Bolivian police arrested Santa Cruz governor Luis Fernando Camacho on terrorism charges near his home on Wednesday afternoon. The opposition figurehead is accused of participating in the 2019 coup d’etat that forced out long-serving leader, Evo Morales, in the wake of controversial electoral fraud allegations.
Camacho was taken to La Paz, where he has declined to testify, but said in a written statement to the public prosecutor that he was “proud” of having participated in “the greatest struggle in the history of Bolivia for liberty and democracy and in defense of our vote.”
The Santa Cruz governor is charged with terrorism for leading the violent protests that ultimately forced Morales out. Morales, who had ruled Bolivia since 2006, resigned alongside his Vice President Álvaro García Linera on November 10, 2019, days after the police mutinied and hours after army generals gave a televised press conference “suggesting” that he step down.
He was running for his fourth consecutive term in office, disregarding a 2016 referendum vote to keep electoral term limits. After the elections, the Organization of American States raised concerns of voter fraud, sparking three weeks of increasingly violent protests. Some, but not all, aspects of the fraud accusations have been debunked by subsequent studies.
Morales was temporarily replaced by far-right senator Jeanine Áñez. Between the post-electoral violence and massacres committed against protesters by the security forces in Senkata and Sacaba in the first week of her presidency, 37 people were killed.
The public prosecutor’s office has requested that Camacho be held for up to six months in pre-trial detention at Chonchocoro maximum security prison, near La Paz, arguing that there was a risk he would attempt to leave the country or interfere with the investigations.
In an extended charge sheet filed this morning, the prosecutor describes Camacho’s role as ringleader of the 2019 protests, including his public statements in December 2019 that his father had made a deal with the military before Morales was removed, and that for that reason they had spoken with Fernando López, who went on to serve as Defense Minister under Áñez, rather than following the chain of command.
However, rights organization Human Rights Watch has criticized the Bolivian government for its use of terrorism charges. After Áñez was arrested in March 2021, the organization’s Americas directors wrote that successive Bolivian governments had used an “overbroad” definition of terrorism was being used to pursue “politically motivated” prosecutions.
“[Camacho’s] actions were absolutely illegal, they were absolutely seditious, there are better terms for it [than terrorism] but that’s what’s available to the prosecution,” said Thomas Becker, Legal and Policy director at the University Network for Human Rights, who has worked extensively on rights in Bolivia. He highlighted that Camacho entered the presidential palace with a bible and swore that the Pachamama (the Indigenous Earth mother) would never return to the palace.
Camacho has “very much become the face of the right in Bolivia,” Becker said. “To people who hold those views, he’s definitely seen as the face of the opposition to the MAS [ruling party] and to socialism.”
Camacho is the leader of the far-right Christian conservative coalition, Creemos, which obtained 45% of the vote in Santa Cruz department in the 2020 elections. Creemos came third nationally, with 14% of the votes, after the Movement Towards Socialism and centrist Citizen Community, led by ex-president Carlos Mesa.
Becker highlighted that Camacho was previously a member of the Santa Cruz Youth Union, which has been recognized by the United Nations as a para-state group. He subsequently joined the right-wing business leaders’ organization, the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee.
In October and November, the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee organized a 36-day general strike in the city of Santa Cruz, demanding that the national census be carried out in 2023. The poll would likely show population growth in Santa Cruz, giving the region more congressional seats. At least four people were killed amid the strikes, according to the government, and Camacho is also facing charges over his role in organizing the strike.
His arrest sparked violent protests, with police using tear gas to disperse demonstrators. The British Foreign Office warned on Wednesday night that “violent protests” were affecting air and road access to Santa Cruz, and travelers should check with the local authorities before attempting to reach the airport.
Ex-interim president Jeanine Áñez was jailed over her role in the 2019 crisis earlier this year.