One of Latin America’s most impoverished nations, Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of coca after Colombia and Peru, and a key transit point for drugs. In addition to serving as an air bridge for Peruvian cocaine, Bolivia is home to foreign criminal organizations, particularly Colombian groups.
A country with a historical record of political upheaval, the current presidency of Evo Morales has instilled a measure of stability since 2006, but placed the country at odds with the United States over counternarcotics strategy.
Bolivia is one of two landlocked countries in South America, alongside neighbor Paraguay, and has a 6,000 kilometer frontier which also borders Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. With the Andes running through the south and west, much of Bolivia is marked by rugged high-altitude terrain and four of the country’s five largest cities sit at least 2,500 meters above sea level.
Bolivia’s neighbors Brazil and Argentina have two of the region’s biggest domestic drug markets, while Peru and Paraguay are respectively South America’s second largest coca producer and number one marijuana producer, making Bolivia a key drug-trafficking corridor.
Coca has been grown and consumed in Bolivia since Inca times, although production exploded during the 1980s as the international cocaine market emerged.
After gaining independence in 1825, Bolivian politics has been dominated by military rule and dozens of coups, the last of which occurred in 1980. Civilian rule was established two years later and has remained ever since. While small guerrilla movements have sprung up in the country, a leftist armed insurgency like those seen elsewhere in Latin America has never taken hold.
Bolivia has instead been home to various left-wing political movements, notably in the late 1980s and 1990s. The 1993 to 1997 administration of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada oversaw a series of social and economic reforms and championed indigenous rights. Sánchez was elected for a second term in 2002, but was forced to resign over fuel-related social unrest. Evo Morales — a coca union leader who ran on a socialist, anti-US ticket — won in the 2006 elections and became the country’s first indigenous president.
Morales’ presidency has been characterized by tense relations with the United States over coca growing and counternarcotics operations. In 2008, Morales expelled the US ambassador for “conspiring” against his government and suspended cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which he also later ejected from the country. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) subsequently blacklisted Bolivia, despite agreeing with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that coca crop hectares have fallen, eradication has increased and cocaine production has diminished.
As a former coca farmer, Morales has supported coca growing. The country currently allows 12,000 hectares of the crop to be grown legally — compared to the 20,200 hectares the UNODC estimated were under cultivation in 2015. However, Morales’ government has also clashed violently with coca growers over the eradication of unlicensed coca. In an attempt to bolster the legitimate coca market, Morales has promoted a range of coca-based products, such as tea and flour, which so far have enjoyed little success.
In 2011, Bolivia withdrew from the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs when the UN failed to remove a clause forbidding the chewing of coca leaf. Bolivia has since returned after the convention recognized coca consumption as legal in the country.
The country is currently the world’s third biggest producer of cocaine, with an estimated 40 percent of Bolivia’s coca crop diverted for illicit purposes while the rest enters the legal market. The country’s position at the heart of South America’s drug trade and weak, corrupt security forces also facilitate Bolivia’s role as a key transit nation for narcotics heading to Brazil, Argentina, Europe and Asia. The air bridge between Peru and Bolivia sees around half of all Peruvian cocaine fly into or through the country, and Bolivia purchased radar equipment in late 2015 in an attempt to curb this trend.
Bolivia’s status as a regional drug hub has long made it a base of operations for foreign drug trafficking organizations. Colombian groups manage much of Bolivia’s transnational drug trade, and two of the country’s most powerful criminal organizations — the Urabeños and the Rastrojos — are believed to operate in the country.
Brazilians have a powerful presence in Bolivia — most notably through the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) — and Mexican structures have also been detected.
Despite such activity, Bolivia appears to have largely avoided the emergence of deeply entrenched home-grown mafias such as those which have plagued Colombia and Mexico. Still, local, family-based clans tend to oversee cocaine production, and the country is home to organized groups focused on street crime in urban centers. Police reported in 2016 that there were 269 gangs with over 7,700 members active in the country — mostly concentrated in the cities of Santa Cruz, La Paz and Cochabamba. Santa Cruz — the country’s largest settlement and heart of drug trafficking operations — suffers from endemic criminality has been affected by spats of drug-related violence.
Bolivia has a centralized police force, the Bolivian National Police (Policía Nacional de Bolivia – PNB), which numbers approximately 35,966 officers (pdf). Within the National Police, the Special Antinarcotics Force (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – FELCN) numbers approximately 1,530 officers.
The police have a reputation for corruption and involvement in drug trafficking up to the highest levels, with seven police chiefs sacked in the space of six years, as of December 2012. This included General Oscar Nina, who was tasked to restructure the police force after Morales expelled the DEA from the country, and in 2015 was arrested for alleged ties to drug traffickers. Former police General Rene Sanabria, who once served as Bolivia’s drug czar, was prosecuted in the United States for running a cocaine trafficking ring.
In June 2015, the Bolivian government revealed plans to tackle police corruption through a proposal to shield whistleblowers. Later that year, the government also proposed toughening the police disciplinary and procedural codes by including polygraph tests and background checks.
Bolivia’s military has 55,500 active frontline personnel. Military expenditure has generally trended downward since hitting a high of 2.82 percent of GDP in 1990. Conscription is enforced, with men and women over 18 obligated to serve for one year. In 2012, Bolivia created an “ecological battalion” to fight coca growth in the country’s national parks.
The Bolivian judicial system’s highest entity is the Supreme Court. It also consists of the Constitutional Court, Superior District Courts in each department, and lower courts.
Public confidence in the judicial system is low, and perceived inaction by institutions has helped give Bolivia the second-highest number of lynchings in the region. In 2012, Morales attempted to restore faith in the judicial branch by replacing appointed judges with elected ones, but he has subsequently been accused of politicizing the judiciary. Clean-up efforts have also included mass firings and sanctions within the judiciary, with the Attorney General’s Office dismissing 67 of its 500 prosecutors in 2015.
Morales’ government has also been seeking to reform the tough anti-drug law “Ley 1008” by establishing sentences of different lengths for different drug-related crimes. In 2014, Bolivia passed a law allowing authorities to shoot down suspected drug planes.
In 2015-2016, the World Economic Forum ranked Bolivia 126th out of 140 countries for judicial independence.
Bolivia has the fifth-most overcrowded prisons in the hemisphere after Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela. Prisons were running at an average of 270 percent capacity in 2015, with a total prisoner population of around 13,500. Since 2006, the prison population has nearly doubled.
The country also has the second highest pretrial detainee rate in the world, totalling 86 percent of the total prison population in 2014.
Self-governance and police corruption are rife in Bolivia’s prison system, which also suffers from poor living conditions and a lack of funding.
In an effort to reduce overcrowding, a presidential decree was approved in December 2012 that pardoned prisoners who met certain conditions. The measure has since been extended at least four times, but it appears that it has only been marginally effective in reducing the number of inmates in Bolivian jails.