Families of 21 detained for coup in Bolivia plead for mercy, say loved ones were 'tricked'

By The Canadian Press

Published 2:43 PDT, Fri June 28, 2024

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — The death threats came rolling in shortly after Gimena Silva’s husband was detained on accusations that he took part in a failed coup in Bolivia.

“They call us, they say that if we do anything, say anything, they’re going to disappear us. They threaten not just us, but our children too,” Silva said. “They’re anonymous calls and they say they will kill our kids.” 

Now, Silva, a mother of three children, sat with her mother and brother crying at the doors of a jail clinging to any news of her husband, Luis Domingo Balanza. 

Balanza, a military major of more than 15 years, was among 21 people arrested after a group of military and armored vehicles attempted what the government has called a “failed coup d’état.”

Those families appeared visibly confused and anxious in the jail where their loved ones were kept on Friday, saying they knew nothing of a plot in the lead-up to Wednesday's spectacle. Many families of those detained say their loved ones were simply “following orders” or told they were carrying out a “military exercise.”

On Friday, the government announced additional arrests of soldiers, bringing the total up to 21, including former Gen. Juan José Zuñiga, who led the failed coup.

Images from Bolivia shocked the world on Wednesday as an armored car rammed into the government palace in La Paz, the country's seat of government, and military officers fled after embattled President Luis Arce said his government was not backing down.

The general, who was sacked by Arce amid the chaos, claimed that he stormed the government office as a favor to Arce to earn him political favor at a time of deep economic discontent in Bolivia, stirring doubt in many.

Zuñiga's lawyer, Stiven Orellana, told The Associated Press that prosecutors planned to charge Zúñiga with the crimes of terrorism and starting an armed uprising. He said he could not provide more details on the case.

Around 200 military officers took part in the attempted coup, Bolivia’s ambassador to the Organization of American States said Thursday. 

“These people commanded the destruction of Bolivian heritage,” said senior Cabinet member Eduardo del Castillo said in a press conference.

Del Castillo was echoed by hundreds of protestors roaring outside the jail and other government buildings on Friday, carrying posters reading “Zuñiga, traitor, coup leader, respect the state.”

Inside, crying families told another story. 

Silva and her mother, Daniela, said their family was left economically “devastated” with no income to care for their three children. The family was among those that said their father was simply following orders, asked to step away from an online course and head to the plaza outside the governmental palace. Silva said her husband later turned himself over.

“How are we going to feed our family,” Daniela, who asked not to be identified by her last name due to the threats. “I can’t think of the future, what future can someone who has been implicated, who has been treated like this.”

She added: "My son isn’t a villain … he’s just a subordinate. He safeguarded his patrimony and they took advantage of him.”

Families and lawyers of defendants interviewed by the AP could share few details about their family members' cases and legal arguments because they were in the wake of legal proceedings but most said they sought “justice” for those detained.

Others like Nubia Barbery said her husband, Col. Raul Barbery Muiba, was instructed by Zuñiga to carry out a “military exercise”. Upon entering the square, Barbery said he left, telling Zuñiga that he was “tricked,” calling her shortly afterward.

The families’ claims add an extra layer of confusion to doubts already sewed by Zuñiga Wednesday night about the veracity of the coup.

Upon his swift arrest, he alleged, without providing evidence, that Arce ordered him to carry out the rebellion, prompting political opposition to dub the case a “self-coup."

Zuñiga claimed the takeover was all a ruse to boost Arce’s flagging popularity as he struggles to manage a spiraling economy, deepening political divisions and bubbling public discontent. Arce on Thursday vigorously denied accusations.

The embattled president is vying with powerful ex-President Evo Morales over who will be their party’s candidate in the presidential election next year. 

The escalating political feud has left Bolivians disillusioned and bewildered as to what really happened during those three chaotic hours Wednesday when armored vehicles rolled into downtown La Paz and Arce confronted the putschists face-to-face and ordered them to back off. 

Whether Zuñiga’s allegations about Arce are true — or whether the disgruntled general simply sought to exploit Bolivia’s mounting crises for his own benefit — remains unclear.

Still many like Cintia Ramos were were outraged by Wednesday's chaos.

“Zúñiga must pay the highest sentence for having attacked the Bolivian people,” said 31-year-old Cintia Ramos, one of the protesters at the jail. 

Families may say their loved ones are innocent, but Ramos said “this couldn't have been carried out by just one person. This person had allies, high-level allies. ... They should also be pay the highest sentence.”

Police could be seen Friday morning marching Zúñiga through the jail in handcuffs.

Shortly before, his wife, Graciela Arzacibia, kept her eyes downcast as she waited for the general to emerge from the police station. Holding a small bag of snacks, she expressed concern for her 6-year-old son, who, she said, believed his jailed father was simply away at work.

“I'm asking that they consider the families," she told the AP. “We haven't done anything."

– Megan Janetsky and Paola Flores, The Associated Press

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