The arrest of Luis Fernando Camacho, governor of Santa Cruz, is a setback for democracy in Bolivia. Multiple rule-of-law and human-rights violations stem from his apprehension, including torture and breach of due process.
Following Camacho’s case, dissidents against the Luis Arce regime—freedom advocates and opposition politicians—have shared their fears of becoming the central government’s next targets for political persecution.
Camacho and about 187 other political prisoners in Bolivia are subject to frequent torture while in prison, according to the governor’s testimony. One of the torture methods is nights outdoors in freezing temperatures at over 12,000 feet above sea level.
The US Embassy in Bolivia has remained silent regarding Camacho’s arrest. The Venezuelan dictatorship, on the other hand, has praised Camacho’s apprehension.
On December 28, 2022, federal Bolivian police arrested Santa Cruz Governor Camacho for participating in an alleged coup in 2019 against then President Evo Morales. Now working as best as he can from prison, Camacho’s case has sent a warning to dissidents who fear they will be next in line. Camacho’s apprehension has created widespread unrest for Bolivia’s democracy due to rule-of-law and human-rights transgressions.
In 2019, Morales resigned after a series of electoral fraud allegations. Senator Jeanine Áñez then assumed Bolivia’s interim presidency. One year later, Luis Arce—leading Morales’s party Movement for Socialism (MAS)—won the presidential election in the first round with over 55 percent of the votes and took office in November 2020.
For investigation purposes, the Prosecutor’s Office named the alleged coup against Morales the Coup d’État case. As part of this case, armed police agents broke Governor Camacho’s car windows and arrested him while he was traveling in Santa Cruz. The police took Camacho in a helicopter to the Chonchocoro prison in La Paz. Camacho’s apprehension triggered demonstrations across the country, particularly in his home state of Santa Cruz.
Former President Morales praised Camacho’s apprehension and tweeted: “Finally, after three years, Camacho will be held accountable for the coup that resulted in robbery, persecution, arrests, and massacres.”
The High Court sentenced Camacho to four months in preventive prison while he was investigated for alleged terrorism. In addition to terrorism, Camacho faces charges of breach of duty and “attacking the president,” according to the Prosecutor’s Office. He will still work remotely as Santa Cruz governor from jail.
To explain the consequences of Governor Camacho’s detention in Bolivia, the Impunity Observer interviewed:
Juan Pablo Chamón, executive director of liberal think tank Libera Bolivia;
Luciana Campero, senator for Tarija state of the Citizen Community party;
Luisa Nayar, senator for Santa Cruz state of the Citizen Community party.
Coup d’État or Fraudulent Election?
After multiple reports and substantive complaints regarding fraud and a lack of transparency in the 2019 elections, nationwide protests emerged and eventually led Morales to resign. Morales, Arce, and MAS still assert they were victims of a coup. This is the basis for the Prosecutor’s Office Coup d’Etat case. It accuses Governor Camacho, President Áñez, and other opposition leaders that participated in demonstrations of terrorism.
Campero, Chamón, and Nayar agree that Morales’s coup was nonexistent. They rest their case on three arguments: (1) Morales violated the Bolivian constitution by running for president after three terms in office, (2) national and international reports back up the fraud allegations, and (3) Morales resigned after an Organization of American States (OAS) audit and military pressure.
After a series of legal maneuvers and arguments, the Constitutional Court allowed Morales to run for a third and a fourth time for president despite the constitution explicitly permitting only one presidential term and one reelection. For his third candidacy, Morales’s argument was that during his first tenure Bolivia was refounded as a plurinational state, so his first tenure did not count. For his fourth term candidacy, his argument was that denying him the right to run for president violated his “political rights” or right to participate in elections. Constitutional Court Magistrate Macario Cortez contended the “Court gave priority to Morales’s political rights over the constitution.”
By 2016, Bolivians—in a referendum—voted down with a slim majority a possible fourth term for Morales. One year later, however, the Constitutional Court decided to let Morales run for a fourth term.
Bolivian opposition, international and national observers, and democracy advocates across the board affirm that the 2019 presidential election was fraudulent. Fraud suspicions ballooned after the electoral authority’s official live results online platform stopped working for over 24 hours. When the platform failed, 85 percent of the votes were counted and the trend showed the need for a runoff between Morales and Carlos Mesa, an opposition leader. When the platform resumed operation one day later, Morales had won in the first round.
Campero, who was a local electoral observer in Tarija, revealed to the Impunity Observer that she witnessed multiple breaches to the votes’ chain of custody: “A lady entered by running to the electoral precinct with a bag full of ballots. There was no law enforcement agent next to her, as the electoral law establishes.”
The OAS performed an audit in which they found “severe irregularities and manipulation in the vote-counting system.” The organization’s report concluded that Morales should resign from his post to calm the social conflict and public demonstrations.
Camacho’s Apprehension versus Democracy
“Camacho’s arrest represents a threat to Bolivia’s already weak democracy,” Campero argues. According to the 2021 V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index, Bolivia has the worst score in South America, except for Venezuela—although recent events have yet to appear in the results. Bolivia’s score is 0.37. Neighboring Paraguay and Peru have scores of 0.43 and 0.65 out of one, respectively.
A strong liberal democracy requires freedom of expression and association, rule of law, trustworthy and impartial electoral authorities, and separation of powers. Camacho’s case threatens most of these, starting with the rule of law.
Our interviewees assert that Camacho’s apprehension did not follow due process. Although the Prosecutor’s Office claimed it notified Camacho two months before his detention, Chamón has responded that “he should not have been jailed because there was never a risk that he would leave the country.” Bolivian law establishes that apprehension is only necessary if there is an escape or other risk that could hinder the legal process.
Luis Camacho, son of the imprisoned Santa Cruz governor, accuses prison authorities of torturing his father. Campero and Nayar backed these claims with the Impunity Observer, by asserting Camacho has been forced to spend the night outdoors without the appropriate clothing at over 12,000 feet above sea level. Opposition congressmen have presented a complaint to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights for torture. These claims compound previous torture complaints in Bolivian prisons that have even resulted in death.
Public demonstrations and freedom of expression are part of human rights and the Bolivian constitution. However, Campero and Nayar fear authorities apprehended Camacho for merely participating in demonstrations. They dread that if authorities are willing to arrest a public figure for political expression, they are likely to do the same to other leaders.
“It is impossible to have democracy if the incumbent government seeks to silence every dissident who tries to compete,” explains Chamón.
Regarding trustworthy and impartial electoral authorities, Bolivians showed their lack of trust in electoral authorities in the 2019 demonstrations. In addition, according to the country’s police law, the head of the Police Department is the minister of government affairs, Eduardo del Castillo. Arce appointed del Castillo, an active MAS member.
Dissidents Share Fear of Persecution
Bolivia’s Permanent Assembly for Human Rights has counted 187 political prisoners under the Arce regime. Being the governor of the richest state in Bolivia and finishing in third place in the 2020 presidential election, Camacho is a prominent opposition leader.
Apart from Camacho’s detention, there are other recent cases the opposition considers political persecution. One of the most prominent cases is Jeanine Áñez, who is also facing terrorism charges in the same case as Camacho. After one year of preventive prison due to the “risk of escaping,” the court sentenced Áñez to 10 years in prison for breach of duties and violating the constitution. She claims her prosecution did not follow due process and she was a victim of political persecution.
After seeing Camacho’s case, our interviewees confessed they fear persecution from the Arce administration. Campero and Nayar shared that they have already been harassed by MAS supporters, congressmen, and police officers. Campero, for example, told the Impunity Observer that she has suffered violence from Morales’s supporters on the streets during public demonstrations in the past months: “I have also suffered violence from MAS congressmen while in congressional sessions.” After Camacho’s example, the interviewees feel it is a matter of time before they suffer a similar fate.
Demonstrations for Freedom
Camacho’s arrest led to a series of public demonstrations across the country. Over time, however, citizens have gone out to the streets asking for the release of all other political prisoners and actions in favor of democracy and freedom.
There are several police-violence cases reported against demonstrators. One of these has even led to death. For example, Erwin Chávez—a citizen who found himself in the middle of public demonstrations in Santa Cruz—was hit by the police’s tear gas in the face. At first, Chávez lost his right eye. However, after struggling with multiple surgeries, he finally lost his life. As the police act directly under the orders of the minister of government affairs, Nayar has pointed the finger at del Castillo as the intellectual author of the assassination.
Nayar told the Impunity Observer that there are dozens of other cases against protesters across the country. Women and minors have also been attacked by Bolivian police during the latest demonstrations in Santa Cruz.
The Arce regime, on the other hand, accuses some demonstrators of physical attacks on public institutions, including Santa Cruz’s Police Department and Prosecutor’s Office. Due to the proximity of protests to two airports, they had to close temporarily and cancel national and international flights for around seven hours.
Deafening Silence from US Embassy
While US embassies in Latin America have issued statements rejecting threats to democracy such as the coup attempt in Peru by Pedro Castillo or the attack on Brazil’s Congress, the US embassy in Bolivia has remained silent regarding Camacho’s apprehension and what this represents to democracy.
On January 12, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols—two weeks after law enforcement officials apprehended Camacho and in the middle of social discontent across the country, made a call for peace. He tweeted, “We are concerned regarding the reports of violence in Bolivia since December 28. We exhort Bolivians to engage in dialogue to achieve peace and unity and respect for human rights, including due process and freedom of expression.”
Although Chamón was surprised by the US embassy’s silence regarding Camacho’s arrest, he believes this symbolizes the US State Department’s policies in the region. He claims that the US foreign policy priority in Bolivia is to carry out a peaceful coexistence with far-left governments. This has happened less than two months after the negotiations between the Biden administration and the Nicolás Maduro dictatorship for oil.
On the other hand, the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela supported Camacho’s arrest. Carlos Faría, the Venezuelan foreign affairs minister, tweeted: “We are aware of how fascists act because we have experienced it several times. For that reason, we are satisfied with the actions in accordance with the law carried out against those responsible for the coup.”
Mauro Echeverría is Econ Americas’ deputy editor. He holds a BA in international relations with minors in political science and anthropology from the San Francisco University of Quito. Mauro leads the research on local economic development at the Ecuadorian think tank Libre Razón.