LA PAZ, Bolivia — A mutiny by rank-and-file Bolivian police demanding higher wages spread across the nation on Friday, with an estimated 4,000 officers occupying barracks.
Protesters sacked and set fire to furniture and documents at a police office in downtown La Paz that processes disciplinary complaints, but the protest otherwise appeared peaceful.
The mutiny began Thursday when about 30 police officers and their wives seized control of an elite unit’s barracks about 100 yards from the presidential palace, ejecting its commanders.
Police joined the protest Friday in such major cities as Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and Oruro, according to local media and mutiny leaders.
They were demanding direct talks with President Evo Morales, who was in the palace on Friday, protected by helmeted military police with assault rifles. The leftist leader returned early from a climate summit in Brazil to deal with the predicament but did not immediately comment.
‘‘This conflict is the most complicated that Morales has faced and if it’s not peacefully resolved it could detonate a political crisis as in the past,’’ said political analyst Carlos Cordero.
A similar mutiny in February 2003 ended violently with police engaging the presidential guard in a firefight, and 19 people killed. Eight months later, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, then president, fled after bloody antigovernment protests. Commissioned police officers were not participating in the mutiny and the force’s chief, Colonel Victor Maldonado, appealed to protesters to halt the mutiny and negotiate.
Bolivia’s 28,000 rank-and-file police officers earn an average of $194 a month, a third less than a sergeant in the armed forces.
Interior Minister Carlos Romero told reporters that authorities were seeking a way to raise those salaries but noted that the cost of police salaries had doubled in six years to $86 million in 2011.
Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous leader and won reelection by a wide margin in 2010. But his approval rating has dropped to about 43 percent.