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InSight Crime’s 2018 Homicide Round-Up

With a worsening crisis in Venezuela, dark days in Nicaragua, an ever more fragile peace process in Colombia, new governments and new ideas in Brazil, Mexico and beyond, 2018 was a year of turmoil across Latin America and the Caribbean. Homicide levels have reflected this uncertainty, rising sharply in parts, continuing to drop in others. In its Homicide Round-Up, InSight Crime looks into the murder rates country by country and the factors behind them.  Venezuela: 81.4 per 100,000 Venezuela has not given up its status as the Latin American country with the highest homicide rate, at 81.4 homicides per 100,000 people, or 23,047 murders. While this number is slightly down from the 26,616 murders reported in 2017, the country remains wracked by severe political, economic, and social conflicts. A report from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV), the only public source of homicides in the country, put the murder rate at 81.4 in 2018, down from 89 in 2017. But this drop might not be cause for optimism, as it is based on 2011 population figures and does not take into account the massive migration of an estimated three million Venezuelans fleeing crisis. The OVV also found that this supposed reduction in homicides contrasts with a sharp increase in killings by security forces — 7,523 victims in 2018 as opposed to 5,535 in 2017 — accounting for an astounding 32 percent of all homicides. While the government has not published official crime statistics for 2018, InSight Crime had access to a leaked document from the Venezuelan Observatory for Public Security, a department within the Interior Ministry. This spoke of an official rate of 10,573 homicides in 2018, or just 33 per 100,000 people, showing that the government does not include cases of “resisting authority” or other categories, such as victims of stray bullets. El Salvador: 51 per 100,000 El Salvador logged 3,340 homicides in 2018, a 15 percent drop from 2017. The resulting homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 people continues the downward trend seen in El Salvador in recent years. As recently as 2016, the country topped InSight Crime’s regional rankings with an alarming rate of 81.2 per 100,000. In 2017, the rate dropped by 20 homicides per 100,000, but the country remained second on the list, only behind Venezuela. El Salvador’s homicide rate has long been linked to its two dominant and deadly gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18. Though there may be a number of causes for the reduction in killings, such as the gangs forgoing internecine wars, the government has claimed its “mano dura,” or what are euphemistically termed “medidas extraordinarias” (extraordinary measures) now, was largely responsible. That same crackdown, however, explains a United Nations report that found extrajudicial killings were on the rise and likely to go unpunished. During the first two weeks of the new year, 126 people were murdered. Police officials blamed the gangs for the bloodshed, accusing them of a show of force ahead of presidential elections on February 3. Jamaica: 47 per 100,000 In an address to the House of Representatives, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness said homicides decreased by 21.9 percent last year. The country recorded 1,287 murders in 2018 for a homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 people. The police have attributed this improvement to the creation of Zones of Special Operation (ZOSO), areas in which the military joins in policing efforts. As part of his plan to bring the murder rate to 16 per 100,000 over the next decade, Holness has advocated for 20 more special security zones to be designated in 2019. Last year’s drop in homicides, however, comes after a near 20 percent rise in killings in 2017, which was linked to the poor rollout of the ZOSO plan and similar security crackdowns.

(InSight Crime map of homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. Click the picture for a larger version.)

Honduras: 40 per 100,000* Between January to November 2018, Honduras saw 3,310 murders, according to the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras – UNAH). This would point to a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people, a minor decrease from the 42.8 per 100,000 registered in 2017, when there were 3,791 murders. After hitting a high of 85.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, Honduras’ murder rate was cut in half by 2017. As in neighboring El Salvador, security officials attributed the downward trend to a government crackdown against drug traffickers and gangs. But officials have also blamed limited year-over-year reductions in the homicide rate on the very same security strategy, saying it leads to retaliation by criminal groups. In the first two weeks of 2019, 30 people were murdered in eight separate massacres, showing that the regular cocktail of gang violence, high levels of impunity and corruption continue. Trinidad and Tobago: 37.5 per 100,000 The year proved to be the second deadliest in the country’s history with 516 homicides, behind only 2008 when 550 people were killed. Despite its relatively small population of 1.3 million people, Trinidad and Tobago has seen violence grow steadily worse in recent years. Impunity continues to be a major challenge, as the Caribbean nation’s police officials have admitted that at least 83 percent of the murder cases from last year remain unsolved. Belize: 35.9 per 100,000 Despite being the smallest country in Central America, Belize has faced a stubbornly high homicide rate. While official stats have yet to come out, local media tallied 143 murders in 2018, just two less than in 2012, the country’s most violent year. The government has denied that Belize is a staging base for criminal groups such as the Zetas and Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) from Mexico, or the MS13 from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. However, a persistently high homicide rate shows that while Belize may have stayed out of the headlines, organized crime appears to be a major threat. Mexico: 25.8 per 100,000 Enrique Peña Nieto’s tenure as Mexico’s president ended with homicides at a record high. In 2018, the country logged 33,341 murders, up from 31,174 in 2017, according to data from the National System of Public Security. This brings the murder rate to 25.8 per 100,000 up from 22.5 in 2017 and 16.2 in 2016. The spike in homicides has been spurred by the continued fragmentation of larger cartels, and the government’s inability to react to the less organized, smaller gangs, which kill for control of territory. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has reversed his security plans, advocating for the creation of a national guard and keeping the military in the streets to try and stem the bloodshed after an average of 91 people were killed per day last year. Brazil: 25 per 100,000* 2017 marked a sad record for Brazil: 175 people were killed every day.  Last year saw slight improvement, with 39,183 murders between January and September, down from 44,733 killings in the same period in 2017, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública). If this reduction held, it would bring the murder rate to 25 per 100,000 people for the year. But insecurity and violence continue to be top concerns for much of the population, as Brazil struggles to find effective ways to stop violent crime. The army was sent in to Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the latest example of a militarization strategy that has consistently failed in Latin America. Jair Bolsonaro was propelled to the presidency largely by pledging to allow police to shoot criminals and to simplify gun ownership laws. So far in 2019, criminal groups have unleashed an assault on the state of Ceará, and the government has responded to the violence with federal troops, turning northeastern Brazil into a battle zone. Such outright conflict may add to the body count, meaning Brazil will be unable to address the root causes of its consistently high murder rate. Colombia: 25 per 100,000* After seeing its lowest level of violence in 42 years in 2017, Colombia saw a small resurgence of violence in 2018, increasing to 12,311 homicides from 11,381 in 2017. This four percent rise takes the homicide rate to 25 per 100,000 people, up from 24 last year. In 2018, Colombia saw an increase and diversification of criminal groups in Colombia, including former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who have gathered into ex-FARC Mafia groups that are growing in strength, as well as members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The increasing number of FARC dissidents abandoning the peace process and the breakdown in talks with the ELN have emboldened these organizations. Furthermore, violence has risen along the border with Venezuela while social leaders have been killed as a result of fighting over control of illicit crops and land. Guatemala: 22.4 per 100,000 Guatemala continued to show marked improvements in its homicide rate, ending the year at 22.4 per 100,000 people. The country recorded 3,881 killings in 2018, down from 4,409 murders and a homicide rate of 26.1 in 2017, according to government officials. But civil society figures tell a different story. The Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo – GAM), a non-governmental organization which tracks crime in the country, said the official tally was short by over 1,000 homicides, placing the total at 4,914 and the murder rate at 28 per 100,000. Either way, Guatemala remains less plagued with violence than its Northern Triangle neighbors in Honduras and El Salvador. The findings of InSight Crime’s 2017 investigation into homicides in Guatemala remain valid. President Jimmy Morales’ war with the anti-corruption body known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) has left little room for the government to improve on rampant impunity for murders and faulty data-gathering about such crimes. Puerto Rico: 20 per 100,000 Puerto Rico saw its murder rate remain at 20 per 100,000 people in 2018, about four times that of the mainland United States. Records show that 641 people were killed last year, a dip from the 710 murders in 2017, and far below the record 1,164 homicides in 2011. Local drug gangs are largely to blame for the body count, with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) saying some 60 percent of homicides there are drug-related. This year, Puerto Rico has already seen a wave of killings, worrying residents and federal law enforcement. A police force struggling to maintain its ranks, as well as solve crimes, will only fuel insecurity on the island. Costa Rica: 11.7 per 100,000 With just 17 fewer homicides in 2018, Costa Rica saw its homicide rate remain relatively stable. The Central American country counted 586 murders, dropping the murder rate slightly from 12.1 to 11.7 per 100,000 people. Until last year’s drop, the homicide rate had steadily increased since 2012. The country’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) had even predicted the same for 2018. Traditionally one of Central America’s more peaceful nations, the country has suffered from rising levels of crime recently, thanks to its position as a key transit point for Colombian cocaine. The government has struggled to respond to an increase in available drugs, which has led to groups fighting for control of local markets. Uruguay: 11.2 per 100,000 Uruguay recorded a record high 382 murders in 2018. With 99 more homicides than in 2017, this marked a brutal year-over-year increase of 35 percent and a homicide rate of 11.2 per 100,000 people. These statistics are drawn from the Propuestas Foundation (Fundapro), linked to the opposition Colorado Party. Official figures have only been released for the first half of the year, showing 218 murders, as compared to 131 from January-June 2017. For one of the traditionally more peaceful and stable countries in the region, this sudden rise is alarming. Authorities are convinced fighting between organized crime groups is to blame. However, this may provide a convenient scapegoat to justify a militarized response when other problems, such as lackluster resolution and conviction rates for homicides, may also have contributed to the situation. Dominican Republic: 10.4 per 100,000* The Citizen Security Observatory reported that 801 murders were registered in the Caribbean nation during the first nine months of 2018, a drop of 145 when compared to the 946 homicides registered for the same period in 2017. Although this shows a continued downward trend that has lasted since 2011, a recent poll shows that public insecurity remains a top concern for the Dominican population. Panama: 9.6 per 100,000* In December, Panama’s Public Ministry released a report showing that there were 401 murders between January and November of 2018, about a dozen fewer than the 378 deaths in 2017. At this count, the homicide rate sits at 9.6 per 100,000 people. The report highlighted that more than 40 percent (169) of the incidents occurred in the capital, Panama City. National Police Director Alonso Vega Pino says that the slight increase is “directly related to organized crime.” Panama’s geography makes it a vital transit point for illegal trade in the region. An internal investigation into an international arms trafficking network in October 2018 illustrated the country’s ongoing challenges with confronting corruption and organized crime. Peru: 7.8 per 100,000* In 2017, Peru registered 2,487 murders, slightly up from the 2,435 in 2016, for a homicide rate of 7.8 per 100,000. No data is available for 2018 so far. The country has maintained relatively low levels of violent crime in recent decades, though institutionalized corruption is threatening resources dedicated to fighting Peru’s ongoing drug trafficking challenges. Bolivia: 6.3 per 100,000 During a televised news conference, Bolivia’s Interior Minister Carlos Romero announced that the country had registered a homicide rate of 6.3 per 100,000 people in 2018, a more than two percent improvement compared to the first half of 2017, when the country recorded a rate of 8.5 per 100,000. The announcement comes as the country prepares for primary presidential elections on January 27.  In the past year, opposition groups who firmly reject Evo Morales decision to run for a fourth consecutive term have conducted mass demonstrations and national strikes. The presidential elections, which will take place in October, are likely to take the focus away from national security issues at a time when Brazil’s gangs are moving into the South American nation. Ecuador: 5.7 per 100,000 Ecuador saw 975 murders in 2018, 18 more than the 957 recorded in 2017, giving the country a homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 people, according to figures from the national police. Less than a decade ago, Ecuador faced murder rates three times as high, but a process of so-called “gang legalization” has helped drastically reduce killings. However, an increase in drug trafficking from Colombia to Ecuador has renewed concerns about violence. The high-profile killing of three journalists by an ex-FARC mafia group has also made cross-border security a priority for the government. Argentina: 5.2 per 100,000* In the midst of a deep economic crisis, Argentina continues to have one of the lowest homicide rates on the continent. Argentina recorded a homicide rate of 5.2 per 100,000 people in 2017, a slight decrease from 6.6 in 2015, according to Security Ministry figures. No data was available for 2018 so far. Low levels of violence, however, haven’t translated into security. In December, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich signed a decree giving federal forces greater use of deadly force. The measure, expected to be implemented six months from now, is already creating controversy and uncertainty within the Argentine population. Paraguay: 5.1 per 100,000* The latest homicide report by Paraguay’s National Observatory of Security and Citizen Coexistence indicates that a total of 350 murders were recorded between January and September of 2018. This statistic yields a murder rate of 5.1 per 100,000, considerably lower than the homicide rate of 7.8 recorded in 2017. However, Interior Minister Juan Ernesto Villamayor recently stated in a radio interview that the country must reevaluate its transnational strategies with Argentina and Brazil to combat organized crime in the region. The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s most powerful gang, continues to threaten the country’s security. Chile: 2.7 per 100,000 Chile continues its reign as the country with the lowest homicide rate in Latin America. From January to October 2018, a total of 488 killings were recorded, accounting for a homicide rate of 2.7 per 100,000 people. This is even lower than the country’s homicide rate of 3.3 that was registered for the same period of time in 2017. Even with low levels of homicides, Chile has seen random acts of violence. An explosive artifact, for example, was detonated at a local bus stop in the capital city of Santiago, resulting in multiple injuries. With organized crime expected to strengthen in 2019, it remains to be seen if Chile can continue to uphold its low levels of violence. Nicaragua: N/A In 2017, Nicaragua registered a homicide rate of 7 per 100,000 people, with 431 total murders, continuing a positive trend of lower violence seen over several years. However, levels of violence soared in 2018 due to the brutal repression of civilian protesters by the regime of President Daniel Ortega. Incomplete statistics of killings have been provided by civil society and non-governmental organizations. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (Asociación Nicaragüense Pro Derechos Humanos – ANDPH) recorded in July that at least 448 had been killed and 595 people disappeared. Further information from the group has not been issued since it closed its offices in Nicaragua in August due to consistent government threats. * Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime based on partial homicide data for 2018 and the country’s 2017 estimated population total, according to the Population Reference Bureau. These will be updated as full 2018 figures become available.

The Expendables: The Weakest Links in the Drug Trafficking Chain

Drug traffickers are recruiting women by the hundreds to transport drugs from Bolivia to feed Chile’s growing consumer market. They tempt impoverished, debt-ridden women, who are often the sole providers for their families, with offers of up to $1,000 to become “tragonas” (swallowers) or drug mules. And the countries’ poor relations coupled with the high demand for drugs mean this problem will likely only continue to grow. Elena was 20 years old and raising two children aged one and three when she agreed to work as a tragona. Her youngest was still breastfeeding at the start of her trip in January 2018. She left her children with her brother, who was 17 and would have to care for their seven-year-old brother in addition to his niece and nephew. Their brother was the reason Elena took the job.

*This article was originally published by Connectas. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

“I agreed to take the capsules because of the money. I needed it to buy a valve for my brother, who had severe malnutrition and couldn’t feed normally because of a congenital brain malformation,” she said. Like most women whom drug traffickers use as human couriers, Elena is a single mother from the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba. At the time, she was earning 600 bolivianos (approximately $87) a month cleaning houses part-time. The traffickers promised her $1,000 to make the trip, the equivalent of 3.3 minimum monthly salaries in Bolivia and more than 10 times her own salary. “They offered [the job] to me on the bus. I ran into a man from my hometown. He offered it to me. He said, ‘I do that kind of work. If you want, I’ll get you a job,’ and he gave me a number. He was older, and I had known him since I was a girl. I don’t know [if recruiting women was his job], but I believe so. I thought about it for three weeks, but he would pressure me, call me, ask me if I would accept the job. ‘Will you take it?’ And in the end, I accepted it because I needed to. I needed to do it for my brother.” *** After her husband left, Celia Casorla lost custody of her children, and her problems with alcohol started. She also lost the motorcycle she used for her work as a taxi driver in Cochabamba. “I felt bad. Empty. I needed my children. They didn’t want to talk to me. They ignored my calls, and I got into drinking. I drank and drank and drank for a whole year. The next year … the debts piled up. It got to the point where I couldn’t pay my rent. I just drank.” Celia heard that she could earn good money as a mule, so one day she decided to contact a trafficker. She went to Cochabamba’s slums, asking, “Do you know anyone who works with Doña Blanca?” Until she met a man who offered her her first “contract.” The drug trafficker took Celia to the Bolivian town of Pisiga, on the border with Chile. They made her swallow the capsules there. “I couldn’t do it. I swear. It made me vomit. I couldn’t swallow it. It hurts your throat. And what did I say [to myself]? Since I couldn’t give anything to my children and I spent my time drinking, I would do it for my children, if for nothing else then for my children. Every time I couldn’t do it, I had to remember that. You know how to drink alcohol? Well, take this. And I took it. I couldn’t take it all, though. I still had about a quarter of a kilogram left. I couldn’t do it, and I told the guy, ‘Even if you don’t pay me for all of it, even half will help me, but I’m not going to take any more [capsules]. I can’t. My body doesn’t want it. I do, but my body doesn’t. What do you want me to do?’ ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘Let’s go, then.’” A kilogram of pure cocaine costs about $2,200 in Bolivia. The tragonas — who swallow capsules full of the drug — and mules — who smuggle it in their luggage or in strips attached to their bodies — are paid $1,500 to carry that kilogram from Bolivia to Santiago de Chile. There, it is sold at $15 per gram, a profit for the drug traffickers of $15,000 per kilogram. But that is if they are selling pure cocaine; most of the time it is mixed with other substances like plaster of Paris or talcum powder to make even more money. Statements the women gave in court proceedings in Chile have revealed that mafia guards sometimes accompany the transporters on the bus. In other instances, the traffickers take a picture of them at the bus terminal when they board and give them an old cell phone. When the transporter arrives at her destination, someone is there to pick her up and take her to a safe house. 30-year-old C.P.H. served a one-year prison sentence in Chile before being expelled from the country. In an excerpt from her court statement, she says, “I went to Oruro [in Bolivia] to buy fabric. A woman approached me and offered me a job transporting drugs to Iquique [in Chile]. They would wait for me at the terminal and pay me $300. The woman took a picture to remember what I looked like. I had to deliver the package to the same person at the terminal in Iquique.” “I met a woman named Margarita in the Iquique terminal who gave me $1,000 and ‘100 chileans’ to take four packages of drugs to Calama. She bought the tickets, was waiting for me at the Calama terminal and took my picture with her cell phone,” according to a statement from E.R.L., 38 years old and sentenced to five years and one day of prison. *** Francisca Fernández is an anthropologist and expert with the Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría Penal Pública – DPP), which had her conduct a study on the profiles of the foreign indigenous women serving prison sentences in the north of the country. For months she visited prisons and interviewed incarcerated women, mostly from Bolivia. In Fernández’s opinion, gangs treat the women like disposable materials. “Three women are sitting together on a bus wearing the same new, white, high-heeled shoes. Obviously, they’re going to be searched,” the anthropologist says. She believes they were planted to divert the police officers’ attention while an even larger shipment was smuggled in. Fernández found that in several cases the setup was handled so crudely it was as if someone wanted the transporters to be discovered. The DPP believes it is possible that gangs are using poor people to concentrate police efforts in one place while they smuggle larger amounts of drugs in another. It is also entertaining the possibility that criminal groups are using a strategy known as the “False 22,” which refers to an article in Chile’s anti-drug trafficking law that allows for compensated cooperation. Drug traffickers use the law to get their sentences reduced. A false 22 is a person who was hired to carry drugs without knowing that an already imprisoned drug trafficker will report it to the authorities in exchange for benefits from the law. The DPP has documented numerous cases of false 22s, such as one involving a farmer from Oruro who could only speak Quechua fluently and who was loaded with drugs in a hostel in the Chilean port city of Antofagasta. He was imprisoned for nine months. Another case is one of the few involving a repeat offender. A Quechua woman has been in a Chilean prison for four years now serving a drug trafficking sentence, and according to the documents on her case, she has an intellectual disability and cannot read. Authorities discovered her smuggling drugs for the second time in 2014, at the customs checkpoint in Chile’s El Loa province. She had been traveling by bus, and because her first arrest occurred at the same checkpoint an official recognized her. She had hidden the cocaine in an electric pizza oven. It is impossible to prove whether such cases are intentional distractions or not. But one thing is certain: so many women are arrested and so many drugs are confiscated that, if traffickers are still willing to go the route of tragonas and mules to send drugs south, it is because they are profiting enormously from it despite the arrests. At the regional public defender’s office in Tarapacá, where the number of Bolivians arrested for drug trafficking is highest, research head Gabriel Carrión argues that Chile’s criminal policy does not focus on the owners of the drugs but on the minor players, who are disposable and hold no real power. “Prosecutors are practical about their choice: they go after the ones carrying the drugs. And if you ask them about the people who own the drugs, they say it’s not in their jurisdiction because an international investigation would have to be carried out.” While both the Chilean and Bolivian police have stated that they exchange information collected from the arrests of tragonas and mules, the attorney general’s office in Tarapacá acknowledged that no binational investigations have been carried out. Regional prosecutor Raúl Arancibia said, “To date in the region we haven’t had drug trafficking investigations in which we worked with the Bolivian Attorney General’s Office.” The bad blood between Chile and Bolivia goes back centuries, but the wounds are still fresh. Bolivia lost its territory on the Pacific coast to Chile in 19th-century War of the Pacific, and despite sharing a border 850 kilometers long, the two countries have not maintained diplomatic relations for the past 40 years. In March 1978 they withdrew their ambassadors, and four years ago Bolivia filed a claim with the International Court of Justice in The Hague to force Chile to the negotiating table about restoring Bolivia’s access to the sea. The two countries scheduled a meeting on September 5 to discuss border issues, including efforts to combat drug trafficking, but Chile suspended it two days prior, claiming the conditions for the talks had not been met. One month later, on October 1, The Hague ruled against Bolivia on the issue. Since then, the leaders of both countries have been taking jabs at each other via social networks and the media, and no one has mentioned a bilateral agenda. *** Simply being a Bolivian passenger on a bus in Chile causes suspicion and therefore ups the chances that the police will search you. María Avendaño was stuck in a Chilean jail for two and a half years before she was acquitted. In 2007 she as arrested on a bus near the border while she was traveling with her adult son. She was accused of owning a suitcase carrying men’s overalls and 23 kilograms of cocaine. When the police found the suitcase in a routine search, they asked the bus attendant who it belonged to. He told them it belonged to María. She denied it. They did not believe her, and she was arrested. According to the DPP, this case is an example of poor police work and police officers allowing prejudice to influence them. “They didn’t lift any fingerprints or DNA samples from the luggage to tie the suspect to it,” the office explained in a document titled “The Innocence Project” (Proyecto Inocentes), which recounts the stories of people who were erroneously jailed in Chile. The police let María’s son, a doctor, go free. But he had to stay in Chile to be near his mother. He worked in a pharmacy for two and half years before her trial and aquittal. *** According to figures from the Tarapacá public defender’s office, 58% of the 180 Bolivian women sentenced in 2017 were indigenous. Most were sent to the prison in the city of Alto Hospicio, 230 kilometers from the Bolivian border. Alto Hospicio is one of Chile’s poorest cities, ranking at number 76 out of 90 on the Urban Quality of Life Index managed by the Catholic University of Chile. The city was founded a series of land grabs in the upper area of another city — Iquique — and the two are connected by a lone road that snakes through the Cordillera de la Costa, the country’s coastal mountain range. Unlike Iquique, Alto Hospicio is not a tourist destination but an industrial city. Despite the rugged landscape, Bolivian women who arrive at the prison have some advantages compared to those sent to other prisons. First, there are more incarcerated Bolivians here than any other nationality, including Chilean, which means less discrimination from fellow inmates. “They create compatriot communities,” said Gabriel Carrión, a lawyer with the DPP. Another advantage is that the office created a specialized indigenous defense unit in Tarapacá, which provides interpreters in certain cases when the women do not speak Spanish. Carrión, himself a Bolivian, explained that his office had to hire a specialized defense attorney and an intercultural facilitator. Both actions have helped to give the women access to the information they need and reduce case processing times. “The Bolivian women generally follow the rules. They’re low profile, so much so that sometimes the violations go unnoticed,” he said. *** When the authorities detained Elena, they took her to a container in front of the emergency unit of the Iquique regional hospital. She spent two nights there, passing the capsules. She must have been sitting on a bench the entire time because the container did not have any stretchers to lie on. The authorities only gave her water and soup, no solids, which prevents the capsules from getting too dirty. “It’s not just unpleasant for the detainees to be there,” said one policeman, “You have to take the capsules out of the toilet with gloves and wash them off. It smells horrible inside, especially when it’s really hot.” While in the container, Elena saw four other detainees come and go, three men and one woman. All of them were Bolivians. After she passed the last capsule, the authorities told Elena that she had the right to notify the Bolivian consulate of her situation so her family in Bolivia could be notified. Like most Bolivian citizens who get arrested in Chile, she opted not to. She had no visits or phone calls with them during the months she spent in Chilean prison. “I asked the consulate not to tell my family. They would want to come, and I knew they didn’t have the money for it. That money was for my children and brother.” Eventually, Elena received news from a single family member. “I got a letter from Bolivia. A woman delivered it to me. I had sent a letter to her daughter. Her daughter spoke with my sister, and my sister sent me a letter with some money. She’s my older sister. In the letter she said that my younger brother, the one with the health condition, had died. [I was in prison] when I found out that my children were with her and my other brother too. My brother [who was ill] was like a son to me. He died on July 2.” *This article was originally published by Connectas. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

Bolivia-Brazil Border Remains Crime Hotspot

A security operation looking to regain control of the Bolivian border town of San Matías has revealed the extent to which an absence of state institutions has led to lawlessness in the area. Police arrested 14 people in raids in San Matías, a Bolivian town situated 7 kilometers from the Brazilian border. The raids were part of “Operación Retorno” (Operation Return), which began on October 15 to mark the return of security forces to the area following a four-month absence. “In San Matías, drug trafficking and money laundering have found their way into the structures of local authorities,” said Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero, El Deber reported. The minister also pointed to violent clashes between a local group and another drug trafficking gang from Cáceres in Brazil, with both sides seeing losses.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia News and Profile

Security forces fled the area due to public fury after police shot and killed a young man during traffic checks on June 18. The man appeared to have no link to any criminal activities and local people rioted in response, setting fire to a police station and vehicles. However, a reinforced police force of 200 officers is now active in San Matías, in a bid to regain control of the town.

Insight Crime Analysis

Being a no man’s land of sorts, relative isolation from the rest of the country and its proximity to the Brazilian border have made San Matías a strategic crossing point for drugs, illicit goods, and people. The town is part of a major drug trafficking corridor for Bolivian cocaine entering Brazil. The current operation in San Matías may serve to re-establish nothing more than a superficial police presence in the town. The first wave of arrests reveals how desperate authorities are to show any sort of progress, as drunk drivers made up almost half of the arrests portended to target criminal organizations. Any real difference is unlikely without accompanying institutional changes that can guarantee a strong and reliable state presence in the region. “This is a region that has been stateless for a long time,” political sociologist and Bolivia expert Miguel Centellas told Insight Crime. “For many people in border areas, the only state presence is the local mayor which leads to a disconnect with the national government.” This abandonment by state institutions and the poor handling of criminal acts when intervention does occur has left communities vulnerable to infiltration by criminal groups.       SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform Last year, amid concerns surrounding the expansion of Brazilian drug trafficking groups into Bolivia, officials from both countries discussed a reinforced plan to target border security. However, such plans are unlikely to have much success. San Matías has a long history of failed state intervention. In 2010, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva dedicated efforts to create an anti-drugs plan for the area. More recently, the Bolivian government created a specialist border police with the hope of regaining control over the troubled border region. These programs have not quelled the longstanding security issues in the area. Murder rates in San Matías have spiked this year as police forces continued to struggle. And local residents view the police with hostility and suspicion. Incidents such as the killing of a supposedly innocent young man will only worsen this. The burning of the police station shows that public patience with the authorities may be at an end.

Legislation Challenges Efforts to Reduce Bolivia Female Prison Population

A new report says that progress made in lowering the number of marginalized women incarcerated for minor drug offenses in Bolivia is at risk of stalling unless overly punishing legislation is changed. Sentence reductions and amnesty initiatives targeting mothers and caregivers, paired with poverty reduction programs, contributed to an 84 percent decrease in the number of women jailed for minor drug offenses between 2012 and 2017 in Bolivia, according to a report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Andean Information Network (AIN). Nearly 40 percent of imprisoned women in Bolivia are incarcerated for low-level drug offenses, such as carrying or transporting small quantities of drugs, according to the report. The majority lived in poverty at the time of their arrest.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia News and Profile

Most of them are charged under Bolivia’s 1988 drug law. The law is “based on very harsh top-down legislation, such as mandatory minimum and long sentences, as well as the idea that incarceration as punishment is the way to deal with drug trafficking or consumption,” Kathryn Ledebur, the report’s co-author, told InSight Crime.

InSight Crime Analysis

The report focuses on an often overlooked but very vulnerable section of the Bolivian population: women living in poverty who are driven into becoming engaged in the drug trade in the world’s third largest producer of coca after Colombia and Peru. WOLA and AIN rightly argue that the measures implemented by the administration of President Evo Morales, however positive, are not enough if the law that puts women behind bars is still in place. In a 2016 statement, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) labelled the law “draconian and punitive,” adding that the law exacerbated poverty and served as an affront to human rights, reported Página Siete. The main problem is that the current legislation fails to distinguish between the severity of the crime committed, resulting in disproportionately harsh sentencing for minor, non-violent offenses.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

“There’s no appropriate scale,” Ledebur said. “Someone with 30 grams of marijuana could be in jail for 10 to 25 years, yet the maximum sentence for murder is 30 years.” Furthermore, a “grossly insufficient public system” means that many wait years in prison before going to trial. An increase in the country’s small number of public defenders and restrictions on pretrial detention would help significantly reduce prison populations. But implementing prison reform can prove challenging. Legislative reforms to drug policy touch on issues that can be sensitive. Proposals that may be construed as taking a lenient approach towards drug trafficking prove unpopular, especially in light of international criticism of Bolivia’s anti-narcotics efforts. A number of proposals to change the current drug law have failed in recent years. Despite the improvements that have come into effect recently, “without sentencing reform and legislative framework, there hasn’t been a lot of impact on women incarcerated for drug crimes,” Ledebur said.

Coca Crops and Their Prices Grew in Bolivia in 2017: UNODC Report

The United Nations illicit crop monitoring program reported an increase in coca prices and new crops in Bolivia in 2017, signs of an ongoing trend that has been altering drug trafficking dynamics in the Andean nation and its surrounding area in South America. Last year, Bolivia reached a total of 24,500 hectares of land used for coca farming, a six-percent increase compared to the 23,100 hectares registered in 2016, according to the 2017 Coca Monitoring Survey in the Plurinational State of Bolivia issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report also mentioned that coca leaf prices grew by 16 percent, up from $8.1 per kilogram in 2016 to $9.4 in 2017. Growth was highest in the Cochabamba Tropics in central Bolivia. The region registered 1,200 hectares more than in 2016, an increase of 17 percent, while in La Paz department’s forested Yungas region it grew a paltry one percent and in Northern La Paz it decreased by eight percent. Of the total crops, 65 percent are in the Yungas of La Paz, 34 percent were cultivated in the Cochabamba Tropics, and Northern La Paz registered just one percent. Since 2017 and under the country’s new General Coca Law, the Bolivian government expanded the authorized zones for coca leaf farming from 12,000 to 22,000 hectares. This means that only 2,500 hectares could theoretically be considered illegally grown. The report also cited figures on Bolivia’s anti-drug efforts, reporting that 7,327 hectares of coca were eradicated, 660 hectares more than were eradicated the previous year. Seizures of coca leaf and coca base grew by five and 13 percent, respectively. But those of cocaine took a nosedive, plummeting by 78 percent.

InSight Crime Analysis

Coca farming in Bolivia declined between 2010 and 2015 and picked up again in 2016, when it increased by 14 percent. Although 2017 saw an increase as well, the figures remain lower than those recorded between 2006 and 2010 and are not considered to be particularly significant. However, the repeated increase in the price of coca leaves in the country could prove to be influencing the drug trafficking dynamics in that part of South America. Bolivia’s figures “are a very small percentage of coca cultivation at the regional level,” Kathryn Ledebur, executive director of the Andean Information Network (Red Andina de Información – AIN), told InSight Crime. This is true when comparing Bolivia’s 24,500 hectares to the other two coca leaf producers in the region — Colombia and Peru — whose most recent figures are 146,000 and 50,000 hectares, respectively. (The 2017 reports for Colombia and Peru have not yet been published.)

SEE ALSO: Bolivia News and Profile

Ledebur explained that the higher coca prices reported in Bolivia — where the UNODC says coca leaf is significantly more expensive than in Colombia ($0.95 per kilogram) or Peru ($3 per kilogram) — illustrate the current drug trafficking dynamic in the country. It means that, “right now, it’s not as profitable to make base paste or crystallize cocaine in Bolivia, but to send the Peruvian product on to consumer nations like Brazil,” the expert said. Moreover, the AIN director believes that the high prices also mean Bolivian coca farmers can make enough profits by simply farming it and selling it on the local market. There is no need for them to resort to manufacturing coca base as well, as happens in Colombia, for example. According to Ledebur, the growth trend in Bolivia’s coca production in the coming years will depend on how its government manages its highest producing regions, which are divided among areas where the crop is grown both legally and illegally.

Red Command Arrests in Bolivia Point to Group’s Likely Expansion

Police in Bolivia have captured three alleged members of one of Brazil’s most powerful criminal groups after a brazen armed assault on a military base, raising urgent questions about why the Brazilian mafia is amassing arms in the border region. The arrests took place after the Bolivian government flooded the border region around the town of Porvenir with troops and police in response to the attack of June 16, which intelligence agencies blamed on the Brazilian organized crime network the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), reported La Razon. The raid saw at least seven armed men on motorcycles, believed to be a mixed force of Brazilians and Bolivians, wound two soldiers as they stole nine rifles, five pistols, 11 magazines and 1,200 rounds of ammunition. The assault was the second arms heist allegedly committed by the Red Command in the border region in the space of a week. Just days before, attackers made off with up to 30 rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammunition from a Brazilian police base in the nearby municipality of Epitaciolandia. Bolivia’s Minister of Government Carlos Romero warned the attacks could herald more violence. “Normally, when these cartels steal arms they are preparing something,” he told Los Tiempos. “Within the space of a few days they have attacked twice, so it seems like they are preparing something big.” However, the police commander of the border department of Pando, Coronel Marco Antonio Cortez Castedo, played down the presence of the Red Command in Bolivia. “[I can say] with certainty that in Cobija this command does not exist, maybe there are people linked to this command but they are still not operating.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite the continuing protests of Bolivian officials such as the local police commander, the assault in Porvenir is just the latest evidence of the advance of Brazilian mafia networks in Bolivia. The Bolivian coca base market is likely the main attraction for the Red Command as their home country represents the world’s largest market for the drug. Furthermore, while Colombian networks often control cocaine processing laboratories and trafficking routes, the Brazilians can deal directly with local producers to secure base.

SEE ALSO: Red Command Profile

What remains to be seen is whether Brazil’s criminal conflicts will also migrate across the border as its competing criminal groups seek control of this trade. Last year, Bolivian officials talked of an agreement between Brazil’s most powerful criminal networks to divide up territories in Bolivia, with the Red Command controlling the region of Pando, where Porvenir is located, and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) staking a claim to Santa Cruz. However, more recent reports warn of possible new conflicts developing in Brazil, which could threaten the stability of any agreement in Bolivia. And the Red Command’s aggressive sourcing of arms in the border region should sound alarms that at least one actor in this conflict could now be preparing for violence.

Mass Presidential Pardon Unlikely to Improve Bolivia Prisons

The president of Bolivia introduced a new amnesty and pardon decree to congress in an attempt to alleviate the country’s prison crisis. However, it is unlikely that the strategy will have the desired effect if it is not accompanied by substantial changes to the justice system. The presidential decree, which was presented with the support of the Ombudsman’s Office and the Interior and Justice ministries, aims to release more than 2,700 inmates. It’s not the first such move; Bolivia has implemented five mass pardons during President Evo Morales’ 12-year tenure that have freed a total of almost 6,000 prisoners. According to figures released by the Morales administration, Bolivia’s prisons currently hold 5,409 convicted prisoners and 12,537 pretrial detainees. All told, the proposed pardon would affect close to 15 percent of the current prison population. Bolivia’s congress, which is currently controlled by Morales’ party, must approve the decree before it can go into effect. And it has its limitations: the pardon will not apply to repeat offenders; prisoners connected with corruption, homicide or terrorism; or those accused of drug trafficking with a sentence of more than 10 years, for example. Bolivia currently has the fourth-highest rate of prison overcrowding in Latin America, with its penitentiaries operating at more than 250 percent of their intended capacity, according to government figures reported by Página Siete.

InSight Crime Analysis

President Morales’ newest amnesty and pardon decree is the latest in a long history of attempts to improve prison conditions, with little to show for them. One recent setback was a deadly raid at the Palmasola prison, one of the country’s most overcrowded and violent institutions. The event left 30 people dead and revealed how much control the inmates continue to exert over Bolivia’s prisons. Likewise, the fact that 70 percent of the prison population consists of pretrial detainees is an alarming illustration of one of the justice system’s most serious flaws as well as the ineffectiveness of the punitive approach to crime so prevalent in Latin America. Although Bolivia’s government says it currently has a plan in the works to improve security and overcrowding in its prisons, none of the proposals seem to be focused on bolstering the justice system or its capacity to process cases effectively and independently. The primary focus instead seems to be on expanding prison infrastructure and strengthening security.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisions

Such plans have done nothing to curtail the rise in the country’s prison population. In fact, the opposite has occurred. According to data from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), the incarcerated population in Bolivia doubled from 7,031 to more than 14,000 between 2006 and 2014. As Bolivian penitentiary system director Jorge López told El Deber, the country will only be able to resolve the prison situation “when the criminal justice system changes its paradigm and accepts that jail time is not the only response to a crime.” Passing judicial reforms to repair the penitentiary system will require political will. But any strategy seeking to improve prison conditions and guarantee their ability to rehabilitate must not focus solely on temporarily reducing prison populations. It must also include comprehensive, long-term policies.

Latin America Falls Short on Anti-Crime Efforts: US State Department

An annual report by the US State Department on international drug trafficking suggests that Latin America continues to struggle with developing effective strategies to combat criminal activities due to a variety of factors ranging from corruption to shifts in regional drug dynamics. The annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), published on March 19, breaks down regional trends and developments in international drug trafficking. According to the report, more than half of the countries listed as being major drug producing or transit countries, as well as major sources of precursor chemicals, are located in Latin America. Several are also listed as major money laundering countries. Below, InSight Crime looks at some of the highlights from the report’s findings on Latin America.

Bolivia and Venezuela Singled Out

The US State Department singles out Bolivia and Venezuela as the only countries worldwide that “failed demonstrably” in their anti-narcotics efforts in 2017. In Bolivia, the report points to President Evo Morales’ decision last year to increase legal coca cultivation as being a primary factor in this determination. According to the report, the “inadequate control” that authorities have over legal domestic coca cultivation is a major concern given the country’s role as a cocaine producing and transit nation. As the report suggests, US officials strongly opposed the increase to the legal coca cultivation limit in Bolivia. But while the increase is likely to further boost cocaine production and trafficking, it’s unlikely to have a significant impact on regional dynamics. Colombia and Peru dominate coca production in the region, and the increase will only add a very small amount of additional coca into the illicit market.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

In Venezuela, the report blames widespread corruption within the administration of President Nicolás Maduro for hindering the country’s anti-narcotics efforts. According to the report, the Maduro administration engaged in “minimal bilateral law enforcement cooperation” with the United States in 2017. Moreover, the administration was often “complicit in the country’s rampant corruption and made minimal efforts to prosecute corrupt officials or suspected drug traffickers,” the report states. Given the deepening criminality of the Maduro administration, the singling out of Venezuela is unsurprising. Links between the Venezuelan government and criminal actors — including allegations of collusion with Colombian criminal groups along the Colombia-Venezuela border and their involvement in international drug trafficking — have continued to surface as the country slips further into chaos. The United States has broadened its crackdown on top officials, including Maduro, with sanctions.

Conflicting US Rhetoric Towards Colombia

The report further highlighted conflicting views on the effectiveness of Colombia’s anti-drug efforts. With former CIA Director Mike Pompeo now slated to become the next US Secretary of State, Trump may be trying to shift US policy on Colombia, and Latin America more broadly, towards his own personal views, which could further strain US-Colombia coordination on crime fighting strategies. While the US State Department did criticize Colombia’s lack of progress on curtailing record cocaine production, the report’s overall rhetoric towards Colombia’s anti-drug efforts differs greatly from recent comments made by US President Donald Trump. According to the report, the US State Department believes that the Colombian government “continues to take steps” to combat growing cocaine production, and that the country’s current anti-drug strategy will have a “lasting impact in curbing coca cultivation and cocaine production.” However, in September 2017 President Trump threatened to label the Colombian government as not compliant on anti-drug efforts amid heightened tensions between the two nations over how best to tackle security issues.

Central America and Caribbean Role in the Drug Trade

The role of Central American and Caribbean nations in the regional drug trade has been shifting in recent years as cocaine production in Colombia is at record levels. The State Department report suggests that these shifts are leading to an uptick in violence and innovation. Although Costa Rica continually boasts one of the region’s lowest homicide rates — 12.1 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017 — the report found that continued “turf-war related shootings and cartel-style assassinations” suggest that the country’s expanding role is having an adverse effect on levels of violence. A similar phenomenon is taking place in the Dominican Republic, a country that has also seen its role in the drug trade evolve alongside increased cocaine production in Colombia. According to the report, 2017 saw an “increase in drug-related violence, especially as local groups engage in violent turf battles to control domestic drug distribution.

SEE ALSO: Caribbean News and Profiles

In El Salvador, drug traffickers have become more innovative. According to the report, last year there was a decline in maritime drug trafficking within Salvadoran waters — 200 nautical miles from the country’s coastline — suggesting that traffickers have further developed their strategies and moved their operations farther out into the Pacific Ocean to evade authorities and transport cocaine shipments coming from South America more easily. As InSight Crime previously reported, the Central American and Caribbean cocaine corridors have both been revitalized after the surge in cocaine production in Colombia. Both routes are critical for cocaine shipments destined for markets in the United States and Europe. The increased violence and innovation caused by this development has made anti-drug efforts more difficult.

Corruption Still Hindering Efforts in Guatemala and Honduras

Despite the many positive advances that authorities in Guatemala have made in battling graft amid extreme pushback from elites, the State Department report highlights how “widespread corruption permeates public and private institutions and exacerbates the country’s security, governmental, and economic challenges,” adding that “corruption levels remain high and public confidence in government institutions is low.” Neighboring Honduras is facing similar problems. The report found that corruption in the Northern Triangle nation “remains widespread” in public institutions despite some successes achieved by the country’s internationally-backed Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH). Despite the presence of internationally backed anti-corruption bodies in both of these countries, the report makes clear that levels of corruption remain high. The upcoming election of new attorneys general in these two Central American nations, however, will likely represent a new chapter in anti-corruption efforts, for better or worse.

More Money for Militarization in Mexico

Mexico logged its most homicidal year in the country’s recent history in 2017 after recording 29,168 homicides for a homicide rate of 22.5 per 100,000 inhabitants — a 27 percent increase from 2016. However, even as officials question traditional security strategies, Mexico’s Army and Navy will see a 13.4 percent and 11.4 percent increase, respectively, to their budgets with most of these resources “dedicated to strengthening military and naval infrastructure, much of which will be dedicated to combating transnational criminal organizations,” the report found. The increased resources being allocated for the continued militarization of Mexico’s security strategy places further doubts on the ability of authorities to combat increased criminality and related violence. As InSight Crime previously reported, resources would be better spent on judicial reforms and strengthening institutions.

Bolivia Prison Raid Highlights Control of Inmates

Authorities in Bolivia seized large quantities of drugs and weapons and several inmates were killed during a raid at the country’s largest prison, underscoring how inmates continue to wield near total control over the country’s penitentiaries. Seven inmates died and 26 other individuals were injured after Bolivian authorities raided the Palmasola prison in eastern Santa Cruz department just before dawn on March 13, according to a Interior Ministry press release. During the raid authorities seized a massive eight tons of marijuana and cocaine, 85 knives and machetes, eight firearms, several grenades, 188 mobile phones, nearly $9,000 in cash and various equipment used to distill alcoholic beverages, according to the press release.

SEE ALSO: Inside Bolivia’s Most Dangerous Prison: Palmasola

According to local media reports, around 6,000 inmates are incarcerated at the Palmasola prison and some 2,300 police officers conducted the raid in an attempt to regain control from criminal groups. Authorities also transferred 20 prisoners out of Palmasola to other prisons in different departments throughout the country. The police raid came in response to rioting at the prison as inmates protested new restrictions against children entering the facility after reports surfaced that a young girl was repeatedly raped by an inmate, EFE reported. Previous legislation allowed children under six years old to stay with their incarcerated parents. Bolivia’s Palmasola prison is known as the country’s most corrupt and dangerous. In August 2013, 36 people were killed, including a one-year-old, during a prison riot at the facility over a power struggle.

InSight Crime Analysis

The recent raid at this prison is a stark example of the near complete control inmates have and the continued problems that authorities in the country confront in trying to maintain order. Bolivia’s prisons have long been plagued by overcrowding and the use of pre-trial detention. A recent report identified overcrowding to be at “critical levels” in the country’s penitentiaries, with the occupancy rate well over 250 percent. The fact that almost 70 percent of prisoners in Bolivia are being held in pre-trial detention compounds the problem.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

This severe overcrowding has helped prison inmates take control. In Palmasola, the fact that inmates were able to get nearly eight tons of drugs into the prison, in addition to equipment needed to distill alcohol, shows the lack of control authorities have. Inmates throughout the region often engage in small-scale petty drug dealing, but instances where inmates are able to acquire tons of drugs are rare. As one inmate at the Palmasola prison put it to InSight Crime investigators during a 2014 investigation, “Rehabilitation centre? This is where you come if you want to find out what makes crime truly organized.”