There are now 762 gangs operating in Bolivia, according to a new report, suggesting a rising domestic criminal presence in the key coca-producing and drug transit nation.
According to a study by the National Citizen Security Observatory (ONSC), the number of gangs in Bolivia has risen nine percent in two years -- from 700 in 2011 to 762 this year, reported La Razon. The majority are concentrated in La Paz (261), Santa Cruz (169), and Cochabamba (106), with over 25,000 members throughout the country. Of these gangs, 60 percent are involved in robbery and assault, 86 percent use knives to intimidate victims, and 11 percent use guns.
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Interior Minister Carlos Romero told La Razon that the upward trend is "alarming because the number of members is growing and the age at which they join is decreasing." Romero said children as young as 12 are now joining gangs, and are recruited in school, whereas in the past members were usually between 15 and 17 years of age.
A 2012 report found that Bolivian gangs averaged 25 members each and were often involved in local drug trafficking as well as other violent activities.
InSight Crime Analysis
Bolivia is traditionally one of the region's safer countries; however the rise of gangs seems to coincide with a rise in violent crime. While the homicide rate stood at 7.7 per 100,000 in 2011 according to United Nations figures, the Bolivian government placed the rate at 11 per 100,000 this year and reported that violent crime was rising.
While it is noteworthy that most gangs are small and do not currently possess firearms, conditions in the country could facilitate the evolution of these small domestic groups. Bolivia is a major coca producer and serves as an air bridge for drug flights between Peru and Brazil. The eastern department of Santa Cruz has become a hub for cocaine production and trafficking, and violent Brazilian prison gang the First Capital Command (PCC) are known to have a presence in the country, among other transnational groups.
Exacerbating the problem is the corruption and ineffectiveness blighting Bolivia's police force, which may hamper efforts to effectively combat the rise in local criminal groups.