Bolivia Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 10,46 million (Military Balance, 2014)

Capital: La Paz

Languages: Spanish (official= 60.7%, Quechua (official) 21.2%, Aymara (official) 14.6%, Guarani (official), foreign languages 2.4%, other 1.2%

Major Ethnic Groups: Quechua 30%, mestizo 30%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 3,255 (IMF 2015 World Economic Outlook)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 6,530 (IMF 2015 World Economic Outlook)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 46,100 (Military Balance, 2014)

Police Force: 31,000 cabarineros and agentes  (Nations Encyclopedia

Small Arms: number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians is 250,000; the number of defence firearms is 68,000; number of law enforcement firearms is 29,000 (Gun Policy 2015)

Military Expenditure: 1.5% of GDP (World Bank 2013)

Executive Summary

Since Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006, Bolivia has undergone profound institutional and social changes, culminating in the passing of the 2009 Constitution, which, among other things, asserted the rights of the country’s indigenous majority for the first time. Although this period has witnessed widespread social upheaval it has also been a period of unusual political stability in Bolivia’s turbulent history.

The Morales era has seen Bolivia confronted with a variety of new challenges as well as deeply entrenched issues. Among the most pertinent is the country’s complicated relationship with coca cultivation, as Morales, a coca growers’ union leader, tries to maintain the balance between promoting legal cultivation and use of coca, with the international struggle against the cocaine trade—where the majority of Bolivia’s coca still ends up. Bolivia is the third biggest producer of coca, and so plays a major role in the international cocaine trade and suffers many of the security issues associated with the presence of international drug traffickers. The government has denied that international criminal groups have a firm presence in the country though evidence continues to suggest this may not be the case.

Bolivia is also plagued by weak institutions and rampant corruption, resulting in a widespread lack of faith in security institutions and a poorly functioning, underfunded and massively overburdened judicial system. Despite various attempts at reform from the Morales government, little progress has been made in tackling these enduring and deep rooted problems. 

Security and Justice Context

Though 2010[1] saw the homicide rate in Bolivia rise to 10.4 per 100,000 people from 8.4 per 100,000 the year before (See Figure 1) the rate is among the lowest ones in the region. However, despite the comparatively low incidence of violent crime, an increase by nearly 2 points in the homicide rate was recorded in 2012. Additionally, Bolivia faces numerous security challenges, principally in the form of coca cultivation and transnational drug trafficking. The country is the third largest producer of coca–the raw material for cocaine—after Colombia and Peru, with an estimated 27,200 hectares under cultivation in 2011 (See Figure 2).


Fig.1 Bolivia Homicide Rate 2005-2010

The situation in Bolivia is complicated by the fact that there is also a legal market for coca. In 2011, Bolivia withdrew from the global drug law treaty the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after it failed to secure an amendment to a convention article that stated "coca leaf chewing must be abolished." It has now returned to the convention with a reservation that coca consumption is recognised as legal in Bolivia. The government has imposed a limit of 20,000 hectares of coca a year that can legally be grown. Some of this coca is diverted into cocaine production but exactly how much is a highly contentious point.

In 2008 Bolivia suspended cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and later expelled the organisation from the country after President Morales accused it of “conspiracy” and “espionage.” Since then the country has implemented a more nationalistic approach to counter-narcotics, although it continues to collaborate with international partners such as Brazil, Iran, China, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Since Bolivia expelled the DEA, its counter-narcotics operations have been the subject of continued dispute as the government claims it is making strong progress in combating cocaine production and trafficking, while the White House Office of National Drug 


Fig. 2 Cocoa Cultivation in Bolivia 2003-2011

Control Policy (ONDCP) has blacklisted Bolivia for four years running, declaring it has “failed demonstrably to adhere to obligations under international counternarcotics agreements”.

Although figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the ONDCP vary, there is a consensus that the number of hectares of coca cultivated in Bolivia has fallen over the last two years while the number of hectares eradicated has increased. However, the latest ONDCP report made the controversial claim that potential cocaine production has actually increased over the period due to the development of more efficient processing techniques.

Bolivia is also a drug trafficking hub, mostly for cocaine powder and base produced in the country but also for cocaine originating in Peru, which is moved to Brazil via Bolivia. Brazil, the second largest market for cocaine in the world, is one of the prime destinations for drugs produced in Bolivia, much of which stays in the country, while the remainder is transported to West Africa and Europe. Bolivian cocaine is also moved across its borders with Argentina, Chile and Paraguay. Drugs are principally moved out of by plane, vans, lorries or by large numbers of drug “mules” carrying small quantities.

There has been a substantial increase in the annual quantity of cocaine seized from 2006-2011. In this time, seizures of cocaine base more than doubled[2] while seizures of cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) more than quadrupled[3] . Whether this rise is a result of improved counter-narcotics techniques or because more cocaine is being produced and trafficked is unclear.

The trafficking of drugs from Bolivia does not involve large domestic drug trafficking organisations, instead being predominantly controlled by smaller “crime families.” There is a long history of ties between drug trafficking and political and security institutions, and corruption scandals involving organised crime continue to implicate high-ranking public figures.

Bolivian criminal organisations work with foreign drug trafficking organisations, although the level of cooperation and extent of the foreign groups’ presence is disputed. The Bolivian government claims cartels have no presence in Bolivian territory but rather send “emissaries.” Foreign governments and intelligence agencies claim drug trafficking organisations have a much firmer foothold.

Foreign traffickers predominantly come from Colombia and Brazil, where groups including the Brazilian First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital—PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) have established presence. There have been contrasting reports over the level of involvement of Mexican cartels in Bolivia. Leftist guerrilla groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-FARC) and the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) from Peru have also been reported to have a presence in Bolivia and be involved in trafficking, although the extent of that involvement is unclear.

Bolivia is a source and transit country for human trafficking, both for forced labour and sex trafficking. Some trafficking victims remain in the country and are forced into sex work and sectors such as mining, agriculture and domestic service. Others are trafficked abroad to countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Spain and the United States.

The Bolivian government’s fuel subsidies make the country a prime location for petrol smuggling and an estimated 30% of Bolivia’s fuel is sold abroad. There are also smuggling operations of contraband items such as cigarettes.

In Bolivia, although gun registration is a legal requirement, arms brokers and transfer intermediaries are not specifically regulated by law. This makes the country vulnerable to arms trafficking, with networks having been dismantled that received arms from the United States and sent them to Brazil, along with others that received illegally trafficked munitions from neighbouring Argentina.

Perceptions of insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP)[4] , the perception of insecurity in Bolivia has been gradually decreasing since 2006, when it stood at 51.7 points. This dropped to 46.1 points in 2010 then to 44.8 points in 2010. However, despite the downward trend, Bolivia still had the third highest perception of insecurity in the region in 2012 (See Figure 3.). 

Fig. 3 Perception of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

Bolivia’s highest judicial body is the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia), which is made up of nine primary magistrates (titulares)—a president, two Civil Chamber (Sala Civil) magistrates, two First Criminal Chamber (Sala Penal Primera) magistrates, two Second Criminal Chamber (Sala Penal Segunda) magistrates and two Social and Administrative Chamber (Sala Social y Administrativa) magistrates. There are also nine alternates (suplentes).

Bolivia has several high courts: the Plurinational Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional), which rules on constitutional issues; the Agro-Environmental Court (Tribunal Agroambiental), which rules on issues related to agriculture and the environment;  the Council of the Judiciary (Consejo de la Magistratura/Consejo de la Judicatura), which rules on ethical and administrative issues in the judiciary and the Supreme Electoral Court/Plurinational Electoral Body (Tribunal Supremo Electoral/Organo Electoral Plurinational), which rules on electoral issues.

There are provincial and local courts to try minor cases and a District Court in each of Bolivia’s nine departments.

The high courts and their structure are the product of a radical judicial overhaul carried out in 2012. As part of the reform, judges are now elected for six-year terms by popular vote from a list of candidates pre-selected by the Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa). Previously they were elected directly by the Assembly.

In 1999, a new criminal procedure code was enacted in Bolivian Law, changing the system from an inquisitorial to an adversarial one, which introduced oral arguments and jury trials. Misdemeanour cases (where maximum sentences are less than four years) are prosecuted before a sentencing judge, while felony cases are prosecuted in sentencing courts before a three person citizen jury and two judges. 

Criminal investigations are carried out by the National Police (Policía Nacional) and the Institute of Forensic Investigations (Instituto de Investigaciones Forense) under the direction of prosecutors in the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público).

Both the accused and victims have the right to appeal the court’s decision. The Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal.

There is a human rights Ombudsman Office (Defensoria Del Pueblo) and, since 2010, an Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General del Estado), which acts as an independent legal representation of the state in areas such as human rights, investment and the environment.

Bolivia also has a distinct military penal code, and military courts handle crimes committed by military personnel or that affect the military. At the start of 2013, the Constitutional Court called on the Legislative Assembly to bring the military penal code into line with the constitution and international treaties by excluding cases involving human rights abuses from the military courts.

The 2009 Constitution legally recognises community justice as a means of resolving conflicts and adjudicating criminal offenses in indigenous communities. This stands separate from national law creating a system of legal pluralism. Critics have claimed this has led to a rise in vigilantism and violent punishments such as lynchings, claims which the government and some civil society actors claim are exaggerations.

Bolivia’s judicial system is widely seen as corrupt, weak, inefficient and slow. It is also overextended, underfunded and has a massive backlog, with cases commonly taking several years to be brought to trial. The law states that no pre-trial detention should exceed 18 months without charge and 24 months if a sentence is being appealed and there should be a three-year maximum duration for a trial. However, in practice this is frequently not the case. A major contributing factor to this backlog is Law 1008, which was passed in 1988, to introduce more stringent penalties and judicial conditions for drug offenders.  

There are serious concerns over the judiciary’s independence; in the 2012-2013 World Economic Forums’ Global Competitiveness Report, Bolivia placed 97th out of 144 countries for judicial independence.

The judicial backlog, has contributed to a prison system that is one of the most overcrowded in the region. In 2010 the prisons were filled to 233 percent of their capacity and in 2011 the population grew by 22 percent. Approximately 85 percent of inmates are awaiting trial or sentencing. Overcrowding has contributed to poor living conditions and criminality in the penitentiary system.

Most prisons are often run by the prisoners themselves, sometimes through delegates elected by the inmates. The families of inmates also often live inside the prisons. According to government statistics, over 800 children were living in prisons in 2008, however other, more recent estimates reach over 1,500. The prison system is overseen by the General Directorate of Prisons (Dirección General de Régimen Penitenciario) which comes under the Ministry of the Interior (Ministerio de Gobierno).

Bolivia’s 2010-2015 National Development Plan (Plan de Desarollo Nacional—PDN) identifies five policy areas for justice reform: “De-colonialising” the justice system by reforming judicial structures, increasing participation and democratising the justice system; institutionalising community (indigenous) justice by making it compatible with the formal justice system; eradicating institutional corruption; reducing the socio-economic, cultural and political gaps related to gender, age and disabilities and promoting the full exercising of human rights. 

Security Institutions

In 2010, Bolivia incorporated 2,600 new officers into the National Police[5] (Policía Nacional) taking the total number of policemen to over 62,000. Within the National Police there is a broad range of specialised units including the Special Investigations Group (Grupo de Investigacion de Casos Especiales—GICEP), which targets international criminal groups, and an Anti-Narcotics Special Forces (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico—FELCN) with its subsidiary the Mobile Police Unit for Rural Areas (Unidad Móvil Policial para Áreas Rurales—UMOPAR). Internal investigations into police officers are carried out by the Judicial Technical Police (Policía Tecnica Judicial). There is also a police intelligence unit, the Special Centre of Police Investigations (Centro Especial de Investigacion Policial—CEIP), which operates under the supervision of prosecutors.

Bolivia’s police are notoriously corrupt throughout all ranks. In December 2012, Bolivia appointed its eighth police chief in sixth years. Many of his predecessors were removed over allegations of corruption or links to organised crime. There have also been numerous incidences where lower ranking officials have been accused of links to organised crime, including officers from FELCN, while throughout its history the UMOPAR has faced frequent accusations of human rights abuses.

In 2012, Bolivia saw a wave of police protests, which the government claimed were attempts to foment political unrest.  The police demanded better pay, the abolition of unpopular legislation (see Security Sector Reform, below), creation of a Police Ombudsman and an end to perceived favouritism towards the armed forces.

Public confidence in the police is low. According to the 2012 LAPOP survey, Bolivia registered a confidence rating 38.9 points[6] for its police, one of the lowest in the region (See Figure 4.). A separate 2012 report found that in four large Bolivian cities 85 percent of people do not report crimes due to a lack of confidence in the police.


Fig. 4 Confidence in Police 2012

The lack of faith in police has contributed to the proliferation of private security companies. In 2012, there were over 550 private security guards working for 39 legally registered private security companies in La Paz alone. In addition, there a number who operate without proper authorisation. Private security guards are legally prohibited from carrying firearms.

Bolivia’s military has some 40,000 personnel under the control of the Ministry for National Defence (Ministerio de Defensa Estado Plurinacional Bolivia). It has been deployed on the streets in a policing capacity several times over the last few years, which is permitted in the constitution if the police’s capacities have been “surpassed.” The military also has several intelligence units, coordinated by the 2nd Department of the Army Staff (Departamento II del Estado Mayor General de Ejército).

The military has a history of corruption and involvement in the drug trade, one of the main reasons why the police are primarily responsible for combating drug trafficking.

In Bolivia’s National Development Plan 2010-2015 (Plan de Desarollo Nacional - PDN), the government announced its intention to develop a new public security model which focuses on inclusion, participation and social prevention, is based on concepts of social justice and rejects the concept of security based on public order and repression. The plan identified three targeted policy areas: the development of preventative security policies through education and community participation (including the development of citizen security councils and community police); promoting human rights with the participation of organised civil society; and social defence to guarantee protection from drugs, principally focusing on education programs about the dangers of drug use. The PDN also lays out plans to modernise and strengthen the institutions of the security forces and strengthen border controls. 

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

The new judicial structures implemented in 2012 represented a major overhaul of the Bolivian judicial system, the long term effects of which are yet to be seen. The reforms were first proposed in 2009 as a measure to make the judiciary more democratic and representative, and to tackle the politicisation of the judiciary, which saw political parties that were part of governing coalitions negotiate the installation of sympathetic judges.

Under the new system, candidates are vetted by the Legislative Assembly’s Mixed Commission of Plural Justice (Comisión Mixta de Justicia Plural). In addition to meeting a range of criteria related to their suitability and experience, candidates cannot have been a registered member of any political organisation in the year prior to the election, or have held any leadership position in a political group for the five years before. In some of the elections, the lists of candidates had to meet quotas to ensure representation of women and indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, opponents claimed that the government’s dominance of the Legislative Assembly meant they had an unfair influence over the selection of the candidates.

The new judges do not have the democratic mandate that the government had been hoping for.; following an opposition campaign against the elections, 57.8 percent of votes cast were left blank or spoiled.  As well as overcoming a sceptical electorate, the 56 new judges—50 percent of whom are women and 40 percent of whom are indigenous—face a host of challenges including continued underfunding and massive case backlog, restrictive legislation and outside pressures.

Security Sector Reform and Initiatives

There have been several attempts at police reform in recent years. In 2010, 429 police officials were purged from the force and 25 incarcerated as part of institutional reforms contained in the anti-corruption plan, Plan Endpoint (Plan Punto Final).

In 2011, the Bolivian government passed Law 101—the National Police Disciplinary Regime Law (Ley de Régimen Disciplinario de la Policia Boliviana)—which established disciplinary procedures and penalties for corrupt police. The law has proved unpopular with rank and file police officers, who complain that it threatens their constitutional right to due process and is only implemented against low-ranking officers. Its abolition was one of the principal demands of the 2012 police protests. Following the protests, a commission was convened to review the law.

At the beginning of 2012, Bolivia staged the Second National Summit on Citizen Security, attended by local and national politicians, with the aim of identifying and evaluating areas for reform. Following the protests later in the year, the government indicated it is considering deeper police reforms but has yet to release concrete proposals. 

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly’s Chamber of Senators (Cámara de Senadores) and  Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados) are both democratic, independent bodies. Under the terms of the 2009 Constitution they have broad powers of oversight over the executive body. However, it should be noted, President Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (Movimiento Al Socialismo) party has a large majority in both chambers, which can translate into a majority on oversight committees, and there have been instances of government opponents making allegations of partisanship. 

Security and Justice Opportunities

The Morales government’s nationalistic and anti-imperialist rhetoric means it is often sensitive to outside intervention, especially if it comes from “Western” governments. However, this has mostly affected relations with the United States and the government has been open to engagement with parties such as the United Nations, the European Union, other Latin American countries and countries such as Iran and China.

High levels of corruption throughout Bolivian institutions represent a significant challenge for any attempts at reform or engagement. In the 2012 edition of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Bolivia ranked 105th out of 176 countries with a score of 34 out of 100 (where 100 is clean). This score was a slight improvement on 2011’s rating. 

Justice Sector Opportunities

The 2012 judicial reforms have created a significant opening for Bolivia to tackle endemic inefficiency and corruption in its judicial system and represent an opportunity for engagement. However, they have also created a new set of challenges to be confronted that will be difficult to overcome, not least the lack of citizen engagement in the elections and the possibility that the challenge of implementing the system could make it less, not more efficient. The biggest issues that need addressing remain the same as before the reforms—underfunding and the massive backlog of cases (and subsequent prison overcrowding with pre-trial detainees). 

Security Sector Opportunities

The Morales government’s attempts at security forces reform have so far been fractious, reactive and often stymied by corruption. Engaging in this area could be problematic given the unrest seen in 2012 and divisions between the government and the police force. Reform is badly needed and helping to mediate between both actors is advised in order to help formulate a reform plan that will address the most pressing issues; corruption and inefficiency, and improving the professionalism of the security forces.

Nevertheless, Bolivia has demonstrated it is open to international engagement when it comes to the security forces’ attempts to tackle drug production and trafficking, despite its ongoing dispute with the United States.

Bolivia’s unique situation regarding coca cultivation offers perhaps the best opportunity for engagement. Compared to other producer countries, especially Colombia, Bolivia’s coca growers are neither as isolated from civil society nor under such severe pressure from armed actors; indeed they have strong ties to the government of Morales, himself a coca growers union leader. This, combined with Bolivia’s legal coca market, offer the opportunity to tackle the security issues of cocaine production through avenues that do not necessarily involve the security forces, for example finding markets for legal coca products or sustainable crop substitution programs or alternative land use programmes. 

Civil Society Actors for Engagement

The Participation and Justice Network[7] (La Red Participación y Justicia) connects civil society groups that support citizen participation related to the justice system.

There are numerous associations and unions representing the interests of coca growers—known as “cocaleros”—including the Federación de Cocaleros del Trópico de Cochabamba, which remains headed by President Morales


Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia Instituo Nacional de Estadisitcas, Data retrieved from

Ministerio de Planificación del Desarrollo (Bolivia), “Plan de Desarrollo Nacional: 2010-2015,”No publication date available

Red de Seguridad y Defensa de América Latina, “Atlas Comparativo de la Defensa en América Latina y Caribe Edición 2012,” October 2012

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “Cultura Política de Democracia en Bolivia, 2010: Consolidación Democrética en las Américas en tiempos dificles,” September 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” December 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2012: Towards Equality of Opportunity,” November 2012 (Preliminary Version)

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime “Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia Monitoreo de Cultivacion de Coca 2011” September 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, “Coca in the Andes,” Dataset retrieved from

World Economic Forum, “The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013,” September 2012


[1] This is the last year for which homicide statistics are publicly available.

[2] Seizures rose from 12,779 kilograms in 2006 to 28,352 kilos in 2011.

[3] Seizures of HCl rose from 1,309 kilos in 2006 to 5,614 kilos in 2011.

[4] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity

[5] The police force is housed under the Interior Ministry.

[6] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher level of confidence.

[7] More information on their website:

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.