riot equipment during his time as the Minister of Government in the Añez regime.

In seeking justice for the coup’s victims, the MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) government under president Luis “Lucho” Arce is seeking accountability from those who sought to overthrow Bolivian democracy in 2019. Yet, still today the judicial process faces interference from the governments of the United States and the European Union — an intervention also bolstering the legitimacy of domestic far-right groups.

Arrested

The initial “wanted” list included Añez, along with nine of her key ministers and police and army chiefs. Former justice minister Álvaro Coimbra, as well as Rodrigo Guzmán, the former energy minister, were soon arrested and transferred to La Paz. Yassir Molina, the leader of the far-right Cochala Youth Resistance paramilitary group was arrested, briefly released upon the intervention of a pro-coup judge, and ultimately given a six-month preventative detention sentence.

Several former high-ranking members of the police and armed forces have also been either detained or charged with crimes related to the coup, such as Luis Fernando Valverde and Franco Orlando Suárez Paz. Finally, Añez’s environment minister Maria Elva Pinckert, was also issued with an arrest warrant for alleged nepotism and corruption that took place under her management.

However, others on the list have remained beyond the reach of the law.  Luis Fernando López, the former defense minister, managed to escape Bolivia in November 2020, shortly before Arce was sworn in as president. He is currently living in Miami.

The apprehension of Añez and other major participants in the coup regime has, however, also been met with political opposition. Right-wing figures have painted the move as a long-awaited campaign of vengeance by the new MAS government and its supposed éminence grise, former president Evo Morales. Luis Fernando Camacho, the former head of the far-right “Santa Cruz Civic Committee” and the leader of the ultraconservative “We Believe” coalition, issued a statement condemning Añez’s arrest an act of “political persecution.”

Shortly afterward, Camacho received backing from the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, who called for protests and mobilizations against the MAS government. Carlos Mesa — from 2003 to 2005 the neoliberal president of Bolivia and the losing candidate in both the October 2019 and October 2020 elections — called the Bolivian justice system’s actions “state terrorism.” Predictably, this reaction received wide-ranging support across mainstream private media channels, many of which continue to deny the existence of a coup in November 2019.

This support was not limited to Bolivia itself. Añez also received backing from a fellow self-proclaimed president in the region — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó — as well as Luis Almagro and the Organization of American States (OAS), the most prominent international backer of the coup against Morales.

As well as demanding an international commission to investigate his government, the OAS has demanded that the International Criminal Court (rather than Bolivian courts) should investigate the crimes committed in Bolivia, and that the Bolivian judicial system should be completely dismissed and restructured. The OAS further called for all known suspects in organizing the coup to be released.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which also denied the existence of a coup during November 2019, similarly condemned the arrest of Añez and her ministers, claiming there was no hard evidence of the charges related to massacres, violence, and human rights abuses during her regime. HRW nonetheless condemned a parallel move by the MAS government — a presidential amnesty for the activists arrested during Añez’s regime — accusing it of bringing “impunity” for serious crimes by Morales’s supporters.

Prize Winner

This reaction to Añez’s arrest was only to be expected from clownish figures like Guaidó. Yet the “concern” about the alleged abuse of human rights and political persecution was widely proclaimed, with leading Western governments demanding the release of the imprisoned figures from the coup and the Añez regime.

The Biden administration issued a warning to the Bolivian government demanding that the “civil rights” of those arrested be upheld. This was followed by a demand by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to immediately release Añez and other coup participants.

Taking things further, in a surreal move, Añez was also nominated for the EU Parliament’s “Sakharov Prize,” meant to be awarded to persecuted political activists and human rights defenders. The awarding of the prize to the coup president was proposed by Cuban opposition members Guillermo Fariñas and Bertha Soler, themselves former Sakharov laureates.

This latter’s “ladies in white” group has been accused of receiving funds from the US government and is notorious for its efforts in promoting regime change in Cuba. María Corina Machado, one of the most extremist leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, was also nominated alongside Añez — completely ignoring the violence and repression perpetrated by the two women in their respective countries.

These moves in Europe echoed the geopolitical game played by the main hard-right governments in Latin America itself. Both Sebastián Piñera in Chile and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil issued statements of “concern” regarding Añez’s arrest and the absence of “judicial independence” in the Bolivian justice system. These statements were rejected by the Bolivian foreign ministry, which demanded that both governments respect the Andean country’s right to self-determination.

If deeply hypocritical, this foreign support for the leaders of the coup did serve to embolden the Bolivian opposition in its action against Lucho Arce’s government. A delegation of MPs from the right-wing Civic Community (CC) and the far-right “We Believe” coalition traveled to Washington in order to denounce the “political persecution” that Arce’s government was allegedly concocting against the opposition.

The delegation confirmed that it had met Luis Almagro of the OAS, as well Human Rights Watch, and discussed the possibility of the application of the “democratic charter” against Bolivia — opening the door for economic sanctions and even military intervention.

These calls were heeded. On April 26, a meeting of the Eurolat group at the European Parliament discussed the application of similar measures against Lucho Arce and other members of the Bolivian government. The Eurolat meeting was headed by the former right-wing president, Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, and Hermann Terstch, a member of the European Parliament for Spain’s Franco-nostalgic Vox party, and effectively served as a platform for the pro-coup Bolivian opposition.

This was followed up by a vote in the European Parliament on April 29 that demanded Añez’s release and labeled her imprisonment as an act of “political persecution.” In response, Manu Pineda, a Spanish MEP from the United Left (IU) stated that treating Añez as a heroine would be akin to praising 1970s military dictators like Augusto Pinochet or Jorge Videla.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of international press joined in the chorus whitewashing Añez’s image and largely ignoring the massacres and corruption committed under her regime. Most prominent was a Washington Post editorial openly accusing the MAS government of following a “lawless course” in seeking justice for the victims, at the same time as repeating the now-debunked conspiracy theory of the supposed fraud committed by Evo Morales in the October 2019 election. It even indirectly called for the US government to intervene into the Bolivian judicial process.

MAS Response

The reaction among most Bolivians was quite different. Across MAS’s base as well as the country’s social movements, the apprehension of Añez and other major coup leaders was welcomed as a long-awaited move toward settling accounts with one of the bloodiest and most repressive periods in Bolivia’s modern history.

This is particularly the case for the victims and their families in the town of Sacaba, Cochabamba, and Senkata in El Alto. Mass marches were organized in La Paz and other major cities that drew thousands of MAS supporters and anti-coup activists, demanding further judicial actions against coup organizers and supporters from Carlos Mesa to Camacho. Similarly, the MAS leadership strongly backed the legal cases. President Lucho Arce insisted “we are not driven by hatred, we are not driven by revenge. We are driven by an unwavering desire for justice.”

In an interview with this author, Morales’s vice-president Álvaro García Linera emphasized the need to uphold the integrity of Bolivia’s electoral process, arguing that the primary objective of these legal moves is to “punish those who violated the country’s democratic system.” For García Linera, “If those who mocked and destroyed the majority system for democratically choosing the country’s government do not face justice, and instead there is impunity, then tomorrow there may be another coup.”

Marina Muñoz, the president of the Bartoina Sisa Women’s Confederation in the Santa Cruz region, highlighted that Mesa, Camacho, and Murillo should also be imprisoned for the repression and persecution of the indigenous movements.

The Regional Elections

MAS’s strong popular support, again proven in last October’s presidential election, nonetheless faces threats. The most recent barometer came in March, with local and regional elections across the country.

On the one hand, MAS strengthened its position as Bolivia’s only genuinely “plurinational” force, as the sole party to win representation across all regions; it also won 240 of the country’s 336 mayoral elections, an overall increase of thirteen since similar contests in 2015. MAS won the strategically important mayoral races in the cities of Sucre (Bolivia’s administrative capital) and Oruro.

But overall, its vote share was far stronger in rural areas, due to the high level of MAS and social movement organization, as well as Evo Morales’s leading role in the campaigns across the western mountainous regions. Furthermore, MAS was the biggest party in all nine of Bolivia’s regional legislatures, winning majorities in Oruro, Potosí, Pando, La Paz, Chuquisaca, Cochabamba, and pluralities in Tarija, Santa Cruz, and Beni.

At the same time, MAS faces a resurgent, but divided, right-wing opposition. Especially telling was that far-right leader Camacho, a key force in the 2019 coup, won the Santa Cruz mayoral race. In Beni, the governorship was won by Alejandro Unzueta of the Third System Movement (MTS), who made a name for himself during the COVID-19 pandemic as a doctor offering a combination of “cures” for the infection, as well as with his outspoken religious views. Unzueta, however, stated that he will not be opposing Lucho Arce’s government. The La Paz mayoralty was won by a former minister in the Añez government, Iván Arias, while Cochabamba was won by ex-military officer and a vocal supporter of the 2008 coup against Evo Morales, Manfred Reyes Villa.

In El Alto, the former MAS senator and senate president Eva Copa, won the mayoral race with nearly 70 percent, far ahead of the MAS candidate. Copa’s exit from MAS was caused by an internal dispute within the party’s base in El Alto. Copa has alleged that her nomination was rejected in favor of the eventual MAS candidate Zacarías Maquera, because he was seen as more loyal to the MAS leadership and Evo Morales in particular.

Second-round contests in La Paz, Pando, Tarija, and Chuquisaca yielded triumphs for the various sections of the opposition. In La Paz, the “Jallalla” coalition headed by Santos Quispe (the son of the legendary indigenous leader and activist, Felipe “el Malku” Quispe), supported by Eva Copa, triumphed over the MAS candidate, Franklin Flores. It was later revealed that his campaign was clandestinely supported by Añez ally Iván Arias. In Pando, the MTS candidate triumphed over MAS, while in Chuquisaca and Tarija the governorships were won by the local coalitions opposed to MAS, providing bases for an opposition which has continually refused the legitimacy of the national government.

With the new round of foreign intervention brewing against Bolivia and the right-wing opposition’s relentless attacks against the change process, holding the coup leaders to account is key to defending the country’s democracy. It is imperative that progressive forces internationally continue to uphold the truth surrounding the events of November 2019 and support Bolivia in its quest for justice.

The failure to bring justice to the victims of the 2019 massacres will likely embolden the anti-MAS opposition to carry out another coup with the support of United States and the European Union — and provide a roadmap for impunity for far-right forces across Latin America.