LA PAZ/SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Dec 28 (Reuters) – Bolivian police on Wednesday detained prominent opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho on charges of “terrorism”, significantly escalating tensions between the national government and Camacho’s base in the Santa Cruz region.
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’s communications team posted a statement released by the Le Paz prosecutor’s office in which he said the accusations against him lacked truth and credibility.
He said he had been “brutally kidnapped” by police and that he was proud of his part in the fight for “freedom and democracy” in Bolivia, according to the statement, which his team posted on his Twitter account.
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Evo Morales said on Twitter he hoped Camacho’s detention would bring justice after three years.
“Finally, after three years, Luis Fernando Camacho will answer for the coup d’etat that led to robberies, persecutions, arrests and massacres of the de facto government. We trust that this decision will be sustained with the firmness demanded by the people’s cry for justice,” he said.
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, during which protesters blocked streets and halted trade over the government’s delay in carrying out a new census that would likely result in Santa Cruz securing more tax revenues and seats in Congress.
Following Camacho’s arrest, road blockades quickly emerged in parts of Santa Cruz, where the prosecutor’s office was set on fire and protesters assembled, some waving the region’s green-white-green flag and throwing firecrackers.
Media footage showed security forces using tear gas. In El Alto, protesters also came out against Camacho demanding justice be carried out.
Camacho’s detention comes at a time of regional tensions and the same month that former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo was ousted and placed in pre-trial detention for attempting to illegally dissolve Congress, prompting deadly protests.
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 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 spokesperson for the United Nations said that while it 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,” the spokesperson added.
Interior Minister Carlos Eduardo Del Castillo said on Twitter Camacho had been instructed to undergo a medical assessment and said his health was “stable”, rejecting claims he had been injured.