Bolivian general arrested for leading coup attempt after troop withdrawal

General Juan José Zúñiga was arrested outside a military barracks in La Paz
Agentes de policía montan guardia en la Plaza Murillo de La Paz el 26 de junio de 2024. El presidente boliviano, Luis Arce, denunció el miércoles un intento de “golpe de Estado” después de que soldados y tanques se desplegaran frente a edificios gubernamentales e intentaran derribar una puerta del palacio presidencial, antes de retirarse – PHOTO/AIZAR RALDES/AFP
Police officers stand guard at Plaza Murillo in La Paz on June 26, 2024. Bolivian President Luis Arce on Wednesday denounced an attempted "coup d'état" after soldiers and tanks were deployed in front of government buildings and attempted to break down a door of the presidential palace, before retreating - PHOTO/AIZAR RALDES/AFP
  1. The political struggle in the background
  2. International reaction

Bolivian forces arrested the army commander who led a coup attempt against President Luis Arce on Wednesday, shortly after military rebels laid siege to the seat of government for hours and tried to break down one of its gates.

At the end of a frantic day, General Juan José Zúñiga was arrested outside a military barracks in La Paz and taken to a police vehicle on charges of terrorism and armed uprising, according to the prosecutor's office.

"He's under arrest, general," said Deputy Interior Minister Jhonny Aguilera, according to state television.

Surrounded by about eight tanks, Zúñiga was at the front of the uniformed men who tried to storm the presidential palace in downtown La Paz. His men used tear gas against people who tried to approach the building.

The officer entered by walking through the same door that one of the tanks tried to break down. Shortly afterwards he left by the same means.

"We are in the midst of an attempted coup d'état by military officers who are staining the uniform," said Arce as he swore in a new Armed Forces leadership in the palace, which at that moment was surrounded by Zúñiga's troops.

After his withdrawal, the president went out onto a balcony to address hundreds of supporters: "No one can take away the democracy we have won (...). We are sure: we are going to continue and we are going to continue working".

Both the government and former president Evo Morales, Arce's former ally and now political rival, had called for demonstrations in response to the military uprising.

In his social networks, the former Bolivian president suspended the call after "calm was restored at the seat of government".

The political struggle in the background

Since Tuesday, rumours had been circulating about the probable dismissal of Zúñiga, who had commanded the army since 2022.

The officer had expressed his firm opposition to the eventual return to power of Morales, who is vying with Arce for the leadership of the ruling party ahead of the 2025 presidential elections.

In an interview on Monday with a television channel, he even assured that he would stop Morales if he insisted on running for the presidency next year.

Hence the surprise caused by his attempted coup against Arce.

At the time of his arrest, the general told the press that the president had asked him on Sunday to "prepare something" to boost his popularity.

According to Zúñiga, Arce argued that "the situation is very screwed up" and merited an action that favoured him.

Arce and Morales have been engaged in an intense political fight for a couple of years.

Under constitutional reforms that he himself promoted, Morales held the presidency from 2006 to 2019, when he was forced to resign, beset by the crisis that erupted over alleged electoral fraud to obtain a fourth term in office.

Late last year, the Constitutional Court disqualified Morales from running again, which the former president interpreted as a move against him by his former finance minister.

The government wing of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) proclaimed Arce as its candidate for 2025. Another sector supported the aspiration of Morales, who has not yet renounced his aspiration despite the judges' ruling.

Arce, meanwhile, has not yet proclaimed his candidacy.

International reaction

Several governments and international bodies spoke out during the day.

The United States called for "calm" and assured that it is "closely monitoring the situation", a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council told AFP.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva condemned on the social network X "any form of coup d'état" in Bolivia.

For his part, UN Secretary General António Guterres said he was "very concerned" by "allegations of an attempted coup" and called on all actors "to protect the constitutional order and preserve a climate of peace", said his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric.

The Organisation of American States (OAS) warned that it "will not tolerate any form of violation of constitutional order" in Bolivia.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro immediately came out to denounce the attempted overthrow of one of his closest allies in the region.

"To the people of Bolivia all the support of the people of Bolivar. No to fascism, no to the coup," said the president, declaring himself in "emergency and permanent support" for the Bolivians.