Bolivian ex-minister of defense plotted a second coup using U.S. mercenaries

Former Minister of Defense Luis Fernando López, right, during the promotion ceremony for high ranking officers of Bolivian Armed Forces at Gran Cuartel de Miraflores on July 20, 2020, in La Paz. Photo: Gaston Brito/Getty Images

By Laurence Blair & Ryan Grim, The Intercept, June 21, 2021

A TOP OFFICIAL in the outgoing Bolivian government plotted to deploy hundreds of mercenaries from the United States to overturn the results of the South American country’s October 2020 election, according to documents and audio recordings of telephone calls obtained by The Intercept.

The aim of the mercenary recruitment was to forcibly block Luis Arce from taking up the presidency for Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS, the party of former Bolivian President Evo Morales. The plot continued even though Arce, a protégé of Morales, trounced a crowded field, winning 55 percent of first-round votes and eliminating the need for a runoff election.

In one of the leaked recordings, a person identified as the Bolivian minister of defense said he was “working to avoid the annihilation of my country.” The armed forces and the people needed to “rise up,” he added, “and block an Arce administration. … The next 72 hours are crucial.”

Disagreements between ministers and divisions within the armed forces, strained under the weight of Arce’s convincing victory on October 18, 2020, appear to have undermined the plan. It was never executed, and several top officials of the outgoing government have either fled Bolivia or been arrested on separate charges linked to corruption and their alleged role in the 2019 coup.

For over a year prior, Bolivia had been plunged into a rolling crisis. In October 2019, when Morales was on the ballot for a controversial fourth term, the opposition accused him of rigging the election, and the Organization of American States, or OAS, quickly echoed the charge. Amid widespread protests, a police mutiny, and pressure from the army, Morales was forced to step down and flee the country. Jeanine Áñez, a little-known evangelical senator, was hastily sworn in as caretaker president, promising to hold new elections within weeks.

Instead, she reoriented the government away from Morales’s leftist approach and toward Donald Trump’s White House, adopted a strident Christian tone in contrast to Morales’s championing of Indigenous Andean culture, and issued a decree preemptively shielding soldiers from prosecution. The armed forces soon afterward carried out multiple massacres while suppressing opposition to the new interim government.

Prosecutors and gangs persecuted MAS supporters in the courts and the streets. After 14 years of growth under Morales, thousands were dragged back into poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic — which Áñez repeatedly cited as a reason to postpone a rerun of the vote. Amid mass demonstrations demanding new elections, Áñez finally allowed the balloting last fall. She also ran for president herself, only to drop out of the race after polls placed her a distant fourth.

Arce’s eventual victory last fall, in a closely scrutinized election, was a stunning rejection of the right-wing shift overseen by Áñez. The long-serving economy minister under Morales, Arce also distanced himself from his former boss. “We have recovered democracy,” Arce told supporters, vowing to work to stabilize and unify the country.

The Bolivian right wing, however, was not ready to relinquish power. The call with Áñez’s defense minister, in which the speakers suggest several other top officials are likely to be on board, sketches a coup plot even more flagrant than the one in October 2019.

Several of the plotters discussed flying hundreds of foreign mercenaries into Bolivia from a U.S. military base outside Miami. These would join forces with elite Bolivian military units, renegade police squadrons, and vigilante mobs in a desperate bid to keep the country’s largest political movement from returning to power.

The phone calls, along with leaked emails discussing a mass deployment of hired guns to coincide with the elections, reveal how Bolivia could have seen fresh bloodshed late last year.

Two U.S. military sources confirmed that the Special Operations commands that they work for had gotten wind of the Bolivia coup plot. But nothing ever came of it, they told The Intercept. One special ops source added, “No one really took them seriously as far as I know.”

 

“The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces”

The longest of the recordings is a 15-minute phone call with a person The Intercept has identified as Luis Fernando López, a former paratrooper and businessman appointed defense minister by Áñez in November 2019. López, who is referred to in the call as “Mr. Minister,” can be identified through references to his work as minister with the armed forces, and by comparing the voice of the relevant speaker and claims he makes in the recording to his publicly available speeches.

The other main participant appears to be Joe Pereira, a former civilian administrator with the U.S. Army who was based in Bolivia at the time. Pereira, who has previously boasted of links to U.S. special forces and been held in a Bolivian jail awaiting trial on fraud charges, is identifiable by references to the use of a company that he has directed, as well as the leaked text of emails that describe him as organizing a mission involving mercenaries in Bolivia. Two of the people included in the emails confirmed to The Intercept that the emails are authentic and that Pereira was the lead organizer. An ex-employee of Pereira’s who listened to the audio said that he had no doubt that the voice on the recordings was his former boss. Members of Pereira’s church said the same.

In a separate recording, Pereira identifies his translator as “Cyber Rambo,” while in a later phone call he is referred to directly as “Luis.” “Cyber Rambo” is a nickname given to Luis Suárez, a Bolivian American former U.S. Army sergeant known for creating an algorithm that boosted anti-Morales tweets during the 2019 political crisis. Reached for comment by The Intercept, Suárez denied having been in contact with López and Pereira or having any involvement in the coup plot. He said that after he was contacted by The Intercept in June, he found a previously unread and unanswered message from Pereira. Suárez speculated that Pereira could have been trying to fool López into believing he was involved. López did not respond to questions sent via his lawyer, who said his client did not want to speak to the press and was seeking asylum abroad. Pereira could not be reached for comment via telephone and did not respond to questions emailed in October or May.

References to Arce’s election win indicate the call took place after October 18, and it appears to have been made before November 5, when López fled Bolivia for neighboring Brazil — three days before Arce’s inauguration.

The recording begins mid-conversation, with the man identified as López saying, “armaments and other military equipment are obviously highly important to reinforce what we are doing.”

 

“Following the phone call I’m having with you, I’m going to do the same to coordinate with the police authorities.”

“The military high command is already in preliminary talks,” he continues. “The struggle, the rallying cry, is that they [MAS] want to replace the Bolivian armed forces and the police with militias, Cubans, and Venezuelans. That is the key point. They [the police and armed forces] are going to allow Bolivia to rise up again and block an Arce administration. That’s the reality.”

López further suggests that the commander of the armed forces is “already” mulling over a preemptive coup d’état and will be the one who “initiates the military operation.”

“I want to emphasize the following. The commander of the armed forces is working on all of this,” López says. The top general appointed by Áñez was Sergio Orellana. Believed to have fled Bolivia for Colombia in November, he could not be reached for comment.

“We’ve been working on this all week,” López emphasizes. “I can guarantee you that right now we have a united armed forces — not 100 percent, because there are obviously blues,” he stipulates, in apparent reference to the official color of the MAS. Some military officers are likely to back “the winning horse [Arce] because he won the election,” he admits, but insists that they are “very few.”

“I guarantee you that 95, 98 percent are super patriotic and don’t want to disappear,” he concludes. “I’ve been working for 11 months to ensure that the armed forces have dignity, have morale, are tried and tested, and think of the fatherland above all. I guarantee you that this won’t fail.”

A day before Arce’s inauguration, Morales — at that point still in exile in Buenos Aires — claimed that Orellana had been trying to persuade senior officers to establish a “military junta,” using the rationale that Arce planned to replace the armed forces with militias. Morales suggested that a pro-MAS general had overruled Orellana — and that although orders had been given to mobilize elite troops, these had quickly been canceled. At the time, international media largely ignored Morales’s claim.

“I heard rumors to the effect, but nothing concrete, nothing about [troop] movements,” said Tomás Peña y Lillo, a retired general and army chief of operations until 2010, when asked about the plot by The Intercept. “I imagine that it was nothing more than a wish.”

Yet Bolivian military figures remain genuinely concerned that MAS harbors designs of sidelining the army by arming its own supporters, Peña y Lillo argued. “This is the intention of the [Arce] government,” he added. “They would obviously like to do that, they might try. But the constitution doesn’t allow it. And the army will abide by the constitution.”

 

“Armed Militias of the People”

During his 14 years in power, a cordial relationship between Morales — himself a conscript as a young man — and Bolivia’s armed forces, much of whose senior command was trained by the United States, deteriorated into an open rift.

His praise for Ernesto “Che” Guevara — who was captured and killed in Bolivia with CIA support in 1967 — and the creation of an “anti-imperialist” military academy angered many soldiers. Gripes about pay were also shared by the police. Their refusal to quell protests in the wake of the contested 2019 vote was pivotal in forcing Bolivia’s longest-serving president into exile, first in Mexico, then in neighboring Argentina.

But the suggestion that top generals were deliberating about how to block the MAS from returning to power under Arce a year later — disregarding the 2020 election result and contravening the constitution — indicates that distrust of the country’s dominant popular movement among some senior military figures has strayed into paranoia.

In his call with Pereira, López stressed, “My work right now is focused on avoiding the annihilation of my country and the arrival of Venezuelan and Cuban troops, and from Iran.” In a speech given in October 2020 to mark the anniversary of Guevara’s killing, López similarly vowed that foreign invaders “of any nationality, Cubans, Venezuelans or Argentines … will find death in our territory.”

The claim that Cuban, Venezuelan, and Iranian operatives have successfully infiltrated governments, left-wing parties, and protest movements across Latin America has become a frequent right-wing talking point across the region in recent years, but — outside of Venezuela itself — has little concrete evidence to back it up.

In January 2020, while in exile in Buenos Aires, Morales told MAS supporters that if he returned to Bolivia, he would seek to organize “armed militias of the people” along Venezuelan lines. His rivals alleged that his comments betrayed plans for a pro-MAS paramilitary force. Morales subsequently claimed that he was referring to a tradition of local self-defense patrols in Andean communities.

Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political scientist and professor at Florida International University, suggested a simpler reason why the generals who helped topple Morales might have wanted to keep Arce out of power. “Was there unrest in the armed forces? Were they worried? Yes,” Gamarra said. “They were rightly concerned there was going to be a major purge. The MAS was going to be furious.”

Pereira was also monitoring the former MAS leader’s whereabouts. In another phone call, he speaks amicably with an older man, Manuel, who informs him that Morales has moved from a temporary residence near an American school in the La Lucila suburb of Buenos Aires.

“What a pain. What a pain our buddy Evo has … gone from that place,” says Pereira.

“We’ll have to find out where he is,” replies Manuel. “He’s got to be somewhere.”

 

“I Can Get Up to 10,000 Men With No Problem”

During the 15-minute call, Pereira says that the request for weapons is “not a problem” and asks how many Hercules C-130 aircraft the defense minister has available. López’s response: There are only three C-130s in all of Bolivia, and he only has control of one, while the national police have two. Pereira reassures him, “Following the phone call I’m having with you, I’m going to do the same to coordinate with the police authorities. With high command.”

 

“We have a lot of moving players, a lot of moving parts.”

The aircraft, Pereira says, are needed “to pick up personnel in Southern Command in Homestead Air Force Base in Miami.”

“By the time the C-130s get inbound, I’ll have them contracted, I’ll have them geared up, and … all their weapons ready,” he adds.

The translator further spells out the arrangement: The troops will be collected “in such a way as if they were private contractors, under no representation of the American state.”

“We are going to put all those people under shell contracts for Bolivian companies operating already in-country,” Pereira continues, with López agreeing on each point.

“I will have them fly in as undercover, like if they were photographers, they were pastors, they were medics, they were tourists.”

“I can get up to 10,000 men with no problem. I don’t think we need 10,000,” he stipulates. “All special forces. I can also bring about 350 what we call LEPs, Law Enforcement Professionals, to guide the police. … With me [in Bolivia] I have a staff of personnel that can handle various different jobs. … If there’s something else I need, I will have them fly in as undercover, like if they were photographers, they were pastors, they were medics, they were tourists.”

David Shearman, one of the U.S.-based recruiters Pereira had asked to organize those men, later told The Intercept that the 10,000 number was absurd. “You couldn’t get 10,000 people even if Blackwater was back in business and going back to Iraq,” Shearman told The Intercept in June.

Pereira, in the audio, suggests that this cohort of mercenaries will be welcomed with open arms by Bolivians — 3.2 million of whom had voted to return the MAS to power just days previously. “We have done a lot of infiltration. … They are not going to go and try to persuade people to follow the MAS. More people want liberty for your country.”

Pereira adds that he will need to talk with Arturo Murillo, then the interior minister and responsible for the police, “so he is not making mistakes, being scared.” In the weeks before the 2020 election, Murillo repeatedly warned in public and private that the MAS was planning an armed insurrection if it lost the vote. In October, Murillo traveled to Washington, D.C., for meetings with U.S. diplomats, the OAS, and the White House, where he said that matters of “national security” and “threats” to the elections were discussed. At the time, Murillo told the press that “the United States can help with many things,” later confirming that Bolivia was buying weapons in order to “defend democracy” at “any price.” In May 2020, he boasted of having met with the CIA, claiming that Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Trump administration’s point person on Latin American affairs, had “opened many doors for us.” Murillo did not respond to requests for comment made by The Intercept in October.

But Pereira, in the call, maintains that there should be no trace of U.S. involvement. “Whether they see us as mercenaries or they see us as [a] contract state or however they want to look at us, I could care less as long as they cannot tie us into direct Special Forces, Army, or Air Force [involvement],” he says.

The translator asks the minister a question directly “as a Bolivian.” How ready “are all of you,” he asks, “to make this work? Are you ready to carry out psychological operations, are you ready to manipulate information in the same way as the MAS?” The response is unequivocal: “One hundred percent.”

 

“I really have no clue about that,” Suárez told The Intercept, stipulating that he was now a software engineer based in Texas but not involved in cybersecurity or government-related work.

“I had no intention to prevent Arce from taking power,” Suárez said, “I think he won the election fair and square and not like Evo Morales with fraud.”

 

“Come and Help Us”

Another call entirely in Spanish, which Pereira appears to have held after his conversation with the minister, indicates that Pereira may have exaggerated the level of military support for the planned coup.

“Last night I was up until two in the morning, almost 2:30, [with] intelligence reports, counterintelligence … speaking of rumors, maneuvers, and strategies,” Pereira complains to the recipient, who is unidentified. “It’s very worrying. … People are going from left to right, right to left, as they please. … They’re afraid,” he surmises, adding that bribes, self-interest, and even social media are affecting soldiers’ loyalties.

“We’re looking for the weapons, I already have all the information you asked me for. We already know who we can count on,” Pereira’s interlocutor reassures him, mentioning a police colonel who “wants nothing to do with the MAS,” is “100 percent with us,” and “has lots of people who back him.”

“They are tired of their bosses getting everything while they expose themselves to the bullets for nothing. There are strategic people in each unit who are completely for us,” he explains.

Pereira singles out the need to secure the backing of special forces based at the Condors paratrooper academy and Bolivia’s elite Rangers regiments.

“We need to look at everything we talked about several months ago,” Pereira says on the call. “We spoke about the action plan, [the] case of demonstrating force, of taking strategic places. I think that with what we have now, we’re in a much better position, in that we won’t have to confront Bolivian troops. We will have to show efficiency, seriousness, manpower, and once they see it for themselves, I think they will invite us inside and say ‘Come and help us.’”

 

“Things Are Moving Forward”

Pereira’s promises to bring in planeloads of guns-for-hire to aid the insurrection were likely overblown. But evidence seen by The Intercept suggests that plans to deploy hundreds of mercenaries, including former U.S. service members, to coincide with the election were well advanced in the weeks leading up to October 18.

In the text of emails shared before the vote with The Intercept by a retired security contractor — who asked not to be named because he feared retaliation — Pereira is named as one of three organizers of the mission. The other two, David Shearman and Joe Milligan, have extensive experience in overseas counterinsurgency and covert operations.

The first message, which is written by Milligan and whose recipients are described as being on the “LEP/Medic email chain,” indicates that at least 250 contractors, including Law Enforcement Professionals and medics, have signed up for “the Bolivia project.” It stipulates those who have “put in for the Red Team” will be contacted separately. In the call between López and Pereira, the translator refers to Pereira with the codename “Red.”

According to the email, the deployment was delayed due to the July 23 postponement of elections, from September 6 to October 18. “We are still on track to get you in early enough to do the train up and gear issue,” Milligan continues.

“This project is very sensitive right now,” Milligan cautions. “I have only put it out on a few Facebook sites that I know LEP’s and the Medics are on and some police pages. So, let’s keep this secure as possible. There is a lot of moving parts to this and we don’t want to jam up the other guys that are working on the ground to make this happen.”

Recipients of the email are asked to call a number registered to Milligan, a licensed gun dealer in Dallas, Texas. A LinkedIn page describes Milligan as a police and military trainer and head of security for a Dallas scrap metals company. Between 2006 and 2012, he worked on counterinsurgency and bomb-disposal operations in Afghanistan with private military firm MPRI, and trained Iraqi police with Blackwater, notorious for perpetrating a massacre of civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

Reached by telephone on the given number before the election, Milligan denied any knowledge of the operation, saying first that he was a truck driver, then that he worked at a scrap metals firm. “It must be another Joe Milligan, there are several on Facebook,” he added, before hanging up. Reached again in June, he acknowledged that the emails were authentic, and that Pereira, organizing the effort, had reached out through a mutual network. He maintained that he had no specific knowledge of what Pereira was planning in Bolivia.

“I really don’t put much stock in what people say to me until I see a paycheck or airplane ticket. I’ve worked overseas for years, so I don’t even worry about what they think they’re going to do or what they’re talking about until it actually materializes with a paycheck,” he said.

Shearman, the other listed contact, describes himself in an online biography as a former U.S. Marine who has worked “around the world” on a variety of “covert operations,” including protecting U.S. officials in Iraq and South America. In a second email, Shearman’s name, email, phone number, and blog — named Viper One Six after his military call sign in Afghanistan — are appended in the form of a signature.

“Things are moving forward. We continue to seek more interested professionals with tenured law enforcement experience and who are interested in this type of unique mission,” Shearman’s message begins. He proceeds to ask interested recipients to email a nondisclosure agreement to Pereira to receive further instructions, and to “Think low-profile … Jeans, casual pants, long and short sleeve shirts capable of concealed carry.”

“If you have a pilot’s license, the company will pay all fees regarding renewals, etc. for you while you are down there. School up and Guerilla Group – MSA, the main foe down there,” Shearman adds, potentially scrambling the abbreviation for MAS. “Our program is adding to an existing program and our program is still being stood up.”

The emails hint that the project is politically sensitive. “Updated timeline appears to be late September into early October. The date revolves around politics there. Groups will move staggered and you will be advised of your movement group and more information on travel will follow as you proceed in the process,” Shearman writes. “You all will be getting briefings when we travel, and you will get a more enhanced view of the operation, mission, and the concerns/sensitivity of it.”

Shearman concludes by promising that an “HQ South” will handle all “company in-processing, equipment issue, and range quals” — referring to firearms certificates — and offer a “full medical/dental facility.” It remains unclear whether the group had the use of a new or preexisting base in Bolivia or not.

Reached by telephone before the election, Shearman said he was retired and denied being involved in any project in Bolivia. Warning that handling the leaked messages could be illegal, he said: “If a person were to release sensitive documents that may be a serious legal liability for any individual involved.”

In June, Shearman acknowledged he had sent the emails, and explained that Pereira had reached out to him for help with recruitment and administration for what he had understood to be a legitimate police-training project. “Unfortunately, if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have helped them out, but those emails seem to paint a picture of some fantastical thing, and so I can see the intrigue from the outside looking in,” he said, adding that the contents of the emails had largely been provided by Pereira. “A lot of that stuff was just repeated from Joe.”

Shearman also said he wasn’t paid for the work, and he hasn’t heard from Pereira in months. He said Pereira told him the project involved “work with the Bolivian government to provide law enforcement training — training of their law enforcement agencies down there in regular police tactics. … That’s the extent of what I know and the extent of what the recruitment effort was. Anything beyond that, I don’t have any clue because I was not privy to any of that.”

 

“SOCOM Will Never Fail Me”

Pereira arrived in Bolivia roughly a decade ago. Members of a Baptist church in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, a hotbed of opposition to Morales, said he was believed to be an ex-soldier and pastor working in the oil industry. For a while, he ran Bridge 2 Life Foundation, which claims to bring pastors, doctors, and teachers to work across Latin America and the Middle East. A 2014 advertisement for a motivational talk by Pereira describes him as an “ex-Army Officer of the Special Forces” and an “ex-marine,” though public documentation refers to him as a civilian contractor. According to an internal bulletin, he had previously worked as a reserve affairs mobilization planner at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina — an Army training center for United States Special Operations Command, or SOCOM — in 1999. Another publication describes him as a civilian contractor in the same role in 2002.

A Facebook page for Pereira lists him as “President Oil & Gas at China National Group” from March 2017 onward. Headquartered in Santa Cruz, the firm’s now-inactive Facebook page describes it as occupying a “platform” left by a previous company working with Chinese investors.

In October 2020, China National Group’s offices in central Santa Cruz were empty and up for rent. An official registry showed the firm had officially closed before the end of March 2019. Yet the leaked emails from September 2020 suffix Pereira’s email address with the letters “cng,” and the contractors are asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement labeled “CNG-NDA.”

A judicial summons from November 2016 outlines fraud charges against Pereira and his wife. A court ruling from July 2019 indicates Pereira was in pretrial detention as of November 5, 2018, and that a police colonel had threatened to transfer him to a different cell block unless Pereira returned him $80,000. It is not known whether the case was pursued or Pereira was convicted or acquitted.

The suggestion of deceptive business practices tallies with his promises to López that he could use “shell contracts” to bring foreign mercenaries into Bolivia “undercover” in the guise of pastors, doctors, and tourists.

Pereira’s first recorded Facebook “check-in” was in Santa Cruz on November 16, 2019: six days after Morales fled the country and Añez took power. In February 2020, he posted screenshots of a WhatsApp conversation to Facebook, claiming to be in charge of troops on a base in Bolivia, and joking — in the context of a lost bet on the Super Bowl — that “SOCOM will never fail me.”

Among Pereira’s 535 Facebook friends are dozens of current and former U.S. military personnel and private security contractors. Phone calls to a number for the China National Group were unanswered. Pereira did not respond to emailed questions. His current location is unknown.

 

“Alive, Free, or as President of Bolivia”

A further pair of recorded conversations reviewed by The Intercept suggest that disagreements between defense minister López and Murillo — as interior minister, ultimately in control of the police — may have derailed the coup. They appear to have taken place soon before López fled the country on November 5. The recordings suggest that López was not only involved, but also that the plotters had dangled the prospect of his becoming president instead of Arce.

A woman who refers to herself as a relative of López’s says in one call that he is under pressure “not to unmask Murillo’s plan,” referring to the interior minister. “It seems like he’s afraid, he says even he doesn’t know what he’s going to do,” she adds.

“So the issue is simple,” responds the speaker, who is called by Suárez’s first name, Luis, the same first name as the “Cyber Rambo” who Pereira said was translating on the call between and López. “It’s Murillo that’s putting an obstacle in our way.” The woman responds, “Exactly, he says that they’re threatening him.”

Far from the bravado of some days prior, the former paratrooper appears to have gone to ground. “Tell López’s mother,” the speaker continues, “that probably his only option of getting out of this alive, free, or as president of Bolivia is for him to pick up our call. … Her son is already in a lot of danger,” he adds, “I have to talk with him, and he has to stop committing errors.”

In a subsequent recording, Pereira concludes: “He’s shitting in his pants right now.”

In the event, the coup never materialized, and the threat to Bolivian democracy appears to have subsided. Arce was sworn in as president of Bolivia on November 8, 2020, a day after most mainstream media outlets called the U.S. presidential election for Joe Biden. Morales returned to Bolivia soon afterward and has appeared at MAS party rallies, but has not taken a formal government post. Arce fired the military commanders Áñez promoted, including Orellana, and replaced them with officers believed to be more loyal.

Murillo and López fled together across the border with Brazil on November 5 with the help of a Bolivian Air Force plane, shortly before corruption allegations were leveled against them. They are suspected of having received bribes after a Florida-based private security company, Bravo Tactical Solutions, secured a contract to supply Bolivia’s security forces with tear gas at vastly inflated prices.

Murillo, however, found no refuge outside the country. On May 26 of this year, the FBI announced it had arrested him on charges of conspiring to commit money-laundering connected to the tear gas case. The same day, Arce’s interior minister indicated he would also seek López’s extradition from Brazil in connection with the case. López has denied wrongdoing, tweeting last month that “the Bolivian people know I worked tirelessly for the country, in accordance with the constitution.”

Orellana, who fled to Colombia in November, has arrest warrants out against him for his role in the ouster of Morales and the subsequent killing of protesters by troops. In March, Áñez herself was arrested for her involvement in the 2019 coup. She insists her caretaker presidency was constitutional.

But there are ongoing rumblings of disquiet among the military. Peña y Lillo, the retired general, said that by jailing military officers “like common criminals,” the Arce administration was seeking to “terrify and take vengeance on the armed forces” for their role in unseating Morales. He described the 2019 coup as a constitutional intervention to “defend society.”

 

“There Would Have Been So Much Bloodletting”

Abortive coups often appear slapdash in hindsight, but such plots don’t need to be perfectly executed to be successful. The U.S. government notoriously overthrew democratically elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, both times in shoestring operations that ended up victorious amid the resulting chaos. The 1954 Guatemala coup succeeded because the local military correctly perceived the U.S. was behind it.

But the plot Pereira was selling does not appear to have had the backing of the U.S. government. It more closely resembles the May 2020 efforts of Silvercorp USA, a Florida-based private military company that launched a botched coup attempt against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Eight participants were killed, and 17 were captured. Among those now in jail in Venezuela is the former Green Beret leading the operation, who later claimed that it was authorized by Donald Trump’s White House. The Trump administration denied involvement.

“These [are] yahoos punching above their weight trying to get rich quickly,” said Sean McFate, a professor of strategy at Georgetown University and former military contractor who reviewed the emails shared with The Intercept. “It’s just amateur hour. And we’ve seen a lot of that [recently].”

Gamarra, of Florida International University, argued that Pereira’s claims to have the support of the U.S. military were most likely false, but that they highlighted the problem of weak oversight of soldiers-turned-mercenaries around the world.

Such groups of soldiers of fortune became more dangerous after the Trump administration encouraged them to “freelance,” he added, referring to the alleged discreet endorsement of the White House for Silvercorp’s activities in Venezuela.

 

“Conspiracies … cause a lot of damage, especially in fragile places like Bolivia. All you need is one Pereira to mess things up.”

 

“These guys are a dime a dozen, they all think they’re generals. … They’re dangerous because of what they promise,” said Gamarra. “Conspiracies are generally just that, conspiracies, but they cause a lot of damage, especially in fragile places like Bolivia. All you need is one Pereira to mess things up.”

If the short-lived Bolivian operation were funded by the U.S. government, or enjoyed its “tacit or explicit approval,” it would show how deep into “reckless cowboy territory” the Trump administration’s Latin America policy had gone, said Adam Isaacson, director of the Defense Oversight program at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“It beggars belief that professional diplomats or military commanders would approve a half-baked mission like this,” Isaacson added.

“The last thing this region needs right now is bands of mercenaries paid by who knows whom trying to install their preferred leaders by force,” agreed Eric Farnsworth, a former U.S. diplomat and vice president of the Council of the Americas, who also reviewed the emails and agreed that the plot seemed well advanced. “It’s not democratic and it can’t be condoned.”

A grim example of what might have occurred unfolded in November 2019, when at least 19 demonstrators, mainly poor and Indigenous MAS supporters, were shot dead by Bolivian security forces under the oversight of Áñez, Murillo, López, and Orellana. Among those killed was Omar Calle Siles, 28, a keen soccer player who left behind a 5-year-old son.

“We cry every day,” said Omar’s sister, Angélica Calle Siles. “We haven’t been able to eat together for the past 17 months because we feel his absence at the table.”

“All we want is justice,” she added, “for the people who have destroyed so many humble families to pay, so my brother can rest in peace.”

Had the planned coup in 2020 gotten off the ground, Gamarra warned, “there would have been so much bloodletting in Bolivia.”

 

Jack Murphy contributed reporting. 

 

Posted June 21, 2021