LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A plan to stage a coup against Bolivia’s president was not what Gen. Tomás Peña y Lillo was expecting when he entered the military headquarters in La Paz last Wednesday.

The leader of Bolivia’s retired service members said he was surprised to get a call that morning from army chief Gen. Juan José Zúñiga with a request to report for talks about how to advocate for imprisoned soldiers.

It was a coveted meeting, so he rushed over to find Zúñiga surrounded by officers asking for their help in “defending democracy.” Peña y Lillo claims he demurred, but tanks were already rumbling out of the barracks toward the presidential palace.

“It’s a tragicomedy,” Peña y Lillo, now a fugitive wanted for his participation in the alleged coup attempt, told The Associated Press by phone from an undisclosed location.

Like many Bolivians, he said he struggled to piece the story together, recalling how “there had been a lot of talk in the military that (Bolivian President Luis) Arce would hand the government over to Zúñiga” as protests roiled the country over shortages of dollars and fuel.

The retired general’s comments mark another surreal turn in the nation’s efforts to establish the facts of what happened on June 26, when military forces stormed downtown La Paz, stunning the country and spinning off waves of rumors from the mundane to the absurd.

A week after the purported rebellion roiled the South American country that has seen no fewer than 190 coups since its independence in 1825, Bolivians who thought they’d seen it all say they’ve never been more confused.

“This is so strange, so unbelievable,” said Marcia Tiñini, a 58-year-old teacher in La Paz. “First I believed the government and felt solidarity, but now I don’t know what to say.”

When Zúñiga and his swarm of armored vehicles disappeared from the capital’s main plaza after the three-hour upheaval, President Arce hailed the retreat as a democratic victory. Bolivians rallied to denounce the attempted coup and, for a moment, it appeared the tumult might bring the polarized nation together.

But within hours, the conversation in Bolivia turned to whether a coup had occurred at all.

Before being hauled off to jail, Zúñiga claimed his mutiny was a hoax concocted by President Arce to deflect attention from a spiraling economy and a bitter political battle with his former mentor, ex-President Evo Morales. Arce strongly denies the allegations, which remain unsubstantiated.

Bolivians dissected the face-to-face confrontation between Arce and Zúñiga outside the presidential palace that triggered the general’s withdrawal, offering a variety of reasons for why the attempted coup appeared staged.

“It was a kind of theater,” said retired Gen. Brig. Omar Cordero Balderrama. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a military coup being broadcast live on television. With coups, everyone knows the first thing to be taken over is the media.”

Skeptical experts have also weighed in.

“Having had my own brief experience as head of state, I can tell you that you don’t just take an elevator down 16 floors to chat with the guy who moved tanks to your gates,” said Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, who briefly served as president of Bolivia in 2005-2006.

Many found it strange that the mutiny wrapped up so neatly after just a few hours. It struck them as suspicious that the chief of the armed forces, Gonzalo Vigabriel Sánchez, was nowhere to be seen as chaos consumed the capital, emerging only after Zúñiga’s sacking to attend a hasty swearing-in ceremony of new appointees where President Arce asked him to remain in his post.

“If it was a coup, the presidency would have purged the armed forces,” said Col. Jorge Santiesteban, a Bolivian security expert. “The president rewarded the commander-in-chief who didn’t do anything about a major insurrection committed by his subordinate.”

It was also odd that the rebellion was led by Zúñiga, a loyalist who owes his position and high rank to President Arce.

Photos of Arce and Zúñiga shooting hoops together just days before June 26 splattered across social media. As rumors swirled about their close friendship, senior Cabinet member María Nela Prada went on Bolivian TV, unprompted, to say the two are not brothers-in-law.

Fueling the skepticism is a deep distrust in Bolivian authorities, in part stemming from unresolved tensions over former President Morales’ 2019 ouster under military pressure that unleashed lethal crackdowns on protests by security forces.

“It was up to Arce to make reforms that would counter the impunity, but the president did the opposite,” said Juan Ramón Quintana, minister of the presidency under Morales. “He has deeply damaged military procedures and aggravated an institutional crisis.”

Following the June 26 events, former President Morales seized on the opportunity to discredit his rival, amplifying the claims against Arce. And in an ironic twist, Argentina’s libertarian President Javier Milei found himself agreeing with socialist Morales, accusing Arce of fabricating the coup attempt, citing undisclosed intelligence.

At a press conference late Wednesday, Government Minister Eduardo del Castillo presented further details about what he described as Zúñiga’s veritable, albeit shambolic, attempt to overthrow the government. He also claimed Zúñiga had sought to burnish his political credentials in recent weeks, touring the country and referring to himself as “planetary leader.”

At least 30 people have now been arrested in connection with last week’s plot, most of them in pre-trial detention or under house arrest. Accused officers have offered accounts that fueled even stranger conspiracy theories.

The former commander of the Bolivian Air Force, Gen. Marcelo Zegarra, told prosecutors that Zúñiga enjoyed support from three diplomatic missions in La Paz — the U.S, the European Union and, interestingly, Libya.

The north African country has no embassy in Bolivia. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday she had seen “false allegations” and wanted “to make sure it’s clear that the United States had no involvement in this.” The EU has not responded publicly.

Del Castillo said authorities hadn’t found evidence of foreign involvement.

Worn out by the fog of contradictory accounts and confusion, some Bolivians are throwing up their hands and tuning it all out.

In La Paz Tuesday, crowds converged over a hulking 380-kilogram (838-pound) mass of sliced pork and pickled carrots stuffed into a gigantic bun — Bolivia’s bid to clinch the world record for the biggest “sandwich de chola” ever made.

“Our roasted pork with its crunchy skin,” mused one attendee, Sofía Molina, as she took a steaming bite. “That represents us.”

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DeBre reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina

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