Bolivian Prison Riot Highlights LatAm Penitentiary Chaos

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A prison riot which left more than 30 dead in Bolivia has highlighted the dire overcrowding, underfunding and lack of control over inmates which make Latin American jails among the most dangerous in the world.

An attack by prisoners from one block against another in Palmasola prison on August 23 killed 32 people and injured scores more — most in a fire sparked by inmates using homemade flame-throwers.

Minister of Government Carlos Romero said only five police officers had been guarding the prison block that was attacked, and the two blocks together only had 15 officers supervising them despite housing more than 500 prisoners, reported El Deber.

Maria Ines Galvis, president of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights for the eastern Santa Cruz region, in which the Palmasola prison is located, claimed at least one police officer directly participated in the attack by opening the door for the attacking prisoners to enter the other block.

She also warned that the targeted block was planning a revenge attack.

Evo Morales’ government has pledged to build more facilities and invest more money to try to tackle the crisis in the country’s prisons, which Romero admitted after the riot are, in many cases, out of control of the state.

InSight Crime Analysis

Latin American prison conditions are among the most brutal in the world, and jails in Bolivia are the second most overcrowded in the region, at 233 percent overcapacity (only beaten by El Salvador with 299 percent). Pre-trial detention combined with a serious judicial backlog is a major factor in overcrowding, with 85 percent of prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing, many of them on minor drugs charges under the controversial Law 1008, which was passed in 1988 to introduce more stringent penalties and judicial conditions for drug offenders.

As is common throughout Latin America, jails are frequently almost entirely run by inmates. Often, these are elected “delegates,” who represent inmates interests, manage logistics such as allocating cells and enforce mutually agreed on rules. However, there are also prison gangs that run extortion rackets, and activities such as drug dealing, and the line between administration and coercion is not always clear.

Nevertheless, Bolivian prisons are not yet the hotbeds of organized crime seen in countries such as VenezuelaBrazil and much of Central America, where a large proportion of outside organized criminal activities are run from inside the jails.

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