Bolivia is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected president and a bicameral legislature. In 2014, in a process deemed free but whose fairness was questioned by international observers, citizens re-elected President Evo Morales Ayma, leader of the Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS), for a third term. In 2016 the government held a referendum to allow the president to seek a fourth term in office. Citizens voted the measure down in a process that international observers deemed mostly fair and free. In November 2017 the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal struck down the constitution’s ban on term limits, in a controversial ruling that stated term limits violate an article of the American Convention on Human Rights that guarantees a right to political participation. On December 4, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal approved Morales’ petition to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings and torture by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; lack of judicial independence; political prosecutions; arbitrary detention; reports of censorship and physical attacks on journalists by state security forces; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; corruption in all levels of government; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; mob violence; and forced labor and use of child labor.
The government took steps in some cases to prosecute members of the security services and other government officials who committed abuses, but inconsistent application of the law and a dysfunctional judiciary led to impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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 credible reports that government officials employed them. The penal code carries only minimum penalties for those found guilty of torture, but no public official had ever been found guilty of violating these provisions.
An antitorture nongovernmental organization (NGO) noted that 20 cases of state torture were reported to them from January to November. NGOs charged that the Ministry of Justice’s Service to Prevent Torture failed to consistently denounce torture by police and military, where it occurred most frequently. NGO reports indicated police investigations relied heavily on torture to try to procure information and extract confessions. The majority of abuses reportedly occurred while officials were transferring detainees to police facilities or holding them in detention. According to reports from NGOs engaged with prison populations, the most common forms of torture for detainees included sensory deprivation, use of improvised tear gas chambers, and the use of tasers, asphyxiation, verbal abuse, and threats of violence.
An NGO that works with prisoners reported that in August prison guards handcuffed five prisoners together, locked them in a small room without ventilation, and sprayed the room with teargas and pepper spray for hours. The NGO reported that weeks after the incident, the prisoners’ eyes remained burned and that they suffered from chronic respiratory pain.
On September 17, Jorge Paz, the representative of the ombudsman in Santa Cruz, stated he had witnessed torture in the prison system.
As of September the case continued regarding a La Paz municipal guard accused of sexually assaulting two trafficking victims ages 11 and 17 in 2017. Also pending was the 2017 case regarding allegations that police officers employed torture as an “investigation technique” against a rape suspect to extract his confession.
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.
There were no reported developments in the investigation regarding the suspected hazing of a 17-year-old soldier in training in the city of La Paz in 2017.
A study released in March 2017 by the human rights ombudsman found that police officials sometimes abused sex workers. The study noted the rights of the sex workers were easy to violate because no specific law protects them, even though prostitution is legal.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prisons were overcrowded, underfunded, and in poor physical condition, resulting in harsh and life-threatening conditions. Violence was pervasive due to inadequate internal security.
Physical Conditions: The prison population was more than three times the capacity. According to the Ministry of Justice, as of June 19, there were 18,195 prisoners in facilities designed to hold 5,000 persons. For example, built to accommodate 70 individuals, Montero Prison held 430, including 33 women. The 430 inmates shared three bathrooms. Approximately 80 detainees slept in rotating six-hour shifts in the open-air “patio” portion of the facility. Men and women shared sleeping quarters in some facilities.
Approximately 70 percent of all prisoners were being held in pretrial (preventive) detention. In Montero Prison, 85 percent of the detainees had yet to be tried. In addition, many prisoners remained incarcerated beyond the maximum sentence allowed for the crime for which they had been convicted.
Women’s prisons operated in La Paz (two), Trinidad, and Cochabamba. 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 comingled daily. Female inmates experienced sexual harassment and assault on a regular basis, mostly by other incarcerated persons, and some were forced to pay antirape extortion fees. While observers noted that violence against women reportedly was rampant, they reported a culture of silence that suppressed reporting of gender-based violence for fear of reprisal.
Although the law permits children up to the age of six to live with an incarcerated parent under “safe and regulated conditions,” children as old as 12 resided in detention centers with incarcerated parents, despite unsafe conditions, often because the parents lacked viable alternative living arrangements due to poverty or family constraints. According to the government, approximately 550 children were living in prison with their mothers; an independent news source indicated at least 1,000 children were living with one or both of their parents in prison. In May Deputy Minister of the Interior Jose Luis Quiroga announced that minors six years and under would be allowed only in women’s prisons. Due to repeated incidents of sexual violence, Quiroga stated minors were no longer allowed to live in male detention centers.
The law sets the juvenile detention age from 16 to 14 and requires juvenile offenders be housed in facilities separate from the general prison population in order to facilitate rehabilitation. Children younger than age 14 years are exempt from criminal liability but may be subject to civil liability. Adult inmates and police reportedly abused juvenile prisoners. Rehabilitation programs for juveniles or other prisoners remained scarce.
Violence was ubiquitous due to inadequate internal security. Abuses perpetrated by penitentiary officials included systematic intimidation, psychological mistreatment, extortion, torture, and threats of death. There were reports of rape and sexual assault by authorities and other inmates. Corruption exacerbated these problems and hindered their exposure and resolution. Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was endemic. On March 14, police shot and killed eight persons during an operation to regain control of Palmasola Prison in Santa Cruz. According to media reports, police were conducting a search for contraband in the prison when prisoners began shooting at the police officers. Police responded with firearms, killing eight inmates during the confrontation.
The state budget allocated only eight bolivianos ($1.17) per day per prisoner for meals. The ability to exercise varied greatly depending on the security situation in the prison. According to some contacts, prisoners may be arbitrarily confined to their cells for a long period of time or placed in solitary confinement by guards without explanation. Prisoners with independent means could purchase a transfer to the rehabilitation center, a newly built detention facility with better living conditions. One doctor attended to prisoners in each prison twice a month. Although medical services were free, prisons rarely had medications on hand. Skin disease and tuberculosis were widespread due to the cramped sleeping quarters and lack of medicine to manage contagion. Incarcerated women lacked access to obstetric services.
Corruption was persistent. A prisoner’s wealth often determined his or her 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 were an insufficient number of police officers to escort inmates to their hearings, and prison directors often refused to intervene, exacerbating delays. Police sometimes demanded bribes in exchange for granting inmates the right to attend their own hearings.
On August 16, the director general of the penitentiary system, Jorge Lopez, announced that 36 prison security personnel were being prosecuted for acts of corruption. Independent media reported corruption complaints against police for collections inside were common. Prison inmates stated guards extorted money for the entry of goods.
Administration: Authorities generally did not conduct proper investigations of 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 prison visits by independent nongovernmental observers such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, local NGOs, judges, religious authorities, legislators, and media.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements.
The government sometimes used the judicial system for political purposes, taking legal action against several opposition members and critics of the government. For example, the government threatened charges against former president Carlos Mesa (2003-05) of “damage to the state” for the loss of $42.6 million related to the arbitration won by the Chilean mining company Quiborax. During Mesa’s term as president, the government initiated the process of rescinding the mining concession with Quiborax. Mesa was accused of beginning the process improperly in 2004. The Quiborax case was still open during Evo Morales’ first term in office. During that time Quiborax representatives offered a settlement of three million dollars. In 2016 Quiborax again offered to settle the case, this time for $27 million. The government rejected both offers, which led to prolonged international arbitration and ultimately a $42.6 million dollar judgement against Bolivia. On July 26, the vice president announced that charges against Mesa would not proceed during the year but left open the possibility they would be renewed thereafter.
Criminal proceedings remained pending against various former government officials, which the Attorney General’s Office began in 2016. Media reported 40 open cases targeting the mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla; 30 against Ernesto Suarez, the former prefect of Beni; and multiple cases against the governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas; the governor of La Paz, Feliz Patzi; the mayor of El Alto, Soledad Chapeton; former presidents Jorge Tuto Quiroga and Carlos Mesa; the mayor of Tarija, Rodrigo Paz; and the leader of the National Unity opposition party, Samuel Doria Medina. In addition, on January 29, the government opened an investigation of the mayor of El Alto, Soledad Chapeton, for mishandling municipal land that was transferred to the private sector by the then mayor of El Alto in 1990. Although Chapeton was 10 years old at the time the land transfer occurred, her supposed transgression was the failure to recuperate the land from the private owner.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
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 military forces that report to the Ministry of Defense may be called to help in critical situations. Migration officials report to the Ministry of Government, and police and military share responsibilities for border enforcement.
The law to investigate and punish internal police abuse and corruption remained suspended and unenforced as a result of national police strikes in 2012, when the government agreed to revise it. There was no progress in negotiations between the Ministry of Government and the National Police Association on this problem. Congress did not act on the Constitutional Court’s 2012 ruling to adjust the military criminal code and the military code of criminal procedure to stipulate that human rights violations be judged by the ordinary justice system, in compliance with the constitution. Inconsistent application of the laws and a dysfunctional judiciary further exacerbated the impunity of security forces in committing abuses.
As of September there were no developments in the case of five female police officers in the city of Potosi who filed a formal complaint in March 2017 of “psychological abuse and extreme work pressure.”
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 also 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 and 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 August 28, following the shooting death of police lieutenant Daynor Sandoval during a skirmish with coca growers, police arrested Franclin Gutierrez, a coca grower leader in the Yungas region of the department of La Paz opposed to the government, and placed him in preventive detention. The Prosecutor’s Office charged Gutierrez with five crimes–murder, attempted murder, attacks against public services, attacks against transportation services, and unlawful possession of arms–although numerous observers argued there was little evidence to support those charges. As of November the case against Gutierrez was pending.
Pretrial Detention: The law affords judges the authority to order pretrial detention if there is a high probability that 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 cannot 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, denial of justice due to prolonged pretrial detention remained a problem. 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 in order to delay trial proceedings and ultimately avoid a final sentencing. According to the Ministry of Justice, approximately 70 percent of persons accused of a crime were being held under preventive detention. Some NGOs estimated 85 percent were in preventive detention.