Almost two years after the coup d’état in Bolivia against Evo Morales, there is more evidence confirming the participation of foreign actors and interests in the coup’s execution.
Recently, recordings of calls released by The Intercept between Luis Fernando López, who was appointed as Minister of Defense during the de facto government of Jeanine Áñez, and Joe Pereira, a former U.S. Army civilian administrator sent to Bolivia and identified as the organizer of a mission with mercenaries in the South American country, once again reveal the interference of the United States in the agenda of regime change in the region.
In another recording, Pereira identifies a translator as “Cyber Rambo,” the nickname of Luis Suarez, a former Bolivian U.S. Army sergeant known for creating an algorithm that boosted anti-Morales tweets during the 2019 political crisis.
Although Suarez denied contact with Lopez and Pereira, he said that after being contacted by The Intercept he found a previously unread and unanswered message from Pereira, which he claimed “Pereira may have been trying to trick Lopez into believing he was involved.”
According to journalists Laurence Blair and Ryan Grim, because of references to Luis Arce’s victory in Bolivia, the calls could have been made before Nov. 5, when Lopez fled to Brazil three days before the new president’s inauguration.
“The recording begins in the middle of the conversation, with the man identified as Lopez saying: ‘the armament and other military equipment are obviously very important to reinforce what we are doing’,” the newspaper reports. It also states that he was also coordinating these actions with the police authorities.
The planning of these armed actions followed the rumor that the newly elected government wanted to replace the Bolivian armed forces and police with Cuban and Venezuelan militias.
“That is the key point. They [the police and armed forces] are going to allow Bolivia to rise up again and block an Arce government. That is the reality.”
Because of these supposed political decisions to be taken by the new Bolivian government, a “preventive” coup d’état against Arce was being planned. In the call, López indicated that it would be the commander of the armed forces who would “initiate the military operation”.
In the call López emphasizes that Sergio Orellana, the highest ranking general appointed by Áñez, was working on such coup plans. Journalists were unable to contact Orellana and he is believed to have fled Bolivia for Colombia in November.
“We have been working on this all week,” Lopez stresses in the call, while assuring that by that time they had the armed force for the coup cause. However, he also points out it is not 100% because there are also military that would not bend to those plans. “It is likely that some military would support ‘the winning horse’ (Arce) because he won the elections”, but he admits that they are “very few”.
“I have been working for 11 months so that the Armed Forces have dignity, have morals, are tested and think of the homeland above all else. I guarantee you that this will not fail,” says Áñez’s defense minister about the control of the armed forces by a military and political class.
On the plans that were underway in the context of the takeover, Evo Morales, who was still in exile, claimed that Orellana had been trying to persuade senior officers to establish a military junta, using the argument that Arce planned to replace the armed forces with militias. Morales suggested that a general had overruled Orellana and quickly cancelled a mobilization of elite troops. These claims by Morales were ignored at the time by the international media.
Retired general and head of army operations until 2010, Tomás Peña y Lillo, told The Intercept that the plot was nothing more than wishful thinking. “I heard rumors about it, but nothing concrete, nothing about [troop] movements,” he said.
The retired military officer affirmed that there are Bolivian military figures who are still really worried about the fact that the MAS is harboring plans to marginalize the army by arming its own supporters, which shows the danger that the new administration represents for the military imaginary of the South American country and the tension that could ensue in case measures are taken, which do not necessarily have to do with the creation of militias, but the intervention of the Executive in the military structure. “Obviously they would like to do it, they could try. But the Constitution does not allow it. And the army will abide by the constitution,” added the military officer.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the coup d’état against President-elect Evo Morales in 2019 was consolidated with the intervention of the military high command, which bowed to the coup agenda orchestrated by the United States and its satellites.
Journalists report that the relationship between Evo Morales and the Bolivian armed forces deteriorated during his 14 years in office, even though the former president had been part of their ranks. The friction with the military high command, most of whom were trained in the United States, reached the point of total fracture.
The rapprochement with the left, the praise for Ernesto “Che” Guevara – assassinated in Bolivia with CIA support – and the creation of an “anti-imperialist” military academy are approaches that evidently went against the tradition of training under U.S. security policies.
“Complaints about salaries were also shared by the police. Their refusal to quell protests in the wake of the controversial 2019 elections was instrumental in forcing Bolivia’s longest-serving president into exile, first in Mexico and then in neighboring Argentina,” The Intercept reports.
Understanding this formative logic, it is clear that Morales and MAS represented an anomaly to which there was no going back. For this reason, some senior military commanders not only participated in the coup d’état in 2019, but would do everything possible to remove MAS from the political scene.
That is why – the media reports – the high-ranking generals were deliberating on how to prevent the MAS from returning to power under Arce a year later, ignoring the result of the 2020 elections, contravening the Constitution and, above all, ignoring the will of the vast majority of Bolivians who brought the MAS back to power.
“My work at this moment is focused on avoiding the annihilation of my country and the arrival of Venezuelan, Cuban and Iranian troops”, remarked López during his call with Pereira. Similarly, in an October 2020 speech on the anniversary of Guevara’s assassination, Lopez similarly brought out his paranoia by vowing that foreign invaders of any nationality – Cuban, Venezuelan or Argentine – would meet their death on Bolivian territory.
“The claim that Cuban, Venezuelan and Iranian agents have successfully infiltrated governments, leftist parties and protest movements across Latin America has become a frequent right-wing talking point throughout the region in recent years, but – outside of Venezuela itself – has little concrete evidence to back it up,” the digital magazine argues.
Indeed, in January 2020, while in exile in Buenos Aires, Morales said he would try to organize “armed militias of the people”, following the Venezuelan model, if he returned to his country, although he later claimed he was referring to “a tradition of local self-defense patrols in Andean communities”.
Bolivian political scientist and professor at Florida International University, Eduardo Gamarra, affirms that there was fear in the armed forces because they were afraid of reprisals from MAS if it came to power again, so he suggests that it was convenient for the military leadership that Arce was out of the government.
The plans to avoid the return of MAS
Attempts were made at all costs to get MAS back into the Bolivian political arena, including by pursuing its leader beyond the country’s borders. The Intercept reports that Pereira was also monitoring the whereabouts of Evo Morales. In another phone call, he speaks amicably with an older man, Manuel, who informs him that Morales has moved out of a temporary residence near an American school in the La Lucila neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
“What a pain. What a shame that our comrade Evo has left that place,” Pereira says. His interlocutor replies, “We’ll have to find out where he is. He has to be somewhere”.
The journalists affirm that during the 15-minute call, Pereira says that the request for weapons “is not a problem” and asks how many Hercules C-130s the Minister of Defense has. Lopez’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. At that point Pereira offers reassurance that he was also coordinating plans with police authorities and the high command.
Pereira says the aircraft are needed to pick up Southern Command personnel at Homestead Air Force Base in Miami. He also states that upon arrival at the base the mercenaries would already be hired, equipped and armed.
The translator details, “The troops would be picked up as private contractors” so that the U.S. would have no responsibility. “We are going to put all those people under fictitious contracts for Bolivian companies already operating in the country,” Pereira continues, with Lopez nodding at each point.
This shows that the military exchange between the two countries also served to hide the entry of mercenaries into the South American country.
“I can get up to 10,000 men without a problem (…) All the special forces. I can also bring about 350 that we call LEP, Law Enforcement Professionals, to guide the police. (…) With me [in Bolivia] I have a staff that can handle several different jobs. If there is anything else I need, I will have them fly undercover, as if they were photographers, as if they were shepherds, as if they were doctors, as if they were tourists,” Pereira promises.
One of the U.S.-based recruiters commissioned by Pereira to organize these men later told The Intercept that the 10,000 figure was absurd. “You couldn’t get 10,000 people even if Blackwater were to get back up and running and go back into Iraq,2 David Shearman said in June.
But not only was that absurd, so was Pereira’s claim that this cohort of mercenaries would be welcomed with open arms by Bolivians, including the more than 3 million who voted for MAS.
According to Joe Pereira, the organization of the plan inside Bolivia would be in charge of Arturo Murillo, then Minister of the Interior and head of the police. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the 2020 elections, Murillo repeatedly warned in public and in private that MAS was planning an armed insurrection if it lost the vote. In October, he traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. diplomats, the OAS and the White House, where he said issues of “national security” and “threats” to the elections were discussed.
“The United States can help in many things,” Murillo said, and then confirmed that Bolivia was buying weapons to “defend democracy” at “any price.” In May 2020, he bragged about meeting with the CIA, claiming that Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Trump administration’s point man for Latin American affairs, had “opened many doors” for them.
What is clear from these taped conversations is that the U.S. is meant to be stripped of any direct link to the execution of the coup plan.
“If they see us as mercenaries or they see us as [a] hired state or however they want to see us, it matters little to me as long as they can’t link us to the direct [involvement] of the Special Forces, the Army or the Air Force,” Pereira says.
The journalists argue that Pereira’s promises of an armed operation in Bolivia are exaggerated and fanciful. However, this does not detract from the veracity of the plan of wanting to introduce mercenaries on the eve of the 2020 elections. “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 Oct. 18.”
In emails shared before the election with The Intercept by a retired security contractor – whose name was not disclosed – Pereira is named as one of the three organizers of the mission. The other two, David Shearman and Joe Milligan, have extensive experience in counterinsurgency and covert operations overseas.
“According to the email, the deployment was delayed due to the postponement of the July 23 election from Sept. 6 to Oct. 18. ‘We are still on track to get it done early enough to do the train-and-gear thing,'” Milligan continues, the magazine reports.
Recipients of the email were 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 metal company. Between 2006 and 2012, he worked on counterinsurgency and bomb disposal operations in Afghanistan with the private military company MPRI, and trained Iraqi police with Blackwater, famous for perpetrating a massacre of civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
Milligan initially denied knowledge of the plan, but later acknowledged that the emails were authentic and that Pereira, who organized the campaign, had contacted him through a mutual network.
For his part, Shearman, the other contact on the list, is described as a former U.S. Marine who has worked around the world in a variety of “covert operations,” including protecting U.S. officials in Iraq and South America.
According to the plans, the groups will move in a staggered fashion as the schedule was being met.
“You will all receive briefings as we travel, and you will get a broader view of the operation, the mission, and the concerns/sensitivities of the operation,” Shearman says.
- He arrived in Bolivia about a decade ago as a member of a Baptist church in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, the cradle of the anti-Evo coup, and they said he was believed to be a former soldier and pastor working in the oil industry.
- For a time, he ran the Bridge 2 Life Foundation, which claims to take pastors, doctors and teachers to work throughout Latin America and the Middle East.
- A 2014 advertisement for a motivational talk by Pereira describes him as a “former Special Forces Army officer” and an “ex-Marine.” Public documentation refers to him as a civilian contractor.
- According to an internal newsletter, he had previously worked as a reserve affairs mobilization planner at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina – an Army training center for U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM – in 1999. Another publication describes him as a civilian contractor in the same role in 2002.
- Fraud subpoena in 2016.
- Deceptive business practices.
- Fictitious contracts to introduce foreign mercenaries into Bolivia “covertly” under the guise of shepherds, doctors and tourists.
Despite this fraud record, it is undeniable that Pereira had contact with numerous high-ranking military personnel, active and retired, as well as private security contractors (mercenaries). His location is currently unknown.
The Intercept speculates that the coup failed because of disagreements between Defense Minister Lopez and Murillo over control of the police.
“The recordings suggest that López was not only involved, but that the conspirators had offered him the chance to become president in Arce’s place.”
The outcome we already know and Murillo and Lopez had to flee together across the border to Brazil on November 5. They escaped in a Bolivian Air Force plane shortly before accusations of corruption were made against them.
“They are suspected of receiving bribes after a Florida-based private security firm, Bravo Tactical Solutions, won a contract to supply tear gas to Bolivian security forces at very high prices,” reporters refer.
However, Murillo did not find refuge outside the country and on May 26 of this year the FBI announced that it had arrested him on charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering related to the tear gas case. That same day, Interior Minister Arce indicated that he would also request López’s extradition from Brazil in connection with the case.
From all that has been exposed in this report, two unavoidable realities remain. On the one hand, the interventionism of the United States through the outsourcing of the war by means of mercenary contracts, via officials of the de facto government of Añez and, on the other hand, the fissures that could exist between the Executive and the military power once the coup d’état plans were detected.
Translation by Internationalist 360°