Bolivian police detain prominent opposition leader as tensions flare

REUTERS/David Mercado
Presidential candidate Luis Fernando Camacho of Creemos Party addresses supporters during his presidential campaign in La Paz, Bolivia October 1, 2020.

LA PAZ/SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, (Reuters) – Bolivian police on Wednesday detained prominent opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho on charges of “terrorism” in a move that significantly escalates tensions between the national government and Camacho’s Santa Cruz base.

Bolivia’s state attorney’s office confirmed the detention of 43-year-old Camacho, a lawyer and right-wing civic leader who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2020 and is now governor of the affluent farming hub of Santa Cruz.

The office said the arrest was connected to the toppling of former leftist president Evo Morales in 2019. An October arrest warrant accused Camacho of “terrorism” without giving more details.

Camacho, who was transferred from the city of Santa Cruz to a police station in La Paz, is the second high-profile political figure linked to Morales’ ouster to be detained. Ex-president Jeanine Anez was jailed last year after being found guilty of orchestrating a “coup.”

Constitutional lawyer Israel Quino told state TV that Camacho could face 15 to 20 years in jail if convicted.

The arrest follows week of unrest in Santa Cruz, led by Camacho. Protesters blocked streets and halted trade, angered over the national government’s delay in carrying out Bolivia’s population census. A new census would likely result in Santa Cruz – which has long butted heads with La Paz – securing more tax revenues and seats in Congress.

As protesters gathered around Santa Cruz, long queues began building up as people stocked up on food and gas, fearing the return of road blockades. Local media footage showed security forces using tear gas.

Camacho’s detention comes at a time of regional tensions, the same month that former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo was ousted, arrested and placed in pre-trial detention for 18 months for attempting to illegally dissolve Congress.

Several of Camacho’s allies, including lawmakers Paola Aguirre and Erwin Bazan, said firearms were used in the arrest. Others, including former President Carlos Mesa, called the arrest a “kidnapping.”

The state attorney’s office rejected the allegations that the arrest was a kidnapping or political persecution.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the department was aware of the arrest of Camacho and monitoring developments.

“We urge the Bolivian government to refrain from excessive use of force against its opposition, including those elected democratically and their supporters. We also call upon the authorities to respect the due process of law against those charged,” the spokesperson said.

A U.N. spokesperson said that while they did not know the specifics of the case “people everywhere should be allowed to express their views and protest peacefully.”

“Furthermore, we stand against arbitrary arrests as they violate the fundamental human rights of an individual,” the U.N. spokesperson said.

Bolivian interior minister Carlos Eduardo Del Castillo said on Twitter that Camacho had been instructed to undergo a medical assessment and said his health was “stable,” rejecting claims he had been injured.