A controversial change in the National Police Commander is the most recent manifestation of the deepening crisis within the Bolivian police institution. On May 21st, Víctor Maldonado replaced Jorge Santiesteban, making him the seventh National Police Commander since Evo Morales took office in 2006. The Morales administration requested Santiesteban‘s resignation after only one year as a result of fallout over the controversial admission of 54 cadets into the National Police Academy (Anapol). In April, it came to light that 54 cadets had been admitted into a special pilot program, ostensibly to diversify the student body. Police officials allegedly accepted five thousand dollars bribes per cadet. Transparency Minister Nardi Suxo accused Santiesteban of threatening her family and others investigating the cadet scandal. Both Santiesteban and his replacement have been implicated in the police repression of the TIPNIS march in Chaparina in September 2011.
Santiesteban Insists on His Innocence
Santiesteban told the press that a dirty war and a conspiracy have been instigated against him in order to damage his public image and accelerate Maldonado’s promotion. Santiesteban maintained that the admission of the 54 cadets was “within the rules and statutes of the Police Academy” and that the pilot program was merely “misinterpreted.” However, his testimony to the investigative commission has been postponed six times by both the prosecution and the defense. Most recently, Santiesteban lawyer’s delayed his testimony indefinitely by filing a motion against “defective procedure.” Santiesteban declined to comment further.
Promotion Provokes Protest
Meanwhile, Santiesteban’s successor, Maldonado, received more than his share of criticism, and new accusations surface almost daily. The political party Movement Without Fear (MSM), political analysts, journalists, and many high-ranking police officers have expressed concerns about Maldonado’s personal character, qualifications, and the legality of his promotion. In 1992, Maldonado killed a 20-year-old woman while driving drunk in an official police vehicle. There was a police disciplinary process but no criminal proceedings against him; rather, he monetarily compensated the family of the victim. That same year, Maldonado was also faced charges for the escape of a prisoner. More recently, both the MSM and the Ombudsman have included Maldonado on the list of people denounced for human rights violations regarding the violent repression of the TIPNIS march in Chaparina.
Colleagues Question Qualifications
Maldonado graduated from the National Detectives School in 1981. In the mid-1980s, the detectives school and the National Directorate of Investigation became one institution, and then merged with the National Police Academy. As a result, Maldonado became part of the police force in 1983, acknowledged as part of the graduating class of 1980. This is controversial for several reasons. Dictator Hugo Banzer founded the detectives school in 1977 to train people for the National Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DNIC), an apparatus used by military dictatorships to intimidate and suppress dissent. Furthermore, according to Bolivian law, the National Police Commander must come from with the institution. Critics assert that Maldonado’s promotion violates internal police regulations and the Bolivian constitution. Many police leaders have openly expressed dissent, most notably Coronel Jorge Toro of the Special Forces in the Fight Against Crime (FELCC). Toro stated that he would not be subordinate to a commander who did not rise through the ranks of the institution appropriately. He currently faces disciplinary action for subordination. Maldonado attributed criticism to colleagues’ personal aspirations for promotions and defended his credentials.
Deeping Crisis of Institutional Legitimacy
Maldonado’s appointment could impede his fellow officers’ promotions. According to Bolivian law, when members of a graduating class are promoted to general, those not promoted to general are forced into retirement. His post as National Police Commander almost guarantees his promotion to general. This aggravates police leaders’ existing discontent over a recent law that changed the requirements for promotion. In addition, the government promoted fewer officers than anticipated and decided to suspend promotions for the rest of the year, citing the “sensitivity” generated Maldonado’s appointment, and set the process “back to square one.”
The decision to appoint Maldonado has certainly deepened the conflict within the police institution and threatens to deepen the Morales’ administration’s crisis of legitimacy. High-ranking police officials warn that there will be a politicization of the police institution. Some political analysts claim that the government acted politically without considering the latent conflicts and discontent within the police institution. One political scientist warned that this decision “violates the structure and historical doctrine of the police and it is an unnecessary risk to the institution” that will exacerbate the conflict. The effects of this discontent were already readily apparent at Maldonado’s induction ceremony, during which many high-ranking officials, including some from Maldonado’s graduating class, refused to salute him.
MAS Defends Maldonado
MAS and the Morales administration are defending Maldonado’s promotion. Morales gave a speech naming Maldonado as part of the new “doctrine for the people, not for the empire,” making vague connections to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the process of decolonization, the International Monetary Fund, neoliberalism, social movements, and the ambitions of the opposition. Minister of Government Carlos Romero asked the police to respect the decision of the government and put their faith in Maldonado. MAS representative Adolfo Mendoza asked the police to respect Morales’ decision and claimed that the press exaggerates discontent within police ranks.
Morales’ Supporting Armed Forces Deepens Police Resentment
In a speech on May 28th, Morales continued his effusive praise for the Armed Forces, traditional rivals of the police for budget and executive support. He said the Armed Forces are recuperating their image and will now serve to the people. Morales extolled the virtues of the military, and stated that when government ministers do not perform satisfactorily, he tries to substitute them with officials from the Armed Forces. The military Commander in Chief returned Morales’ warm sentiments, stating that Morales “served the country in the year 1978 and he feels in his heart what the military institution needs.”
The highly questioned promotion of Maldonado as well as Morales’ blatant preference for the Armed Forces over the police demonstrate the administration’s difficulty in its attempts to extend its “process of change” to Bolivian law enforcement. Furthermore, the administration’s decisions often appear to be counterproductive and exacerbate inequities and friction between the police and military, further impeding awkward reform efforts. These initiatives meet great resistance, and have resulted in a painful stalemate in which everyone loses.