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First arrest in case of Argentine arms smuggling to Bolivia during 2019 social unrest

A former senior official in Bolivia faces charges in an international case where former Argentine president Mauricio Macri stands accused of illegally sending military supplies to quell Bolivia's social unrest.

BUENOS AIRES (CN) — A court in Bolivia has ordered the first arrest in an investigation into illegal arms shipments from Argentina to Bolivia during the 2019 unrest that led to the resignation of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who fled to Mexico and later Argentina.

Authorities arrested Renzo Antelo Fernández, a former senior official of the Foreign Ministry of Bolivia, and charged him with forging an official letter to allow Argentina’s police tactical unit to enter Bolivia to deliver illicit military equipment, including tear gas, grenades, and bullets.

The shipment was delivered on Nov. 13, 2019, the day after Jeanine Áñez took over as president of Bolivia following the culmination of sustained social unrest and military pressure. Following the ensuring counterprotests by Morales' supporters, Áñez issued Decree 4078 on Nov. 15 that removed criminal liability for police and military personnel dealing with protesters.

“The personnel of the armed forces who participate in operations to restore internal order and public stability will be exempt from criminal liability when, in compliance with their constitutional functions, they acted in legitimate defense or state necessity, in observance of the principles of legality, absolute necessity, and proportionality," Article 3 of the decree says.

On the same day Áñez issued the decree, peasant and farmer protesters in the city of Sacaba attempted to cross a bridge blocked by a police cordon. Armed forces opened fire, killing nine people and injuring over 100 more.

Four days later and 220 miles away in the Senkata district of Bolivia’s second largest city El Alto, military and police officers fired on protesters who had created a blockade around a hydrocarbon plant. Ten people were killed and another 30 injured, including bystanders who were not part of the demonstrations.

Multiple international organizations, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), documented serious human rights violations.

An OHCHR report stated “the accounts of victims of injuries and witnesses in Sacaba and Senkata… indicate that security forces resorted to unnecessary or disproportionate use of force against protesters, in violation of applicable international norms and standards.”

The IACHR’s preliminary investigation found it was "appropriate to describe these events as massacres” based on what appeared to be “grave human rights violations.” The report went on to “emphatically condemns the Sacaba and Senkata massacres,” and said “the patterns of injuries that have been recorded point strongly to extrajudicial killing practices.”

Bolivia held new elections in October 2020 and Luis Arce, the leader of the Morales-aligned Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, became president.

Arce's government accused the administration of former Argentina president Mauricio Macri of supplying the arms, ammunition, and gas canisters that were used in the Sacaba and Senkata massacres. It claimed the shipment violated U.N. Resolution 55/255, which established a protocol against the illicit manufacturing and trafficking of firearms and ammunition.

Bolivia's foreign minister Rogelio Mayta cited a thank-you letter as evidence of the illicit shipment, written by Bolivian Air Force Chief General Jorge Gonzalo Terceros to the then-Argentine ambassador Normando Alvarez Garcia for the delivery of bullets, tear gas canisters and grenades.

The arms and ammunition were allegedly shared between the Bolivian police force and air force, who were in charge of security in both Sacaba and Senkata on the days of the massacres.

“Bolivia is facing a moment of deep polarization,” said Gustavo Bonifaz, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. Sustained protests, state violence under the Áñez administration, and the prosecution of its former members have further fueled social tensions.

“This dynamic has led to the prosecution, so far, of 91 opposition leaders who took part in the mobilizations of 2019 and the Áñez administration,” Bonifaz said.

They include former defense minister Luis Fernando Lopez and interior minister Arthur Murillo. “The latter is currently in jail in the U.S. and the former is in exile," Bonifaz said. “Both were accused of corruption related to a shipment of tear gas from Ecuador.”

Back in Argentina, the thank-you letter triggered a criminal investigation launched by prosecutor Carlos Navas Rial after the current justice minister Martín Soria security minister Sabina Frederic made a formal complaint.

The investigation is probing involvement by former President Macri, his aides, and his security minister Patricia Bullrich.

“The official documents found in recent weeks give an account of facts that reinforce what was duly denounced,” Frederic said in a brief. “The smuggling of weapons to Bolivia was decided and coordinated by Macri, who used the Casa Rosada [the presidential palace] to organize this shipment.”

In a public statement, Macri denied any involvement. “I want to flatly deny the veracity of those accusations and, at the same time, repudiate the letter that President Alberto Fernández sent to the Bolivian authorities expressing ‘pain and shame’ about the false facts in which they want to involve me," Macri said.

Macri also faces charges of illegally spying on the families of sailors who died after their submarine sank in 2017 in a separate criminal case. He denies the allegations but has been ordered by a judge not to leave the country.

Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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