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Families say those detained in Bolivia failed coup were tricked. President says it’s not his problem


Associated Press

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, sits 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.” On Friday night, a Bolivian judge sent former Gen. Juan José Zuñiga, who led the failed coup, to a maximum security prison on preventative detention alongside two others accused of terrorism and armed uprising against the state.

Families of those detained were 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.”

Bolivian President Luis Arce washed his hands of the families’ claims that those detained were innocent or tricked in an interview Friday with The Associated Press.

“It’s a problem of those who were involved, it’s not the government’s problem,” Arce said.

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

Senior Cabinet member Eduardo del Castillo told AP in an interview Friday that a squad of snipers was on the way to assist Zuñiga, but didn’t arrive in time as the coup plot fell apart. He said the coup attempt represented a stunning intelligence failure by Bolivia.

Zuñiga, meanwhile, was sacked by Arce amid the chaos and 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.

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,” Del Castillo said at a news 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?” asked Daniela, who spoke on condition of not being identified by her last name due to the threats.

“My son isn’t a villain,” she said. “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. He told AP that Bolivia was not in an economic crisis and that the government was “taking action” to address the economic hardships ailing the Bolivian people.

The embattled president is vying with powerful ex-President Evo Morales over who will be their party’s candidate in the 2025 presidential election. Arce said his government has been “politically attacked” by Morales, hamstringing his government from addressing economic turmoil.

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.”

Article Topic Follows: AP National News

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