Drug Laws and Prisons in Bolivia

Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America

Bolivia’s participation in the international drug-trafficking circuit was determined by a series of factors, ranging from the ancestral tradition of growing and consuming coca leaf, to the endemic poverty of the population (per capita GDP is less than US$ 1,000) and the structural weakness of state institutions.

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Economic activity around the coca leaf, both legal and illegal, finds expression not only in the more than 45,000 peasant farmer families that make a living from coca growing, but also in the thousands of persons arrested each year for involvement in the processing and transport of the illegal derivatives of the coca leaf. This is the response of a country with high unemployment and underemployment, and a minimum wage not sufficient to cover the basic market food basket.

Notwithstanding this relationship between drugs and poverty, the Bolivian state and the international community have sought to put the brakes on the phenomenon through repressive policies in which the forced eradication of crops and interdiction of illegal trafficking in coca and its derivatives are often accompanied by systematic violations of civil and human rights.

The objective of this investigation is to describe the repercussions of these policies for Bolivian society, showing the human face of those behind bars for drug offenses and the real impact of drug policies on their lives and families, and on criminal organizations. The purpose is to show the need to reform Law 1008, so as to bring the legislation more into line with reality and to ensure that drug legislation does not increase poverty, violate human rights, or render the population vulnerable to crime. This study is based on a survey of 130 prisoners in the San Pedro men’s prison in the city of La Paz, supplemented by other official data. The study concludes that Bolivia has one of the harshest drug laws in the region, combined with inadequate administration of the national prison system.

Bolivia’s current drug law (Law 1008) does not distinguish between street-level drug dealers and major drug traffickers, such that no matter the amount of drugs involved in the cases, the penalties range from 1 year in prison for producing controlled plants to 25 years for trafficking. And the criminal law definition of trafficking is plagued by serious ambiguities, which is reflected in the composition of Bolivia’s prison population.

The lack of clarity in the law makes it possible for someone who is a worker in the drug trafficking chain to be treated just the same if not worse than a large-scale drug trafficker,” says Diego Giacoman, researcher for the Bolivia chapter of the study by TNI and WOLA. This is precisely the reality reflected by Mario, a coca leaf stomper incarcerated at the San Pedro prison, in his videotaped testimony. This video, which is 5 minutes long and is being released today, is part of a series of videos recorded by WOLA and TNI showing the human face of the war on drugs. The videos may be used by the press and television stations and incorporated into the on-line versions of newspapers.

In addition, the study shows how the commission of drug offenses is associated with poverty. Of the persons interviewed, 60 percent stated that they did not earn more than US$ 300 monthly before being sent to prison. “Bolivia’s prisons reflect the country’s poverty in some of its crudest facets,” says researcher Giacoman. At the same time, this profile of poverty coincides with the fact that most of those surveyed were involved in the poorest, most vulnerable, and easiest-to-replace links in the drug trafficking chain.

In addition, the study underscores the deplorable conditions in the prisons. According to a report presented by the General Directorate of the Prison Regime, in early 2006, the prison population numbered 7,782 inmates, nearly 45 percent of whom were behind bars for drug-related offenses. To feed this prison population, Bolivia earmarks less than 80 cents (US$ 0.80) per person daily. In addition, the survey shows that access to a cell in the San Pedro prison, as in the other large prisons in Bolivia, is not free of charge for the prisoners. In the most expensive section, the prices of cells range from US$ 6,000 to US$ 8,000, while in the most dilapidated section the cells go for no more than US$ 150. In general, the precarious conditions shape the prisoners’ lives behind bars, often facilitating greater involvement by the prisoners in illegal drug trafficking networks and consumption of illegal drugs, instead of preparing them for reinsertion in society. These and other aspects of the prison system are described in the study.

The administration of President Evo Morales has announced that it intends to repeal Law 1008 and replace it by two different laws, one on coca and the other on controlled substances. “The first is intended to highlight the importance for the Bolivian people of the coca leaf, and to define the limits for its cultivation and legal use. But with the second law, the debates appear to indicate that the interdiction model will be strengthened without taking into account other social considerations such as prisoners re-entry, crime prevention, and specialized treatment of problematic users,” concludes Giacoman. “Nonetheless, there are ways of reconciling the effort to address drug trafficking and the protection of civil rights, for example, by ensuring that the laws themselves avoid the collateral damage that current policies generate,” Giacoman also noted. “A single visit to a prison allows one to conclude that something urgently needs to be done.”

For more information:

– On the Bolivia study: Esta dirección de correo electrónico está siendo protegida contra los robots de spam. Necesita tener JavaScript habilitado para poder verlo., in Bolivia: +(705) 878-82.

– On the general study: Esta dirección de correo electrónico está siendo protegida contra los robots de spam. Necesita tener JavaScript habilitado para poder verlo., Communications Coordinator:
   Telephone in United States + (617) 584-1713.

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Systems OverloadAn unprecedented one-year comparative study of the drug laws and prison systems in eight Latin American countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.