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Bolivia's top general arrested after failed coup attempt

Published June 26, 2024last updated June 27, 2024

President Luis Arce urged Bolivians to "mobilize in favor of democracy" after the military broke into his La Paz residence. World leaders condemned the coup attempt, leading to the soldiers' withdrawal.

A soldier gestures for journalists to leave Plaza Murillo as soldiers gather outside the presidential palace in Plaza Murillo in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, June 26, 2024
Soldiers briefly took control of the area around the presidential palace during the failed coupImage: Juan Karita/AP Photo/picture alliance

Authorities in Bolivia put down a short-lived coup attempt on Wednesday that saw armored vehicles ramming the door of the presidential palace.

Soldiers were also seen entering the building around 4 p.m. local time (2000 GMT/UTC). They later withdrew following condemnation from President Luis Arce and other officials.

Bolivian authorities arrested the outgoing general commander of the army, Juan Jose Zuniga, after troops pulled back from Plaza Murillo square housing the main presidential building.

"We denounce irregular mobilizations of some units of the Bolivian Army. Democracy must be respected," Arce said on social media as the military began to arrive in central La Paz. 

He appointed new military commanders from the presidential palace as the coup was in full swing. They then ordered troops in the square to return home.

Thousands of supporters of Arce began to flood the square while waving Bolivian flags as the soldiers withdrew.

"No one can take away the democracy we have won," Arce told supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace.

Bolivian President Luis Arce with a raised fist
Bolivian President Luis Arce named new military commanders who ordered troops to stand downImage: Juan Karita/AP Photo/picture alliance

Army chief sacked and arrested

Zuniga was automatically sacked when Arce appointed new military commanders.

He was arrested shortly after troops withdrew from the capital.

Local television channels earlier showed footage of Arce confronting Zuniga in the hallway of the presidential palace.

"I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination," Arce said.

Police detaining Juan Jose Zuniga
Prosecutors will seek a prison sentence of up to 20 years for alleged coup leader Juan Jose ZunigaImage: Juan Karita/AP Photo/picture alliance

Rumors had started circulating this week in Bolivia that Zuniga's job was at risk. 

Zuniga, for his part, said in televised comments that he expected the government to change and that he also intended to release "political prisoners," including the former interim president, Jeanine Anez. He stopped short of describing the activities as a coup himself.

Justice Minister Ivan Lima said prosecutors will seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zuniga for attacking democracy and the constitution.

Ex-President Morales condemns coup attempt

Former President Evo Morales, who has publicly split with his successor Arce even though both belong to the same socialist movement, said in a separate post on X that his supporters would mobilize to support democracy. 

"We will not allow the armed forces to violate democracy and intimidate people," Morales said.

Murillo Square in La Paz ‘seized by military tanks and troops’: Government Minister

Bolivia has experienced the most coups and revolutions of any country on the planet since 1950 and almost 200 since its independence in 1825. 

Although not classified as a coup universally, the military was also instrumental in the removal of Morales from office in 2019.

As the popular leader was flirting with seeking a fourth term, which would have taken him past Bolivia's term limits, and after he lost support from other key groups like labor unions, the military made it clear it was no longer willing to protect him in office. 

Two military armored vehicles in front of the headquarters of the Government in La Paz, Bolivia, 26 June 2024
President Arce has ordered Zuniga to stand down after armored vehicles were driven to the presidential palaceImage: EPA/Luis Gandarillas

Morales, who resigned soon after this statement, and his supporters considered the actions tantamount to a coup. 

Under Arce, Morales' successor as interim president, Anez, was later tried and convicted on charges connected to Morales leaving power.

International condemnation pours in

The EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell was among the first foreign leaders to respond. 

"The European Union condemns any attempt to disrupt the constitutional order in Bolivia and overthrow democratically elected governments, and expresses its solidarity with the Bolivian government and people," Borrell said in a post written in his native Spanish. 

The head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, also issued a rapid condemnation. 

"The General Secretariat of the OAS most strongly condemns the events in Bolivia. The Army must submit to the legitimately elected civil power," Almagro said.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said his government "strongly condemns the military movements in Bolivia," and offered solidarity and support to the government and people. 

Chile's President Gabriel Boric also expressed "concern about the situation in Bolivia" and "our support for democracy in our brother country and for the legitimate government."

Supporters of Bolivian President Luis Arce in La Paz
Supporters of Bolivian President Luis Arce filled the streets of La Paz amid the unrestImage: Juan Karita/AP Photo/picture alliance

Washington also responded to the news by calling for calm.

"The United States is closely monitoring the situation in Bolivia and calls for calm," a spokesperson for the US National Security Council said in a statement.

zc, msh/ab (AFP, AP, EFE, Reuters)