The crisis brewing in the police institution has boiled over into a mutiny and continues to escalate. Several thousands of police across the country have gone on strike, and support appears to be increasing. Police officers and their wives have taken over several buildings, barricaded themselves in police offices. Uncharacteristically, the mutiny began on a national holiday and continued through the weekend. This suggests that the conflict is quite severe and could have significant, lasting implications. The government has few options if the conflict spirals. If they are unwilling to accede to demands that would place considerable strain on the treasury, there is a risk that they would feel forced to call out the armed forces to put down the uprising, a move with a predictable, disastrous outcome.
Dissatisfaction among police officers as well as a crisis of legitimacy within the institution of the police has increased during 2012. Perceived preferential treatment of the military is one of the key bones of contention. Although the state sends police officers when conflicts arise, police officers earn only about a third of rank-and-file members of the armed forces salaries, about $194 USD a month. In April and May of 2012, miners held two police officers hostage and many others sustained injuries in conflicts with protesters, exacerbating discontent. In the last sixty days police wives have initiated three hunger strikes, demanding that salaries and pensions increase to a level comparable to the soldiers’ compensation. There has also been resentment over shrinking income and budgets, the forced resignation of several hundred officers as a result of promotion schedules, and key concessions that Morales made to the armed forces.
The reputation of the police institution has also suffered in recent months. In April, a major corruption scandal came to light implicating the National Police Commander and other high-ranking officials in accepting bribes for the entrance of cadets into the police academy. In the fallout of this scandal, Morales aggravated police discontent by promoting a new National Police Commander in late May, whose technical qualifications and personal integrity came under heavy scrutiny by his colleagues.
Long-Term Causes of the Conflict
- Police feel their budget has shrunk dramatically. At the beginning of the Morales administration, they thought they would have significantly larger funding as result of tax revenue generated by the 2005 Hydrocarbons law, but this money now goes through the departmental governments who have often had a hard time disbursing their money effectively and efficiently — this means the police get less than budgeted. With the direct election of governors since 2006, political conflicts between the central and departmental governments creates a stalemate where neither government is eager to disburse funds, especially when they are from different parties.
- In real terms, the Bolivian budget for the institution has increased, but international economic support has decreased substantially. This is especially true for elite units like the FELCN (drug control police), who were funded almost entirely by the United States.
- Although the Morales administration has invested a great deal of money to improve and expand military infrastructure, most police installations are crumbling and shabby. For example, for several months the FELCN office in Cochabamba sported a sign explaining, “Please don’t lean on the garage door; it’s broken and may fall over.”
- There is historical competition and friction between the military and the police for budget, political preferences, and prestige. This was exacerbated by a mixing of missions in the drug war (military had police/eradication role, police received military antidrug training). The use of the military to patrol the streets and put down protests (renewed during the Banzer administration 1997-2002) displaced the police, (who were criticized for being corrupt and inefficient), but also made the military the institution most responsible for gross human rights violations.
- This institutional friction exploded very messily in Black February 2003— In response to a police mutiny, the police and military had an all day shootout in front of the capitol building. Read the AIN update of the incident here: http://ain-bolivia.org/2003/02/ii-62/
- Although the military blocked prosecution of implicated officers in the case, the military prosecutions for Black October, which led to high profile convictions, led the armed forces to be much less willing to intervene in civilian unrest. As a result, the GOB sent out the police again against popular protest. The first notable case was Caranavi in 2010, where there were civilian deaths and police under investigation and charged with human rights violations. The police have become the “bad guys” again.
- Morales efforts at profound police reform have been superficial, fraught with conflict, and consistently blocked by corrupt members of the institution.
- There is also a great deal of resentment that the government took over the administration of ID cards and drivers licenses away from the police because it was a huge source of unsupervised income for them, although no one really knows how much. This was perceived as yet another huge offense.
- The police blame the Morales administration for the violent TIPNIS intervention and the Morales administration blames the police. The administration even accused them of staging the violent intervention to make the government look bad, although it is clear that Bolivian government officials approved the action.
- There have been several Ministers of Government without experience in the field—Sacha Llorenti, who has a human rights background and Carlos Romero, whose primary experience is in rural development.
- A salary raise to make police salaries equivalent to those of the armed forces as well as equivalent pensions
- Annulment of Law 101, which police wives call a “Gag Rule” that takes away low-ranking officials’ right to defense and due process as guaranteed by the constitution
- The creation of a police ombudsman
- June 18th: Police wives in La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí initiated third hunger strike in less than two months, demanding comparable salaries and pensions to the armed forces, hazard pay, and the annulment of Law 101.
- June 19th: Police wives in Cochabamba and Beni joined the hunger strike.
- June 20th:
- The hunger strike of officers’ wives continued.
- Rebelling officers and their wives closed various police units in capital cities throughout the country, blockading the entrances and insisting they will not leave until their demands are met.
- In La Paz, police officers and their wives acquired arms and tear gas grenades and expelled-higher ranking officers the Tactical Police Operations Unit (UTOP).
- In Cochabamba, police wives, sergeants, and low-level police officers took control of the Cochabamba UTOP office after a violent scuffle with police officials.
- In Sucre, Oruro, Tarija, and Potosí, several units suspended their normal patrols and blocked the entrance to police quarters and departmental command offices. Their wives initiated hunger strikes.
- In Beni, police wives closed police offices.
- By the estimate of the president of a national police association (Ansclapol), 3,000 of the 33,000 police officers in the country had abandoned their daily functions.
- June 21st:
- In Santa Cruz, police wives installed protests and began a hunger strike.
- Police in La Paz and Oruro peacefully took the offices of General Service of Personal Identification (Segip), which replaced the police ID card office.
- Police took over the Tactical Police Operations Unit and Disciplinary Tribunal in La Paz and began burning documents.
- The government called out another police unit to repress mutinying officers, causing greater discontent.
- June 22nd:
- Protesting officers rejected the government offer of a 200 Boliviano (about $29 USD) monthly raise.
- Police officers and their wives marched around the presidential palace, which is heavily guarded by military.
- Police in Santa Cruz took over the offices of General Service of Personal Identification (Segip). Remaining offices of Segip around the country are closed.
- Some 300 police officers in La Paz took over the National Intelligence Directorate, smashing windows and furniture and lighting documents on fire. They later smashed up the national police headquarters.
- In Cochabamba, there has been a possible prison escape due to the lack of police on guard. In several prisons, inmates support police demands.
- Police placed snipers on the roof of the Foreign Ministry and had a significant presence in the Plaza Murillo, where the capitol building is located.
- Sub-Lieutenants, majors, and one colonel expressed support for the police mutiny and joined the ranks of the rebelling officers.
- Minister of Government Carlos Romero said that it is impossible to grant the raise, and that the rebels’ threat to withdraw and not participate in the celebration of the anniversary of the police institution will not be tolerated.
- National Commander of Police Victor Maldonado threatened tough sanctions for officers who participate in demonstrations.
- The government offered a 200 Boliviano ($29 US) monthly raise, which falls far short of their demands; they rejected the proposal.
Please see AIN report Bolivian Police Protest Promotion and Presidential Policy for more background.