Who is General Zúñiga, the shadowy officer behind the thwarted coup in Bolivia?

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — The man behind the attempted coup that has rocked Bolivia remains a mystery to much of the country.

Little known before bursting into Bolivia’s presidential palace tailed by tanks and armored vehicles , Juan José Zúñiga served as commander general of the country’s armed forces from 2022 until his dramatic sacking and arrest Wednesday. A career military man, Zúñiga owes his post to the very president whom he sought to oust in his attempted coup.

President Luis Arce handpicked Zúñiga as army chief two years ago, vaulting the undistinguished intelligence official who had scored in the lower categories of his military entrance exams to the army’s highest ranks. The abrupt promotion angered fellow officers and puzzled analysts, who interpreted Arce’s move as a reward for the general’s loyalty.

Even as Arce reshuffled other top military positions, most recently in January, Zúñiga remained in place.

“Zúñiga was Arce’s man,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based research group. “He’s no mastermind … he is rather dull-witted but he’s perceived to be completely loyal to Arce.”

Wednesday was not the first time that Zúñiga has found himself at the center of controversy. In 2013, the general faced a firestorm of allegations that he embezzled the equivalent of nearly $400,000 in army funds earmarked to support children and elderly people. The military sent him to jail for seven days for misusing the money as well as for traveling abroad without permission.

Zúñiga denied wrongdoing, explaining the penalty as the result of an internal military, not criminal, investigation that found he had failed to control his subordinates.

“He’s a military man yet with no ability to lead the armed forces,” said retired army officer and security analyst Jorge Santiesteban, describing Zúñiga’s appointment as “irregular.”

Despite his faults, Zúñiga is strategic and well-connected, Santiesteban said. Bolivian news outlets reported that he forged close contacts with the country’s powerful labor unions. He has cultivated personal ties to President Arce — a recent photo circulating on social media shows the two men as basketball teammates, drenched in sweat and smiling on the court.

His ties to former Bolivian President Evo Morales have been far more fraught. When Arce elevated Zúñiga to army chief, Morales weighed in, dredging up the old allegations of embezzlement and accusing the general of conspiring with other intelligence officials to surveil and “persecute” him and other politicians and activists.

With Morales now back in the national spotlight, vying with Arce for control of Bolivia’s governing party, the leftist icon has revived his condemnations of Zúñiga in recent weeks, saying that the general is out to destroy him.

Zúñiga responded to Morales’ allegations in a TV interview Monday, threatening to arrest Morales if he ran against Arce in the hotly anticipated 2025 elections.

“The military must enforce the constitution,” Zúñiga said, referring to a court order last fall that barred Morales from running for an unconstitutional third term.

Morales’ presidential bid has caused an unprecedented rift with Arce, his former ally and economy minister. Like Zúñiga, President Arce has denied the legitimacy of his campaign.

But a long-standing rule prevents Bolivian military officers from intervening in domestic politics, and Zúñiga’s threats drew immediate backlash. Morales responded that such comments from a military official “never occurred in a democracy.”

That was when Arce summoned Zúñiga to chastise him a private meeting, according to Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo.

Less than 12 hours later, Zúñiga’s troops were swarming Arce’s presidential palace.


DeBre reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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