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Who Was the Leader of Bolivia’s Failed Coup and What Happens to Him Next?

6 minute read

His rebellion may have lasted just a few hours, but he could face as much as 20 years in prison as a result.

Bolivia’s army general Juan José Zúñiga, who was reportedly sacked earlier in the week, tried to take over the government of the South American country of 12.5 million by leading troops and tanks to storm the presidential palace and central plaza in capital La Paz on Wednesday afternoon.

“We are going to recover this homeland,” Zúñiga announced amid the putsch, which was quickly quashed as President Luis Arce called upon the public and new military leadership to stand up for democracy and force the insurrectionists to stand down.

“To the Bolivian people and the entire international community, our country today is facing an attempted coup d’etat,” Arce said in a broadcast to the nation.

A dramatic scene aired on Bolivian television showing Arce confronting Zúñiga in a hallway of the palace: “I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination,” the President said.

After the soldiers taking part in the uprising retreated, hundreds of supporters of Arce swarmed the plaza outside the palace in celebration. Zúñiga was seen being arrested by police.

Demonstrators at Plaza Murillo, outside of Palacio Quemado in La Paz, Bolivia, on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Chanting crowds lit fireworks and punched the air outside Bolivia's presidential palace as rebel soldiers dispersed after a failed coup attempt against the nation's socialist government.
Supporters of President Luis Arce wave flags and sing the national anthem at Plaza Murillo after rebel soldiers dispersed on June 26, 2024. Marcelo Perez del Carpio—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Here’s what to know about Zúñiga, his apparent motivations, and what will happen to him now after his failed coup.

Who is Bolivia’s coup attempt leader Zúñiga?

Juan José Zúñiga Macías, a career military officer with a controversial past, was appointed general commander of the Bolivian Army by President Arce in November 2022 and was retained in his position this January when other commanders were shuffled by Arce.

But while Zúñiga had previously held high ranks including brigadier general and chief of the general staff, he was most renowned for his military intelligence skills, according to Bolivian news site Urgente.bo. According to Bolivian paper el Deber, Zúñiga also cultivated a reputation as “the people’s general” by forming close ties with social movements and unions such as mine workers.

But Zúñiga has also faced accusations of wrongdoing long before his coup attempt.

Army Cmdr. Gen. Juan Jose Zuniga sits inside an armored vehicle at Plaza Murillo in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
Zúñiga sits inside an armored vehicle at Plaza Murillo in La Paz on June 26, 2024.Juan Karita—AP

An official military report in 2013 said Zúñiga, then head of an infantry regiment, embezzled 2.7 million bolivianos (about $400,000) from public funds intended for pensions, school vouchers, and military travel expenses. He and seven others linked to the scheme were jailed for seven days, according to the report, which also alleged that Zúñiga was involved in drug trafficking and had threatened the report’s author, a non-commissioned officer.

In 2022, Zúñiga was accused by leftist former President Evo Morales of leading an unofficial secret but powerful group within the army, called the “Pachajchos,” that monitors coca production leaders and political opponents, including Morales. Morales alleged the group to have a “black plan” to eliminate him. Zuñiga has admitted the existence of the group, though he has not admitted to Morales accusations about its workings, saying only that it is tasked with intelligence-related duties and that non-commissioned officers and low-ranking soldiers are also part of it.

Why did Zúñiga launch a coup?

Earlier this week, Zúñiga launched a series of political attacks against Morales—whose alliance with Arce has splintered in recent months, leaving Bolivia’s government in paralysis and their shared political party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), split across factions. Morales, who resigned the presidency in 2019 amid protests against his efforts to seek a fourth term, has announced his intention to challenge Arce in 2025 despite the country’s Constitutional Court disqualifying his candidacy.

In televised statements on Monday, Zuñiga said that Morales “can no longer be President of this country,” and that he would be willing to arrest Morales if he tried, adding that he would not allow the Constitution to “be trampled, to disobey the mandate of the people.”

Morales on Tuesday called for Zúñiga’s comments to be disavowed, saying “our democracy is increasingly in danger.” Responding to the controversy he created, Zúñiga told el Deber: “I am a soldier of honor who is willing to offer his life for the defense and unity of the homeland. Our homeland, once again, has fallen under the threat of internal and external enemies who seek division, destabilization and hatred between Bolivians, to take over natural resources for the benefit of petty interests and power groups that respond to caudillismo.” Urgente.bo reported that Arce removed Zúñiga from his command on Tuesday night. (Defense minister Edmundo Novillo confirmed Zúñiga’s Tuesday dismissal after the failed coup on Wednesday.)

Military troops are deployed outside the Quemado Palace at Plaza Murillo in La Paz on June 26, 2024.
Soldiers storm the Bolivian presidential palace on June 26, 2024.Aizar Raldes—AFP/Getty Images
Military troops in armored vehicles are seen in the surroundings of Plaza Murillo in La Paz on June 26, 2024.
Armored vehicles amass in La Paz on June 26, 2024.Aizar Raldes—AFP/Getty Images

As he led the uprising on Wednesday, Zúñiga told reporters, according to the Associated Press: “We are listening to the cry of the people because for many years an elite has taken control of the country,” and politicians are “destroying the country: look at what situation we are in, what crisis they have left us in.”

“The three chiefs of the armed forces have come to express our dismay,” Zúñiga announced as he entered the palace, saying that new cabinet ministers would be sworn in “to restore democracy.”

In the end, the only new appointments made were new heads of the army, navy, and air force, including Zúñiga’s replacement José Wilson Sánchez, who ordered the soldiers in the plaza to return to their barracks. (In addition to Zúñiga, Navy Vice Admiral Juan Arnez Salvador was also reportedly arrested.)

What happens to Zúñiga next?

When it was apparent that his putsch was going to fail, Zúñiga claimed to reporters before his arrest that Arce himself had ordered the storming of the presidential palace in an attempt to stage political theater amid his tensions with Morales: “The President told me: ‘The situation is very screwed up, very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity.’” He said Arce instructed him to bring out the tanks.

After Zúñiga was taken into custody, Iván Lima, Bolivia’s justice minister, said on X in response to Zúñiga’s claims that Zúñiga “lies and seeks to justify himself in a decision that is his.”

Lima also said that prosecutors will pursue criminal action against Zuñiga—for allegedly engaging in armed uprising against the security and sovereignty of the state, seducing troops to commit rebellion or sedition, and attacking the President and other state dignitaries—and that they will seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years imprisonment.

Zúñiga’s failed coup attempt has been condemned by international governments, especially in Latin America, as well as Bolivian leaders across the spectrum, from Arce and Morales to even their right-wing opponents like former President Jeanine Anez, who said in a post on X that the MAS should only be ousted “through the vote in 2025.”

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