Bolivia Struggles to Resolve Its Prison Crisis

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A riot that left four people dead in one prison, and the escape of four inmates from another facility, have reignited the debate over how to approach prison reform in Bolivia.

On September 14, a riot between rival prison gangs in a penitentiary in Cochabamba state killed four and wounded 11. A second riot broke out at the prison three days later, after policeman attempted to enter and seize weapons and other prohibited materials.

In reaction to these disturbances, Bolivia’s Ombudsman’s Office called on the Justice Ministry to activate a “security plan” within the penitentiary. The Attorney General’s Office then arrested the regional director of Cochabamba’s prisons, accusing him of participating in a ring that charged inmates for access to better cells. This same prison director had initially denied that a second riot had even happened in the El Abra prison. 

More recently, authorities announced that four inmates had escaped from the San Pedro prison in La Paz just 24 hours after a police inspection, tying blankets together to use as ropes and climbing over the prison walls. According to officials, two of the escaped inmates were Peruvian nationals and one was allegedly linked to Peruvian guerrilla group the Shining Path, reported La Razon

After the breakout, Justice Minister Elizabeth Gutierrez said the police responsible for guarding and inspecting prisons across the country should be investigated.

InSight Crime Analysis

As is the case in prisons across Latin America, Bolivia’s penitentiaries are crowded, underfunded, and barely under the control of authorities.

President Evo Morales did institute one recent policy to attempt to ease the overcrowding: offering pardons to low-level offenders who haven’t yet had their cases resolved by the justice system, or have been sentenced to less than eight years in prison. Bolivia’s prison director has said more than 800 people have benefitted from the policy since it became active in September 2013. The decree that enabled the measure was recently renewed and is expected to benefit somewhere around a thousand more prisoners. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

Continuing to clear out these low-level offenders from Bolivia’s prisons may be the country’s most viable strategy for now. What’s clear is that if Bolivia continues to neglect the issue, authorities risk more prison riots with higher death tolls, such as one last year that left more than 30 dead.

While prison violence is a serious problem for Bolivia, a country with a relatively low homicide rate among the general population, it is overshadowed by prison violence in places like Venezuela. To put the problem in perspective: while 56 prisoners were killed between 2000 and 2008 in Bolivia, more than 400 were killed in Venezuelan prisons just in 2011.  

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