A Dec. 28 police operation involving over 40 heavily armed officers — most of them in plain clothes and wearing masks — violently arrested Luis Fernando Camacho, one of Bolivia’s most important opposition leaders and governor of the region with the country’s largest city, and swiftly moved him to La Paz in a military helicopter.
It seemed more like the arrest of a drug kingpin than of a democratically elected governor driving back home for lunch from a day in the office.
Twenty-four hours later, Camacho, 43, was preliminarily sentenced to at least four months’ pretrial detention in Chonchocoro — Bolivia’s notorious maximum security prison in El Alto — as he awaits trial on charges of “terrorism.”
The arrest has spurred country-wide demonstrations and police repression against his base in Santa Cruz, and set another terrible precedent for the political persecution of high-level government critics in a country with a judiciary notorious for doing the bidding of authoritarians.
Videos of Camacho’s arrest shared by local media showed the politician handcuffed on the side of the road; the windows of the car in which he was traveling smashed.
He’s charged over taking part in the “Coup d’Etat I” — as the government calls the case — in November 2019 against then-President Evo Morales, who actually resigned (and fled the country) after nearly 14 years in power.
International observers from the Organization of American States concluded that the results of the 2019 presidential election — where Morales was illegally seeking his fourth consecutive term — were largely fraudulent, saying he tampered with vote tallies to avoid a run-off vote and thus secure the presidency. The European Union concurred.
But divisions among the opposition allowed Morales’ party to regain power in the next election, in less than a year.
Camacho did play a key role in the massive country-wide nonviolent protests that led to Morales’ resignation, by tapping into Santa Cruz’s long-held regionalist sentiment against the overbearing La Paz-based central government, galvanizing the country’s regional opposition and coordinating with country-wide civil society groups who were equally tired of Morales’ authoritarianism.
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As then-president of Santa Cruz’s Civic Committee, Camacho openly promised the beleaguered national police force better working conditions after Morales’s corrupt rule came to an end — a move that, atop a month-plus of civil disobedience, helped spur a police mutiny vital in forcing Morales’s hand.
He also brokered alliances with indigenous Potosi-based miners (whose leader, Marco Pumari, is now also arbitrarily imprisoned) and the historic La Paz-based “Central Obrera Boliviana.”
None of this comes close to making him a “coup plotter” or a “terrorist.” He and millions of Bolivians were just audacious in exercising what was left of freedom of expression and association in a strongman-weary country.
Yet the “Coup d’Etat I” case is also the pretext to imprison transitional President Jeanine Áñez, sentenced in June to 10 years for making “decisions contrary to the constitution” and for “dereliction of duty.” (She was initially charged with terrorism, sedition and conspiracy.)
Ambiguous offenses like “terrorism” or “sedition” are often used to persecute the opposition. Bolivia’s judicial system is one of the world’s worst. This year, the World Justice Project ranked it as 130th out of 140 countries in its Rule of Law index.
Bolivians know President Arce Catacora’s Movimiento Al Socialismo Party won’t be afraid of using the country’s subservient judiciary to enact revenge. It’s closely allied to Cuba’s totalitarian regime, the kleptocratic dictatorships in Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as Iran and China.
MAS seeks to avenge the international embarrassment of having crumbled over proven allegations of fraud and the abuses suffered at the hands of Áñez’s government (led by authoritarian government minister Arturo Murillo), which was itself notorious for persecuting MAS leaders for “terrorism.”
For truth and justice to prevail in the region, and to have free and fair elections, Latin American countries must have some semblance of the rule of law. Opposition leaders can’t be thrown arbitrarily into jail on vague charges because the powers that be decided so.
Pumari, Áñez and Camacho are but the latest examples of the lawlessness and ruthlessness with which the Arce regime is handling high-profile political opponents. Consider it just the beginning.
Jhanisse Vaca Daza is the co-founder of Rios de Pie, a Bolivian nonviolent citizen movement and an activism outreach specialist at the Human Rights Foundation. Javier El-Hage is HRF’s chief legal officer.