Extortion Out of Control in Bolivia Jails: Former Prison Chief

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Police and inmate representatives make tens of thousands of dollars a day from extortion in Bolivia’s prisons, according to the country’s former head of the penal system, a situation that will likely persist as long as there is official corruption.

Speaking in TV interview, Ramiro Llanos said extortion was out of control, with inmates being charged fees as high as $1,000 to be allowed into certain sections, reported La Razon.

According to Llanos, in the infamous Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, site of riots that left over 30 people dead earlier this year, at least $30,000 a day is made out of extortion by prisoners and officials.

Llanos also highlighted other illegal economies that are rampant in Bolivia’s prisons, such as the sale of drugs and alcohol, which he said move freely into the prisons. According to Llanos, studies show cocaine use standing at 38 percent of the prison population in the Altiplano — the region around La Paz — and 95 percent in Santa Cruz.

InSight Crime Analysis

Following the deaths in Palmasola, which were caused by prisoners from one bloc attacking another, Bolivian President Evo Morales declared there is “no state presence” in the country’s prisons.

Filling that gap are groups of prisoners known as “delegates.” These representatives, which are sometimes elected, are supposed to manage logistics and even advocate on behalf of other inmates.

However, as Llanos says, in many cases this system has degenerated into corruption, with delegates, charging prisoners for everything from the right to a cell, to getting visitors, or being allowed out for court appearances.

As with other aspects of Bolivian prisons, the illicit economy — especially the movement of drugs and contraband also highlighted by Llanos — is in part a result of a lack of resources to effectively control prisons, that are the region’s second most overcrowded at 233 percent above capacity. But it is also linked to official corruption, which undoubtedly facilitates the practice.

In recent years, the Bolivian government has taken steps to improve conditions and Morales has said prison reform is now one of his policy priorities. However, unless reforms includes anti-corruption measures then the high levels of extortion and contraband will almost certainly continue.

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