A crackdown by Bolivian security forces on vehicle smuggling this year appears to be failing as the country's contraband trade continues to thrive.
On July 18, an investigation by Bolivian media revealed that the sale of vehicles sold illegally and without any documentation, known as chutos, was proliferating online with at least 20 websites dedicated to these sales. InSight Crime found groups selling these vehicles on Facebook and Instagram. The practice has even generated a popular dance on social media app, TikTok.
The president of Bolivia's automotive chamber of commerce (Cámara Automotor Boliviana - CAB), Luis Encinas, told Página Siete that "at least 350,000 chutos cars are in the country." Chuteros, or vehicle smugglers, move these vehicles from Chile, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay and Brazil into Bolivia, where they are often sold for less than half the price consumers would pay on the legal market.
In June, the government vowed to increase the security presence at the borders to stop all forms of smuggling. But on June 9, chuteros ambushed a military vehicle on an anti-contraband patrol in the municipality of Patacamaya, in the western department of La Paz, according to a news release from Bolivia's Ministry of Defense. Four soldiers were temporarily trapped and needed to be rescued by other patrols. The vehicle's windows were smashed, and weapons and cell phones were reportedly stolen, according to the newspaper, El Deber.
The confrontation is not the only challenge the CEOLCC (Comando Estratégico Operacional de Lucha Contra el Contrabando) has faced recently. In mid-July, Bolivia's defense minister, Edmundo Novillo Aguilar, announced its personnel had been dismissed and replaced, following corruption allegations.
As InSight Crime reported, Bolivia has been facing a surge in contraband during the pandemic.
Bolivian customs reported that, from January to June 2021, the government had seized smuggled cars worth more than $19 million combined. But in February, the then-vice minister for the fight against contraband, Gonzalo Rodríguez, stated that the number of smuggled vehicles in Bolivia had doubled between 2019 and 2020.
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Bolivia has regularly militarized the fight against vehicles and other types of contraband over the years but with little success.
A decade ago, in a now-infamous incident, a patrol of 15 soldiers had to flee after being set upon by a larger group of chuteros near the southern city of Oruro.
But the recent ambush suggests stakes may now be getting higher for smugglers. During the pandemic, economic needs led to a surge in contraband goods for Bolivia. What's more, residents have also been relying on the black market for temporary employment.
But calls for militarization have continued to grow, inside and outside Bolivia.
In early 2019, Bolivia announced it would install 19 military checkpoints along its border with Chile, and another six along the border with Peru.
Later that year, Chile’s government sent troops to its borders with Bolivia, Peru and Argentina to combat criminal gangs dedicated to cross-border crime.
Trade bodies have also demanded military action. In late June, the president of Bolivia’s National Confederation of Small and Micro-Enterprises (Confederación Nacional de la Micro y Pequeña Empresa - CONAMYPE), Agustín Mamani Mayta, called for the government to station troops at borders and blow up paths used to smuggle contraband.
Industry representatives estimate that Bolivia loses between $2.5 billion to $3 billion each year due to contraband.