Bolivian police detain main opposition leader, sparking protests in Santa Cruz

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Police on Wednesday detained Luis Fernando Camacho, the main opposition leader in Bolivia who is also governor of the Santa Cruz region, a dramatic action that quickly led to renewed social unrest.

Camacho was detained as part of a case in which he is accused of leading what the government characterizes as a coup in 2019, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office said. Opposition leaders challenge the coup label, arguing those events were only protests that led to the resignation of then-President Evo Morales.

The governor’s allies quickly took to the streets, blocking roads in Santa Cruz as well as a highway that joins the region with the rest of the country. Photos posted on social media showed long lines at gas stations amid worries the renewed unrest could lead to shortages.

People protest against Luis Fernando Camacho, governor of Santa Cruz, in La Paz, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022. Police in Bolivia detained Luis Fernando Camacho, the country’s main opposition leader who is also the governor of the Santa Cruz region, in a dramatic action that is bound to increase political tensions and could lead to renewed social unrest. (AP Photo/Jose Lavayen).

It took several hours for any official word on what charges led to the detention of Camacho, whose region is Bolivia’s wealthiest and a stronghold of the opposition.

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Earlier, Government Minister Carlos Eduardo del Castillo wrote on social media only, “We inform the Bolivian people that police have fulfilled a detention order against Mr. Luis Fernando Camacho.”

Shortly after the action, the Santa Cruz governorship said in a news release that Camacho was “kidnapped in an absolutely irregular police operation and was taken to an unknown location.”

Camacho was detained near his home, the news release said.

Several opposition leaders also quickly spoke up against the detention, including former President Carlos Mesa, who called it a “violent and illegal kidnapping.”

The Chief Prosecutor’s Office denied the detention was anything of the sort or political persecution, saying it was done under an order issued in October and stemmed from proceedings that began in 2020 with the “full knowledge” of the governor.

Camacho has repeatedly denied all accusations against him, saying he is the victim of political persecution. He has refused to undergo questioning by prosecutors, saying there is a lack of guarantees of fair treatment.

Video of the arrest posted on social media showed the conservative Camacho handcuffed on the side of the road alongside law enforcement officers holding firearms.

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Martin Camacho, the governor’s lawyer, told the local newspaper El Deber that his client was being taken to the capital of La Paz to answer questions in cases opened against him.

Video posted on social media showed dozens of his supporters descending on two local airports to try to impede the governor’s transfer, although it was unclear whether he was still there.

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The government has launched several judicial actions against Camacho, including one for having called for a strike against the national administration of President Luis Arce in November, which lasted 36 days. He is facing accusations of sedition, treason and corruption, among others.

Camacho is the leader of the opposition alliance Creemos (“We Believe”).

His role as head of the opposition was cemented in November, when he led the strike against the government. The action pressed demands that a national census be carried out in 2023, which would likely give Santa Cruz more tax revenue and seats in Congress and therefore more influence in the country’s political decisions.

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Camacho was also a leader in the big protests in 2019 that forced Morales from power following elections that the Organization of American States said were marred by fraud. Morales was seeking his fourth consecutive reelection.

The 2019 protests led to social unrest that resulted in 37 deaths and pushed Bolivia into its most serious institutional crisis of recent years.

Politi reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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