Insight Crime Misrepresents Bolivian Dilemma by Projecting “Prison Gang” Dangers

Insight Crime’s “Massive Overcrowding Allows Bolivia’s Prison Gangs to Flourish accurately highlights some of the endemic problems faced by Bolivia’s prisons. Yet, the crisis is not new; it began soon after the passage of drug control Law 1008, when the prison population swelled with prisoners detained on low-level drug charges. At the peak of the drug war, over 90 percent of all inmates were prosecuted by Law 1008 and this number still hovers around 85%, in spite of legal reforms.

Clearly, since that time there has been criminal activity within the jails, including cell phone cloning groups, and people connected to car thefts, and drugs and prostitutes are available. Periodically, police break down these rings and transfer involved inmates.  Yet, the suggestion that criminal gangs run the prisons is overdramatic and overstated.  During more than 20 years of abject, and truly unbearable overcrowding, judicial delay, crumbling infrastructure, and ridiculously low budgets, criminal activity has not increased or spilled over dramatically to the detriment of larger Bolivian society.

The delegates mentioned by Insight Crime, don’t “extort” inmates, instead they are elected by them and considered advocates for their interests. As the post notes, inmates do pay fees for the right to cells and other privileges, but the amounts charged are defined by prisoner voting, as is the set of internal prison regulations. There are mutually agreed-upon internal sanctions for incompliance with these rules, but these are not “torture’ or “death.”  Funds gathered are spent according to collective decision on infrastructure improvement, income-generating initiatives, and assistance for indigent inmates, bus-fare and other costs for elected “procuradores” (prisoners with some legal knowledge that help assume inmates’ defense) and even holiday celebrations. Prisoners also use funds and internal regulations to cover healthcare and other costs for hundreds of inmates’ children who reside in the prisons.

Although the system should not be romanticized, it is a desperate attempt to cover prisoner needs and maintain some semblance of order in intolerable conditions. For example, Cochabamba’s San Sebastian prison houses approximately 650 inmates in 500 sq meters (5,400 sq ft).   And, in fact, there are very few cases of violence inside the prisons, where cells are open and stores, soup kitchens, small businesses and even carpentry shops function. Human rights monitors, journalists and others have frequent access to the facilities.

It is inaccurate to automatically liken the longstanding internal prison control in Bolivia to those of Mexico, Venezuela and El Salvador, very different nations with much higher rates of violent and organized crime and distinct prison systems.

Insight Crime correctly cites the presence of an “extortion ring” in a Bolivian jail, but fails to note that Bolivian inmates organized a protest through their internal governance system and obtained the transfer of the ring members to a maximum-security facility.

After over two decades of extreme conditions, the Bolivian government has agreed to raise the daily prisoner allowance to approximately $1.40, over double what it was five years ago, but obviously still woefully inadequate.

Insight’s dramatic statements on international drug trafficking and its potential impact on prison gangs also misses the mark.  Clearly Brazilian and Colombian traffickers do business in Bolivia, as they do in every cocaine-producing and transit nation. Yet it is gross hyperbole to suggest they have “established control pockets of territory” or that they carry out sustained acts of violence that will impact the prison system.  These international traffickers and their local colleagues almost never see the inside of a Bolivian jail, which are filled to bursting with transport “mules” and impoverished individuals hired to make cocaine paste for little profit, expendable tools for trafficking rings.

Insight Crime’s years of experience and keen analysis on Mexico and Central America cannot be super-imposed on a very different context.  The plight of Bolivia’s prisoners is indeed desperate and heart-breaking, but the situation is uniquely Bolivian. Projecting other Latin American realities and patterns of organized crime onto Bolivian inmates does little to improve their dilemma.