LA PAZ – Bolivia’s President Evo Morales celebrated the return of two soldiers and seven customs agents who had been held for more than 100 days in neighboring Chile and convicted of armed robbery and other charges last week.
In a ceremony at the presidential palace in La Paz, Morales said the nine Bolivian citizens had been unjustly detained, calling the treatment they received an act of aggression against the country’s 10 million people.
He hailed their bravery and strength and also praised the legal and diplomatic efforts to secure their release.
“Thanks to all of you Bolivia has another great victory before Chile and the entire world,” Morales said late Wednesday.
The nine Bolivians were arrested March 19 some 400 meters (yards) inside Chile’s territory, according to Santiago, and deported on Wednesday after being convicted last week of smuggling, armed robbery and illegal weapons possession.
They were reunited with their family members at the Pisiga border crossing in southwestern Bolivia after La Paz paid a $48,000 fine that had been imposed as part of the sentence.
La Paz has always maintained that the Bolivian soldiers and customs agents were detained on their own country’s territory while attempting to inspect three contraband-laden trucks as they crossed the border from Chile.
The incident put additional strain on the already difficult relationship between Chile and Bolivia, which have not had diplomatic relations since 1978.
The two nations are currently engaged in litigation before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
La Paz wants Chile to return at least a portion of the Pacific coastline that now-landlocked Bolivia lost to Santiago in a 19th-century war.