Bolivia’s prison system, already running at almost double capacity, saw a 20 percent rise in the number of inmates in 2011, presenting a fertile breeding ground for criminal gangs.

Bolivia’s prison system is facing a crisis. According to a February 2011 report by the United Nations High Commisioner for Human Rights, most inmates in the country face “inhuman” conditions, due mostly to the alarming level of overcrowding. The report notes that in mid-2010 the prison population was 8,700, although the country only had an estimated prison capacity of around 4,700 at the time.

Since then, the situation has become even more dire. Last week Bolivia’s General Directorate of Prisons (DGRP) announced that the country’s prison population grew by 22.43 percent in 2011, to a total of 11,516 inmates. Much of this growth is due to the fact that the vast majority of those in prison are being held preventatively. According to the DGRP’s data, 84 percent of the prison population has not yet had access to a trial. The Bolivian court system is notoriously slow and inefficient, and many of these inmates will wait months before their case is heard in court.

Attempts at judicial reform are underway, but the road to change will be difficult. Last October the country held its first-ever round of judicial elections, where Bolivians elected 56 justices to sit in the country’s four highest courts. The new justices were sworn in on January 3, and vowed to streamline the court system. However, their lack of public support is sure to be an obstacle going forward. The judicial elections were widely seen as heavily influenced by President Evo Morales, and nearly 60 percent of the votes were either blank or nullified as an act of protest.

Meanwhile the Morales administration has vowed to overcome budget constraints and construct new prisons in an effort to fight overcrowding, attempting to sell outdated prison facilities in order to raise money for new ones. However, the construction of new facilities is still outpaced by the demand for space. The San Sebastian prison in Cochabamba, for instance, holds 380 although it only has the capacity for 100.

Budget constraints and overcrowding also have an effect on the way prisons are run in the country. With funding for guards tight, the insides of Bolivian prison facilities are often almost entirely run by the inmates themselves. Prison leaders, known as “delegates,” charge extortion fees to fellow inmates for privileges, such as having a cell of their own. Inmates also pay for services like family visits and access to television. Last November, officials broke up an extortion ring in several Cochabamba prisons in which prisoners were being forced to pay a mandatory “life insurance” fees, which could range from $100 to $500. In the rare instance that someone refuses to pay a fee, they face torture or death.

This has important implications for organized crime in the country. As InSight Crime has reported, similar systems of internal control exist in prisons in Mexico, Venezuela and El Salvador. Such systems can allow criminal organizations to strengthen their hierarchy, with leaders using their time in jail to develop their networks on the outside. Indeed, the high degree of criminal control inside Salvadoran prisons is often cited as the main reason for the rise of the country’s two largest street gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18.

While it is unlikely that Bolivia will have to confront the “mara” (gang) problem faced by El Salvador and its Central American neighbors, the situation in the country’s prisons is still a challenge. Drug traffickers in the country, mostly Brazilian or Colombian, have become more sophisticated, and have even established control over pockets of the country’s eastern Santa Cruz province. If penal conditions are not improved in the future, Bolivia’s prisons could further complicate the security situation in the country, developing into major hotspots for organized crime.

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