Bolivian Prisons: Self-Government or Anarchy?


In the early morning of 23th August, maximum security prison Palmasola, in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia, erupted into chaotic gang violence that left 35 people dead. One of the largest prisons in the country, it is home to up to 5,200 prisoners, who operate by a large degree of self-governance.

The turf war that broke out inside the prison was caused by a competition between two rival gangs for a foothold in the prison hierarchy. The violence, which included machete fights and hand-made flame-bombs, lasted for four hours, as prison personnel struggled to regain control.

It was one of the worst episodes of prison violence recorded in Bolivia’s history, and has flagged up a number of entrenched issues that plague the over-crowded and largely unsupervised prison structure, not just in Palmasola but across the country. Despite the anarchy, the pressure for change from the international community came after the discovery that an 18-month child had been killed in the riot.

Children Under Arrest

Article 26 of Law 2298 on the Enforcement of Sentences and Supervision states that “the children of prisoners up to six years of age may stay in the prison establishments so long as the parent deprived of liberty is the minor’s legal guardian.”

Children living inside San Pedro prison, in La Paz (photo: Danielle Pereira on Flickr)

Children living inside San Pedro prison, in La Paz (photo: Danielle Pereira on Flickr)

If there are no other legal guardians to take care of them, and for many families this is often the case, these children grow up inside prison. Many of them will live with their mothers in all-women jails, but when this is not an option, children -girls and boys- are sent to live with their fathers in all-male prisons. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates that there are over 2,000 children currently living inside prisons.

Having children in prison is a regular practice in South America, and indeed in the world, with countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, and Argentina having facilities for pregnant women and those with children up to the age of four. The Bolivian law was first introduced based on research suggesting that the presence of children encourages convicts to reform and rehabilitate, making the transition to responsible citizenship easier. Yet this mentality seems to be changing. In Ecuador, for example, since 2007, the programme ‘Ecuador without children in prisons’ has amassed over US$1.6m with the aim to re-house children living in prison into the homes of extended families or orphanages.

However, orphanages in Bolivia tend to be so under-funded that they can often be worse than prisons, and the alternative of leaving young children on the street is even more treacherous. In 2006, the Bolivian Interior minister, Alicia Muñoz, stated that “the absence of a social policy for minors in Bolivia means that when the parents go to prison, the children have no safer place to be than in the prison (…) In all, there are more than 3,000 children in the prisons of Bolivia.”

However, in Bolivia, prisons are notoriously unregulated. Despite keeping the family intact, abuses are rife. When children reach the age of six, in most cases an alternative guardian is still impossible to find. Some may be handed over to the state, but the low levels of regulation mean that some continue to stay on until they are old enough to fend for themselves outside.

Juana Ambrosio Arias, a member of Prison Fellowship Bolivia, estimates there are 400 children living in Palmasola, and in the last three months, there has been a police investigation into reports of sexual abuses.

Children playing in San Pedro prison, La Paz (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

Children playing in San Pedro prison, La Paz (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The UN have also sent Bolivia an official warning, amidst previous allegations of child rape in the all-male San Pedro Prison, located in the capital La Paz, housing up to 2,300 inmates and 250 children. The director of the prison, Ramiro Llanos, complained that a 12-year old girl was raped several times by her father, uncle, and a godfather; all convicted murders.

In response, opposition deputy Mirtha Arce has demonstrated that Bolivian prisons breach 42 documents signed with international organisations based on the proper treatment of prisoners and the protection of minors.

Part of the problem seems to be that prison guards not only have a disregard for offenses on the inside, but many have an active investment in them. Corruption and bribery are an important problem, and through this, gangs are able to control sections of the prison.


In the most recent riot, police have been accused of failing to intervene in the violence. Minister of Government Carlos Romero noted that only five police officers had been guarding prison block A, when one of the gangs was located, and a total of only 15 officers supervising the two blocks -A and B- together, despite housing more than 500 prisoners.

Maria Ines Galvis, the president of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights for the eastern Santa Cruz region -where Palmasola prison is situated- has claimed at least one police officer directly participated in the attack, opening the door for the rival gang to enter the other block.

These claims are reminiscent of the March 2009 riot in the San Pedro prison, where police were accused on using tear gas to quell trouble, indiscriminately targeting young families living inside.


According to Bolivian NGO Millennium Foundation, the country’s prisons are the second most overcrowded in Latin America, behind El Salvador, reaching up to 233% overcapacity. Its drug trafficking legislation may explain a large part of this overcrowding.

The Law on the Regime Applicable to Coca and Controlled Substances, more commonly known as Law 1,008, was passed in 1988 and was heavily influenced by the US war on drugs. The controversial law indiscriminately offers harsh punishment for any drug-related crimes, and in the majority of cases, only those with low level involvement shoulder most of the blame. Law 1008 redefined the connection between coca cultivation and cocaine, making the coca leaf, a traditional plant grown for centuries, illegal. In addition, the definitions of manufacturing, distribution, and selling of cocaine were increasingly blurred, and those suspected of any drug offenses – regardless of how minor – were imprisoned without pre-trial release.

Coca leaves (photo: Sten Porse on Wikimedia Commons)

Coca leaves (photo: Sten Porse on Wikimedia Commons)

According to a 1995 legal analysis by the Committee on Human Rights of the Chamber of Deputies, Law 1008 “establishes a criminal justice subsystem parallel to the regular criminal justice system, characterised by the tendency towards unreasonably drastic penalties.”

Additionally, the prosecutors are entitled to bonuses which are funded by the local US embassy according to the number of persons incarcerated. Therefore, there is little incentive to be cautious with pre-trial arrests and detainment.

The law has been recognised to be extremely severe, and it was been denounced as being unconstitutional. Reforms of the law began in 1996 with the Law of Judicial Bond and once again in 1999 with the Criminal Procedure Code. These reinstated a clause for conditional releases in pre-trial cases that involved long delays, and introduced more guarantees for prisoners to be granted the right to a state defence. Although this is a step in the right direction, many inmates languish in prison for many years without a conviction.

The last national census in 2004 recorded that 40.70% of the current prison population were incarcerated due to Law 1,008, and that 77.08% of all prisoners were still without convictions. Nine years later, the problem seems to have worsened. In Palmasola, the president announced that up to 84% of prisoners are being held pre-trail.

Self- Governance

According to a report by the General Directorate of Prisons (DGRP), in early 2006 the prison population was at 7,782 inmates, housed in only 54 prison facilities where the national government’s budget contributed just over USD$4m annually. This spending on food, health, and other basic services translated to less than USD$0.80 per day for food for each prisoner.

The severe lack of funding also meant that only 30% of the prisoners’ medical needs were covered. Unusually in Bolivia, prisoners must also rent their cells, with prices running into the thousands. This is usually paid to the local gangs who have established a hierarchy within the power vacuum left by security guards.

Therefore, when family units live inside the prison, parents must take sole responsibility for their welfare. In non-maximum security prisons, families must find their own means of surviving, relying on visits from friends or relatives who will bring them money. Spouses will often work outside the prison to supplement their income while children attend local schools during the day.

San Pedro prison, in La Paz (photo: Danielle Pereira on Flickr)

San Pedro prison, in La Paz (photo: Danielle Pereira on Flickr)

However, in maximum security prisons, no-one is permitted to leave; even guards have dormitories on site. Confined to the four prison walls, children cannot attend local school or have access to 24-hour medical care. As a result, in prisons such as Palmasole and Miraflores, an active community has developed inside.

Prisoners have set up a vast network of social structures, from make-shift shops and hairdressers to schools and medical centres. However, unregulated and independently run, education and health services in particular are easily overwhelmed and ill-equipped, creating a chaotic and inconsistent system that often leaves the poorest most excluded.

In San Pedro, the largest all-male prison in La Paz, there are roughly 200 children reportedly living inside with their fathers, but there are only two nurseries.


In reaction to the Palmasola riot, Government Minister Carlos Romero explained: “Speaking self-critically, in the detention centres, in many cases, the inmates are in charge; the penitentiary system does not have enough control from the state and, logically, it is necessary to face up to a structural transformation of the penitentiary system, establishing control by the state with permanent and surprise inspections.”

As President Evo Morales also admitted that the state “has no presence in prisons,” a wide-spread reform of the prison system is likely to follow, which will step up security inside.

With regards to the problem of children living in prisons, Minister of Justice Cecilia Ayllón announced on 25th June government plans to rehouse up to 2,000 children living in incarceration.  This gradual shift will first seek extended families to take on guardianship of the children, then state shelters, and finally surrogate families. However, whether children will be allowed to be legally put up for adoption is unclear.

The problem, however, exceeds the penitentiary system. As President Morales said, “the central problem is the Bolivian justice (…) If 84% of inmates are on pre-trial detention, where is the Bolivian justice then? Prisons are going to go explode if we do not resolved this issue.”

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