February 29, 2016 / 2:18 PM / 4 years ago

Bolivian president's woes deepen as ex-girlfriend is held

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales, fresh from his first major electoral defeat in last week’s referendum on extending his rule, is facing a deepening scandal over his ties to a woman who was held by police over the weekend.

Gabriela Zapata, former girlfriend of Bolivian President Evo Morales, sits at a police station in La Paz, February 26, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado

Gabriela Zapata was jailed on Sunday while her case is investigated. She is accused of illicit enrichment and influence peddling to help a company where she worked to secure lucrative government contracts.

Morales, who is unmarried, acknowledges he had a relationship with Zapata, but questions over whether he has fully told the truth about the relationship have weighed on the president’s popularity.

The matter was likely a significant factor in the narrow defeat he suffered last week in a referendum over whether the constitution should be changed to allow him to run for office again in 2019.

Bolivia’s first indigenous president and leader since 2006, Morales has won praise for his prudent spending of a natural gas windfall that has helped tackle poverty.

But accusations of corruption and cronyism in Morales’ socialist party have been on the rise, eroding his support. Morales has in the past risen above the accusations and following his defeat last week he accused the opposition of racial discrimination and a dirty tricks campaign.

However, confusion over when the relationship with Zapata ended and whether a child they acknowledge they had together is still alive have led to questions about whether Morales has misled the public.

Morales has said the relationship ended in 2007 and their son had died young.

But photos have emerged in the media that appeared to show them together last year, while Zapata’s aunt insisted over the weekend that the boy is alive and well, causing a sensation in Bolivia.

At a press conference on Monday, Morales said he was unaware that his son had lived and asked the family to let him know the truth.

“It would be a joy to me if he were alive,” he said at a press conference at the presidential palace in La Paz.

Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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