Bolivia is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected president and a bicameral legislature. In October 2020 Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, candidate for the Movement Towards Socialism party, won the presidential election with 55 percent of the vote. International electoral observation missions and domestic electoral observation organizations characterized the national elections and the subsequent subnational elections in March and April as free, fair, and transparent.
The national police, under the Ministry of Government’s authority, have primary responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of order within the country, but the armed forces, which report to the Ministry of Defense, may be called to help in critical situations. Immigration officials report to the Ministry of Government, and police and military share responsibilities for border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests or detentions; serious problems concerning judicial independence; restrictions on free expression, the press, and other media, including violence against journalists by state security forces and censorship; serious government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; and some of the worst forms of child labor.
The government took steps in some cases to prosecute members of the security services and other government officials who committed abuses or corrupt acts, but inconsistent and ineffective application of the law and a corrupt judiciary led to impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year.
On August 17, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), created under an agreement between the government and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), released its report on the postelection violence that left 37 persons dead between September 1 and December 31, 2019. The report blamed the then government for failing to prevent acts of violence and committing acts of violence itself. The GIEI report was generally well received by the government, the opposition, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and independent experts, who stated the report did a credible, independent analysis.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution prohibits all forms of torture, coercion, and physical and emotional violence, but there were reports that government officials employed them. The penal code carries only minimum penalties for persons convicted of torture, but no public official had ever been found guilty of the crime.
NGOs charged that the Ministry of Justice failed to denounce torture by police and military personnel, who employed it frequently, according to Ombudswoman Nadia Cruz. NGOs reported that police investigations relied heavily on torture to procure information and extract confessions. Most abuses reportedly occurred while officials were transferring detainees to police facilities or holding persons in detention. According to reports from NGOs engaged with prison populations, the most common forms of torture for detainees included rape, gang rape by guards, sensory deprivation, use of improvised tear gas chambers, tasers, asphyxiation, verbal abuse, and threats of violence.
On July 21, authorities arrested Mario Bascope, a member of the Cochala Youth Resistance group, on charges of criminal association, destruction of state property, and illegal possession of weapons related to protests held in October 2020 outside Attorney General Lanchipa’s office in Sucre. Bascope claimed police badly beat him when he was arrested. A medical board reported that Bascope’s injuries required hospitalization and that he was unfit to attend trial. Nonetheless, he was taken to court. At his arraignment Bascope testified, “I have had blows to the head, I have not eaten for seven days, I have not had any water. What is happening to me is inhuman.” Ombudswoman Nadia Cruz demanded that due process be respected in Bascope’s case, and she called for a full investigation into “the allegations of mistreatment and possible torture.” The Justice Ministry denied any wrongdoing. Ministry of Justice vice minister Nelson Cox declared Bascope’s guilt was “proven” prior to a judge sentencing Bascope on October 27 to 10 years in prison for trafficking in controlled substances in a separate case.
Within the military, torture and mistreatment occurred both to punish and to intimidate trainees into submission. Military officials regularly verbally abused soldiers for minor infractions and perceived disobedience. The Ombudsman’s Office reported 45 cases of human rights abuses in the military between January 2020 and June 2021, most of them against trainees. The cases entailed complaints of torture and cruel and degrading treatment and led to the deaths of at least two soldiers. There were no convictions in any of these cases.
In one example, on June 30, navy conscript Mauricio Apaza died after being subjected to a series of physical exercises and mistreatment as punishment for escaping from his garrison in Pando. Prosecutors pledged they would seek homicide charges against the alleged perpetrators. On July 7, Ensign Pedro (last name withheld) was arrested and charged with homicide in Apaza’s case. A judge ordered Pedro held in prison while the homicide investigation continued.
Police impunity remained a significant problem due to corruption and politicization of the judicial system. Mechanisms to investigate abuse were rarely utilized or enforced. Complex legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, executive interference, corruption, and inadequate case-tracking mechanisms contributed to police impunity. Investigations frequently were not completed due to payoffs to investigators from the parties being investigated.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prisons were overcrowded, underfunded, and in poor condition, resulting in harsh and life-threatening conditions. Violence was pervasive due to inadequate internal security.
Physical Conditions: According to the government’s penitentiary agency, prison facilities had a combined capacity for 6,765 persons, but in September the prison population was 17,833 inmates, more than two and one-half times capacity. The problem was most acute in the 20 urban prisons, which in 2020 had a combined design capacity of 5,436 persons but held 15,581 inmates.
Women’s prisons operated in Cochabamba, two in La Paz, and one each in Reyes, Rurrenabaque, Santa Rosa, and Trinidad. Men and women shared sleeping facilities in Morros Blancos Prison in Tarija, Montero Prison in Santa Cruz, Riberalta Prison in Beni, and Oruro Prison in Oruro. In other facilities men and women had separate sleeping quarters but commingled daily. Female inmates experienced sexual harassment and assault on a regular basis, and some were forced to pay extortion fees to avoid being raped. Observers noted rampant rape and other forms of gender-based violence and a culture of silence that suppressed reporting gender-based violence due to fear of retaliation.
The law permits children younger than age six to live with an incarcerated mother (but not an incarcerated father) under “safe and regulated conditions.” Older children sometimes resided in detention centers with incarcerated mothers, despite unsafe conditions, often because the parents lacked viable alternative living arrangements due to poverty or family constraints.
The law sets juvenile detention ages from 14 to 16 and requires that juvenile offenders be held in facilities separate from the general prison population to facilitate rehabilitation; however, many prisoners remained in juvenile facilities long after they reached adulthood. Childrenyounger than age 14 are exempt from criminal liability but may be subject to civil liability. Children who are 17 may be tried as adults. Adult inmates and police reportedly abused juvenile prisoners. Rehabilitation programs for juveniles or other prisoners were scarce.
Violence in prisons and detention centers was ubiquitous due to inadequate internal security. Abuses perpetrated by penitentiary officials included systematic intimidation, rape, psychological mistreatment, extortion, torture, and threats of death. There were reports of rape and sexual assault committed by authorities and by other inmates.
One medical doctor attended to prisoners in each prison twice a month. Although medical services were free, prisons rarely had medications on hand. Skin diseases and tuberculosis were widespread due to the cramped sleeping quarters and lack of medicine. Incarcerated pregnant women lacked access to obstetric services.
Corruption was pervasive. Prisoners could purchase a transfer to the rehabilitation center, a newly built detention facility with better living conditions. A prisoner’s ability to pay bribes often determined physical security, cell size, visiting privileges, ability to attend court hearings, day-pass eligibility, and place and length of confinement. Inmates and NGOs both alleged there was an insufficient number of police to escort inmates to their hearings. Prison directors often did not take action to ensure that inmates attended their hearings, exacerbating delays. Police sometimes demanded bribes in exchange for granting inmates the right to attend their own hearings. Independent media reported corruption complaints against police were common. Prison inmates stated guards extorted money in order to let inmates receive goods.
(For information on former president Jeanine Anez, see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest.)
Administration: Authorities generally did not investigate credible allegations of mistreatment. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, prisoners could submit complaints to a commission of district judges for investigation, but due to fear of retaliation by prison authorities, inmates frequently did not do so.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted monitoring by independent observers such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, local NGOs, judges, religious organizations, legislators, and media. The COVID-19 pandemic greatly restricted independent monitoring of prison conditions. Observers reported a nearly complete ban on outside monitors visiting prisons from March 2020 to March 2021. The lawyers of incarcerated defendants were often unable to visit in person. Criminal justice activists also pointed to the lack of any law related to public access to information regarding the prison system and stated the lack of transparency and opacity in the judicial branch increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government did not always respect the law. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. International human rights groups highlighted several potentially politically motivated cases initiated by the government that resulted in arbitrary arrest, all against opponents of the government or members of the previous government.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires that police obtain an arrest warrant from a prosecutor and that a judge substantiate the warrant within eight hours of an arrest. Police did not strictly adhere to these time restrictions, except in cases in which the government specifically ordered adherence. The law mandates that a detainee appear before a judge within 24 hours (except under a declared state of siege, during which a detainee may be held for 48 hours), at which time the judge must determine the appropriateness of continued pretrial detention or release on bail. The judge is to order the detainee’s release if the prosecutor fails to show sufficient grounds for arrest. The government allows suspects to select their own lawyers; it provides a lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office if the suspect requests one. The public defenders were generally overburdened and limited in their ability to provide adequate, timely legal assistance. While bail is permitted, most detainees were placed in pretrial detention or could not afford to post bail. Several legal experts noted pretrial detention was the rule rather than the exception.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government did not always respect the law.
On March 13, former interim president Jeanine Anez was arrested on charges of terrorism, sedition, and conspiring to overthrow the government before and while in office. She was held in prison on pretrial detention. The constitution states that sitting and former presidents are entitled to an impeachment trial – not a regular criminal trial – for acts committed in office. The government, however, pursued regular criminal proceedings against Anez. In a March 23 interview, Minister of Justice Ivan Lima stated the government initiated a criminal process against Anez because the government lacked the votes in the legislature to authorize her impeachment. Legal experts noted the minister’s statement suggested the government was more interested in Anez’s imprisonment than in giving her a fair trial.
Legal experts noted several irregularities in the arrest of Anez and members of her administration. Courts issued arrest warrants without authorities providing required notifications. Authorities did not provide any evidence to support the charges, other than the fact that Anez and her cabinet members led the transitional government from October 2019 to November 2020. Anez’s daughter, Carolina Ribera Anez, stated police used physical force on family relatives to get information on Jeanine Anez’s whereabouts. Jeanine Anez’s brother Juan Carlos claimed police arbitrarily detained his two sons for 36 hours and tortured one of them. “They put black bags on him to suffocate him, beat him, and asked him to tell them where his aunt (Jeanine Anez) was,” Juan Carlos stated. Furthermore, both Police Chief Jhonny Aguilera and Minister of Government Eduardo del Castillo flew to Trinidad, Bolivia, where Anez lived, to supervise her arrest. The presence of these senior officials, highly irregular for an arrest operation, was an indicator that the government at the highest levels was directing the process against Anez and others, placing tremendous pressure on judges who already lacked real independence, according to knowledgeable observers.
Human rights groups expressed concern that the arrests of Anez and members of her administration were politically motivated. Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas region of the NGO Human Rights Watch, stated the arrest warrant against Anez “does not contain any evidence that she has committed the crime of terrorism.” Vivanco raised concerns that the warrant “is based on political motives.”
On August 3, a judge ordered an additional six months of pretrial detention against Anez on charges of “committing crimes contrary to the constitution” filed by the Ministry of Government and by Senate President Andronico Rodriguez of the Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS) related to the assumption of the presidency by Anez in 2019. The additional six months of pretrial detention were added to the original six months of pretrial preventive detention ordered on March 14 and covered separate, new charges of terrorism, sedition, and conspiring to overthrow the government. Andres Zabaleta, a lawyer for Anez, stated Anez’s due-process rights were violated because neither she nor her legal team were officially notified of these new charges. Zabaleta also claimed that the principle of “indivisibility” (similar to double jeopardy) of the process was violated by instituting a second trial for the same case in question.
On August 21, Anez deliberately cut her left wrist and one of her arms in an attempt to commit suicide while in prison. She was taken to a hospital for treatment due to the severity of her injuries, and her son was allowed to stay with her overnight. Following the incident, Anez stated she “no longer wanted to live.” Minister of Government Eduardo Del Castillo called her injuries “merely scratches” and alleged that the government’s preferential treatment of Anez caused inmates to riot. Human rights groups widely criticized the government’s imprisonment of Anez and its refusal to grant her bail despite her weak health.
Pretrial Detention: The law affords judges the authority to order pretrial detention if there is a high probability a suspect committed a crime, if evidence exists that the accused seeks to obstruct the investigation process, or if a suspect is considered a flight risk. If a suspect is not detained, a judge may order significant restrictions on the suspect’s movements.
The law states no one shall be detained for more than 18 months without formal charges. If after 18 months the prosecutor does not present formal charges and conclude the investigatory phase, the detainee may request release by a judge. The judge must order the detainee’s release, but the charges against the detainee are not dropped. By law the investigatory phase and trial phase of a case may not exceed 36 months combined. The law allows a trial extension if the delays in the process are due to the defense. In these circumstances pretrial detention may exceed the 36-month limit without violating the law.
Despite the legal limits on pretrial detention, prolonged pretrial detention remained a problem, and women remained in pretrial detention at higher rates than men. Complex legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, executive interference, corruption, a shortage of public defenders, and inadequate case-tracking mechanisms contributed to trial delays that lengthened pretrial detention and kept many suspects detained beyond the legal limits for the completion of a trial or the presentation of formal charges.
Many defense attorneys intentionally did not attend hearings to delay trial proceedings and ultimately avoid a final sentencing, either at the request of their clients or due to high caseloads. According to the penitentiary agency, approximately 64 percent of prisoners were being held in pretrial detention, consistent with 2020 figures but less than in previous years, when 70-85 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention.
(For information regarding former president Jeanine Anez, see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest.)
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary remained overburdened, vulnerable to undue influence by the executive and legislative branches, and plagued with allegations of corruption. Authorities generally respected court orders, but on several occasions, they pressured judges to change verdicts. Judges and prosecutors sometimes practiced self-censorship when issuing rulings to avoid becoming the target of verbal and legal harassment by the government.
The judiciary faced numerous administrative and budgetary problems. NGOs asserted the funds budgeted for the judiciary were insufficient to assure equal and efficient justice and that the reliance on underfunded, overburdened public prosecutors led to serious judicial backlogs. Justice officials were vulnerable to bribery and corruption, according to credible observers, including legal experts. An NGO’s 2020 Report on the State of Justice expressed serious concerns regarding the training and qualifications of most judges.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay, but the government did not always respect the law. Defendants are entitled to be informed of charges promptly and in detail, to a presumption of innocence, and to trial by a panel of judges. They have the right to avoid self-incrimination, consult an attorney of their choice, receive adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, confront adverse witnesses, present witnesses and evidence, and file an appeal. Defendants who cannot afford an attorney have the right to a public defender or private attorney at public expense. Free translation and interpretation services are required by law.
As a COVID-19 pandemic safety precaution, some hearings were scheduled on virtual platforms, but on many occasions, inmates did not have access to reliable equipment or internet connections.
Officials did not always comply with the law. Criminal justice observers pointed out the number of public defenders fell from 89 to 64 countrywide during the year, resulting in increased case backlogs. Observers also highlighted the perennially poor retention of public defenders due to the large workload and poor compensation; public defenders often earned only half of what prosecutors earned.
There were reports the government punished judges who did not render the verdicts the government desired. For example, on March 20, Judge Ximena Mendizabal ordered the release of Yassir Molina, who led a youth group that opposed the government. Minister of Justice Lima publicly criticized Mendizabal’s decision and threatened to investigate her. A few days later, a court suspended Mendizabal for one month without pay. The government argued Mendizabal was suspended for trying cases too slowly in 2016, but legal experts observed that was most likely a pretext to punish her for releasing Molina. In a press interview, Mendizabal said she was terrified to order Molina’s release because she expected government retaliation.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
(For information regarding former president Jeanine Anez, see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest.)
International and local human rights organizations denounced arrests against prominent opponents of the government and former government officials that they claimed were politically motivated. Human rights groups called attention to the case of former migration director Marcel Rivas. On May 27, the government ordered Rivas’s arrest on charges that he abused his office to help former government minister Arturo Murillo and former defense minister Fernando Lopez flee the country. According to Rivas’s attorneys, the government did not provide any evidence to support the charges. The government rejected evidence that Rivas was no longer in office when Murillo and Lopez left the country. The government reportedly pressured a judge to deny house arrest to Rivas, although Rivas had a medical condition that warranted house arrest. Rivas was expected to be in prison for nine months before his next trial hearing. According to human rights groups, the government prosecuted Rivas merely because of his association with the Anez government.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The law permits individuals and organizations to seek criminal remedies through domestic courts for human rights violations. At the conclusion of a criminal trial, the complainant may initiate a civil trial to seek damages. The human rights ombudsman may issue administrative resolutions on specific human rights cases. The ombudsman’s resolutions are nonbinding, and the government is not obligated to accept his or her recommendations.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government generally respected the right of freedom of association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
While the law requires a permit for most demonstrations, the government rarely enforced the provisions, and most protesters demonstrated without obtaining permits. Most demonstrations were peaceful but occasionally demonstrators carried weapons, including clubs, machetes, firearms, firecrackers, and dynamite. Security forces at times dispersed protest groups who were carrying weapons or threatening government and private facilities.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: National elections took place in October 2020. MAS candidate Luis Arce won the election for president with 55 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Citizen Community candidate Carlos Mesa, won 28.8 percent of the vote. The elections were peaceful, and Mesa conceded soon after the release of the preliminary vote tabulations. International electoral observation missions and domestic electoral observation organizations characterized the elections as free, fair, and transparent. In November 2020 Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca were sworn in as president and vice president, respectively, along with the 36 newly elected members of the Senate and 130 members of the Chamber of Deputies.
Subnational elections took place on March 8. The elections were marked by an atmosphere of peace and calm. International and national electoral observation missions monitored the elections and reported the elections met international standards. Electoral authorities reported the overall participation in voting was 85 percent. No-shows by many citizen poll workers led to delays in opening some voting booths and long lines for voters, especially in La Paz and El Alto. By law each voting booth must be supervised by citizen poll workers chosen randomly by computer from the official voter roll. Many experts attributed the high no-show rate of these poll workers to either COVID-19 pandemic fears or concerns regarding the complicated nature of the poll work for subnational elections. President Arce publicly criticized electoral authorities. By noon on election day, electoral authorities confirmed all voting booths had opened, and absent poll workers were fined 630 bolivianos ($92), as required by law.
There were reports the government exerted pressure on the independent electoral authority, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). On July 1, MAS deputy Ramiro Venegas brought charges against TSE president Oscar Hassenteufel and TSE vice president Nancy Gutierrez for “not cooperating” with the legislature. On July 15, MAS deputy Jhonny Pardo filed a separate criminal complaint against existing and former TSE members, including Salvador Romero, Rosario Baptista, Maria Angelica Ruiz, and Nancy Gutierrez, for their decision to reinstate opposition leader Manfred Reyes Villa as candidate for Cochabamba mayor in the March subnational elections. Civil society activists denounced these charges as politically motivated and lacking substance. They cited them as evidence that the ruling MAS party was trying to control the independent electoral authority.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law mandates gender parity in the candidate selection process at national, regional, and municipal legislative levels.
While women had a substantial amount of representation on the legislative level, occupying 52 percent of legislative seats, they remained significantly underrepresented in executive positions. Candidates for mayor, governor, vice president, and president were not chosen from party lists. Most executive political positions were held by men.
Women participating in politics faced violence and harassment. According to a survey conducted by the Association of Female Mayors and Councilwomen of Bolivia, 59 percent of councilwomen polled had suffered some type of violence or political harassment in their municipality, and 39 percent did not complete their term due to the severity of the threats and hostility they received.
On February 19, Juana Rojas Choque, a National Action Party of Bolivia (PAN-BOL) candidate for the municipal election in Puerto Villarroel, went into hiding because MAS supporters threatened to kill her and her family if she did not resign her candidacy. Before local elections in Copacabana on March 7, Nelly Tito Diaz was verbally and physically attacked for running as a PAN-BOL candidate after having been a member of the MAS-aligned Confederation of Female Indigenous Farmers (Bartolina Sisa). The ombudsman declared that any act of harassment and political violence must be punished, and investigations were opened in both cases.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: Authorities apprehended Minister of Rural Development and Lands Edwin Characayo on April 12 for taking a $20,000 bribe in exchange for land titles and agriculture-drainage services. On April 14, Minister of Justice Lima stated Characayo was the subject of a criminal investigation involving “authorities at different levels of the state.”
On July 13, anticorruption prosecutor Anghelo Saravia was convicted of taking bribes to drop charges against potential defendants. Saravia was recorded taking the bribe during a sting operation. Civil society activists reported that situations such as Saravia’s were common and that prosecutors usually took $2,500 per case to drop charges.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were cooperative and responsive to their views, with some exceptions.
On September 10, a radical group known as the Wila Lluch’us called on its followers to burn down the home of human rights activist Amparo Carvajal. The government refused calls to denounce the group, claiming it did not exist. Wila Lluch’us subsequently confirmed its existence and its ties to the government but denied having called for violence against Carvajal.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution establishes a human rights ombudsman, subject to confirmation by both houses of Congress, with a six-year term. The ombudsman is charged with defending and promoting human rights, specifically defending citizens against government abuses. The constitution also gives the ombudsman the right to propose legislation and recommend modifications to laws and government policies. The ombudsman operated with inadequate resources. Civil society groups and several political figures contended the ombudsman lacked independence from the central government, in part because the MAS supermajority in Congress allowed for the nominee’s confirmation without meaningful debate.
Both houses of Congress had human rights committees that proposed laws and policies to promote and protect human rights. Opposition politicians accused the MAS of using the Ethics Committee within the Chamber of Deputies for political purposes. On June 24, the MAS-controlled committee accepted a complaint against 12 opposition legislators for having travelled to the United States “without permission.” The travelling legislators in question met with leadership from the Organization of American States, the IACHR, and Human Rights Watch. These legislators also denounced the arrest of former interim president Anez and the promotion of a false “coup” narrative related to the 2019 postelection unrest. (For information on former president Jeanine Anez, see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest.)