Smuggling rings operate in approximately 20 villages in the Bolivian border region, according to the Bolivian customs agency, underlining how deep the black market economy runs and how difficult it will be to uproot.
In an interview with local press, President of Bolivian Customs (Aduana Nacional) Marlene Arday said villages near the Bolivian borders with Chile and Paraguay are used by smugglers transporting contraband items such as whisky and cigarettes.
According to Arday, smugglers buy community support by financing community projects and in many areas operate with the complicity of corrupt local authorities.
The communities vigorously oppose attempts to control smuggling and members even launch attacks against customs officials, Arday said. She also accused smugglers of using women and children as human shields in confrontation with customs officials.
The agency's ability to control the trade is sorely hampered by legal restrictions, according to Arday. Even in areas renowned for smuggling, officials can only act if they have received a complaint.
InSight Crime Analysis
Smuggling is a long-time tradition in many parts of Latin America, especially in areas where disparate economies share a border, and where illegal actors have more purview and access to goods.
Bolivia is no exception, in particular near its porous border with Paraguay, which has also been flagged for an area where Brazilian organized crime has taken hold. As well as items such as contraband cigarettes, Bolivian smugglers transport stolen cars and gasoline, which is much cheaper in Bolivia due to state subsidies.
The situation highlighted by Arday also demonstrates the difficulty in tackling smuggling in isolated regions where it is often one of the principal economic activities.
Any attempts by customs officials to tackle smuggling are likely to be fiercely opposed not only by criminal groups but by whole communities who recieve more financing from smuggling than from the state or the legal economy.