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Bolivia Profile

BOLIVIA / LATEST UPDATE MARCH 17, 2022 EN

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 Brazilian groups.

A country with a historical record of political upheaval, after 14 years of relative stability under Evo Morales, the country descended into political uncertainty in 2019, the repercussions of which are still being felt. Comparatively progressive coca policies have historically placed the country at odds with the United States over counternarcotics strategy.

Geography

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.

Drug flights using small planes as well as helicopters are the key mode of transportation for cocaine and marijuana being trafficked from Bolivia to its eastern neighbors, Paraguay and Brazil.

Growing numbers of seizures, especially in the Brazilian border state of Mato Grosso point to Bolivia’s rising importance as both a source and transit country for a large portion of the cocaine en route to European markets. The use of waterways that link up with Brazil’s Paraguay River to the east has also been documented as Bolivia boosts its fluvial trade with Brazil.

In the border area of Chaco as well, drug planes to Paraguay remain a favored method of drug trafficking to feed the European cocaine pipeline. Cocaine is typically flown into northern Paraguay and then transferred to the Paraná River south of the capital Asunción, to continue south towards Argentina.

Finally, Bolivia’s southern border with Chile plays host to a variety of criminal activities, including migrant and contraband smuggling, and drug trafficking.

The domestic black market for stolen vehicles, or chutos, is fed heavily from Chile while migrants are typically smuggled south across the border to make their way by land towards the capital, Santiago.

Drug trafficking routes between the two countries are more diverse, with marijuana moving south via the same land routes in northern Antofagasta that carry contraband goods. During the Covid-19 pandemic however, traffickers adjusted to decreased border movement by shifting to maritime routes.

History

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 was 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.

Morales went on to become a fervent supporter of the coca growing industry, as a former coca farmer himself. In 2017, Morales signed into law a bill nearly doubling the area of legal coca production within the country, and reports from the UNODC indicate that cultivation continues to exceed those increased limits. 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.

Bolivia’s spell of political calm came to an abrupt end in 2019 when, despite having lost a voter referendum seeking a fourth term, Morales won reelection in a contested election. Mass protests and pressure from the military saw him resign shortly after to be replaced by the interim government of Jeanine Añez.

Añez’s administration staged a sweeping number of investigations targeting over 600 officials at all echelons of the former government. Morales, and several former high-ranking officials in the Movement to Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo – MAS) party were investigated for crimes ranging from election fraud to terrorism.

The veritable witch hunt was short-lived as the MAS party regained the presidency under Luis Arce only one year later. Arce’s government promptly turned on the former Añez government, jailing her and several former ministers on charges of terrorism. This cyclical pattern of opposition jailings has seen numerous political elites on both sides caught in corruption scandals, with even the loudest anti-corruption voices themselves being caught red-handed.

The country’s drug policy saw a similarly chaotic series of lurches, with the Añez administration switching to a hardline approach against coca cultivation and drug trafficking that the current Arce government has since rolled back to a more moderate approach. These pendulum swings have taken place against the backdrop of rising levels of coca production and cocaine shipments each year.

The country remains the world's third biggest producer of cocaine, with an estimated 27 to 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, Paraguay, the United States, Europe and increasingly Asia. The air bridge between Peru and Bolivia sees around half of all Peruvian cocaine fly into or through the country, and the use of the aforementioned drug flights between the Andean nation and its neighbors has only grown.

In recent years, the role of high-level political elites in this trade has increasingly come to light. In February 2022, the US indicted Maximiliano Dávila Pérez, the country’s former head of the anti-drug agency (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – FELCN) for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

His was the fourth accusation of direct links to the cocaine trade against a head anti-narcotic official in Bolivia, joining a long line of former government functionaries accused of involvement in the trade.

Criminal Groups

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 was 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.

Morales went on to become a fervent supporter of the coca growing industry, as a former coca farmer himself. In 2017, Morales signed into law a bill nearly doubling the area of legal coca production within the country, and reports from the UNODC indicate that cultivation continues to exceed those increased limits. 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.

Bolivia’s spell of political calm came to an abrupt end in 2019 when, despite having lost a voter referendum seeking a fourth term, Morales won reelection in a contested election. Mass protests and pressure from the military saw him resign shortly after to be replaced by the interim government of Jeanine Añez.

Añez’s administration staged a sweeping number of investigations targeting over 600 officials at all echelons of the former government. Morales, and several former high-ranking officials in the Movement to Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo – MAS) party were investigated for crimes ranging from election fraud to terrorism.

The veritable witch hunt was short-lived as the MAS party regained the presidency under Luis Arce only one year later. Arce’s government promptly turned on the former Añez government, jailing her and several former ministers on charges of terrorism. This cyclical pattern of opposition jailings has seen numerous political elites on both sides caught in corruption scandals, with even the loudest anti-corruption voices themselves being caught red-handed.

The country’s drug policy saw a similarly chaotic series of lurches, with the Añez administration switching to a hardline approach against coca cultivation and drug trafficking that the current Arce government has since rolled back to a more moderate approach. These pendulum swings have taken place against the backdrop of rising levels of coca production and cocaine shipments each year.

The country remains the world's third biggest producer of cocaine, with an estimated 27 to 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, Paraguay, the United States, Europe and increasingly Asia. The air bridge between Peru and Bolivia sees around half of all Peruvian cocaine fly into or through the country, and the use of the aforementioned drug flights between the Andean nation and its neighbors has only grown.

In recent years, the role of high-level political elites in this trade has increasingly come to light. In February 2022, the US indicted Maximiliano Dávila Pérez, the country’s former head of the anti-drug agency (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – FELCN) for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

His was the fourth accusation of direct links to the cocaine trade against a head anti-narcotic official in Bolivia, joining a long line of former government functionaries accused of involvement in the trade.

Security Forces

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.

Similarly, in 2019, several high-ranking police officials were found to have collaborated with drug traffickers in Santa Cruz, displaying a continuation of the grip that cocaine trafficking holds over the country’s law enforcement agencies.

Bolivia's military has roughly 40,000 active frontline personnel. Military expenditure has generally trended downward since hitting a high of 2.82 percent of GDP in 1990, sitting at 1.3 percent as of 2020. Conscription is enforced, with men and women over 18 obligated to serve for one year. Despite being landlocked, the country maintains a small navy to address fluvial drug trafficking with some 5,000 active service members as of 2021.

In 2019, the Añez government formed an anti-terrorism body (Grupo Antiterrorista – GAT) to target “subversive behavior”. In name, GAT was tasked with battling international terrorist organizations within the country, according to the announcement by then-Interior Minister Arturo Murillo. Murrillo himself would be arrested on charges of corruption in 2021, allegedly receiving bribes in exchange for lucrative defense contracts.

Judicial System

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 translated to historically high rates of lynchings in both rural and domestic Bolivia. During his 14 years in power, Former President Morales weakened the independence of the judiciary, while Añez employed the judicial system as a weapon against previous MAS officials. Under the administration of Luis Arce, the practice appears to have continued.

According to Human Rights Watch, roughly 80 percent of the country’s judges are “temporary”, making them easily replaceable should they fall out of favor with the current government. This is a holdover from the Morales administration that both his predecessors maintained.

The Arce administration did however, agree to install judicial reforms at the behest of the United Nations, but concrete, positive changes have yet to been seen.

In 2021, the World Justice Project ranked Bolivia 129th out of 139 countries for its Rule of Law Index, citing, among other concerns, a civil justice score well below the global and regional averages.

Prisons

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 suffers from a high pretrial detainee rate, totalling 65 percent of the total prison population in 2020.

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 despite this effort, the prisoner population has only continued to rise to over 18,000 people in 2020.

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