Inmates in one of Bolivia's overcrowded prisons

Bolivian police believe there are at least ten criminal organizations in the country that are run from inside prisons, highlighting the complex problems facing Bolivia’s prison system.

According to anonymous police intelligence officials consulted by La Prensa, at least ten criminal networks dedicated to car theft and robbery are run out of prisons in the cities of La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

These groups reportedly operate with the help of associates and family members, who make regular visits to their imprisoned ringleaders in addition to communicating via cell phone. One source told La Prensa that the leaders of these criminal groups have “lieutenants” who report to them on a regular basis about the state of affairs on the outside.

InSight Crime Analysis

Enforcing internal order is a problem for prisons across Latin America, which are almost as a rule overcrowded and understaffed. In the most notorious cases, in countries like El Salvador and Venezuela, gangs virtually run their own prisons, using them as recruitment centers and operation hubs.

The security situation in Bolivia’s prisons is not nearly as bad as in those countries. Still, the La Prensa report is evidence that a similar kind of dynamic exists in the country’s penal facilities, which does not bode well for the future. Bolivia’s prison system is vastly overcrowded, and the organized, semi-autonomous way in which many prisons are run already has some concerned about the potential for prison gangs to become more sophisticated. Bolivian inmates form organizations known as councils, whose members charge fellow prisoners "taxes," and while some analysts maintain that this money is used for the collective welfare, in many cases this system more closely resembles extortion, as InSight Crime has pointed out.

Ultimately, if the endemic problems facing Bolivia’s prisons are not addressed, their potential to serve as major hubs of organized crime could deepen.