A security operation looking to regain control of the Bolivian border town of San Matías has revealed the extent to which an absence of state institutions has led to lawlessness in the area.
Police arrested 14 people in raids in San Matías, a Bolivian town situated 7 kilometers from the Brazilian border.
The raids were part of “Operación Retorno” (Operation Return), which began on October 15 to mark the return of security forces to the area following a four-month absence.
“In San Matías, drug trafficking and money laundering have found their way into the structures of local authorities,” said Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero, El Deber reported. The minister also pointed to violent clashes between a local group and another drug trafficking gang from Cáceres in Brazil, with both sides seeing losses.
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Security forces fled the area due to public fury after police shot and killed a young man during traffic checks on June 18. The man appeared to have no link to any criminal activities and local people rioted in response, setting fire to a police station and vehicles.
However, a reinforced police force of 200 officers is now active in San Matías, in a bid to regain control of the town.
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Being a no man’s land of sorts, relative isolation from the rest of the country and its proximity to the Brazilian border have made San Matías a strategic crossing point for drugs, illicit goods, and people. The town is part of a major drug trafficking corridor for Bolivian cocaine entering Brazil.
The current operation in San Matías may serve to re-establish nothing more than a superficial police presence in the town. The first wave of arrests reveals how desperate authorities are to show any sort of progress, as drunk drivers made up almost half of the arrests portended to target criminal organizations.
Any real difference is unlikely without accompanying institutional changes that can guarantee a strong and reliable state presence in the region.
“This is a region that has been stateless for a long time,” political sociologist and Bolivia expert Miguel Centellas told Insight Crime. “For many people in border areas, the only state presence is the local mayor which leads to a disconnect with the national government.”
This abandonment by state institutions and the poor handling of criminal acts when intervention does occur has left communities vulnerable to infiltration by criminal groups.
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Last year, amid concerns surrounding the expansion of Brazilian drug trafficking groups into Bolivia, officials from both countries discussed a reinforced plan to target border security. However, such plans are unlikely to have much success.
San Matías has a long history of failed state intervention. In 2010, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva dedicated efforts to create an anti-drugs plan for the area. More recently, the Bolivian government created a specialist border police with the hope of regaining control over the troubled border region.
These programs have not quelled the longstanding security issues in the area. Murder rates in San Matías have spiked this year as police forces continued to struggle.
And local residents view the police with hostility and suspicion. Incidents such as the killing of a supposedly innocent young man will only worsen this. The burning of the police station shows that public patience with the authorities may be at an end.