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Bolivia pardons thousands to ease prison overcrowding

Bolivian President Evo Morales. (Jean-Marc Ferré from UN Geneva/Flickr)

On Christmas Eve, Bolivian President Evo Morales pardoned 1,800 prisoners held in facilities across the country, including pregnant women, sick and disabled people, those with minor sentences and people awaiting trial.

The majority of those pardoned were likely low-level drug offenders, since those convicted of violent crimes and trafficking were excluded.

“The present decree’s aim is to give amnesty and total or partial pardons to people who have been deprived of their liberty,” Morales told reporters at a news conference in Cochabamba. This is the fourth time Morales has approved statewide pardons in an effort to reduce overcrowding in prisons, which have been criticized for inhumane conditions and where prison gang violence flourishes.

Prison overcrowding reached critical levels over the last few years. Since 2008, the country’s prison population has nearly doubled, with nearly 15,000 people now incarcerated in the country of just 10 million. Some attribute the rise to the reality that nearly 40 percent of Bolivia’s population still lives below the poverty line, which provides powerful incentives to engage in illicit activities.

The state’s largest prison, San Pedro, is notorious for its inner ‘city’ run by prisoners who impose their own laws, live with their families and welcome tourists who bring them money. The government promised to close San Pedro to stop “cocaine trafficking and other abuses” in 2013, but as of today, the prison – which guards only patrol from the outside – is still there.

Compounding the problem, around one-third of these prisoners are still awaiting trial because of Bolivia’s widespread use of pre-trial detention. Prison overcrowding has consequently surpassed 250 percent of its total capacity nationwide, according to a report released in November by the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network (AIN).

Still, the AIN report found that within Latin America, Bolivia ranks fifth in terms of prison overcrowding. The worst is Haiti, where prisons exceed their capacity by 804 percent on a national scale and the average allotted space per prisoner is just 5.8 square feet.

El Salvador was ranked second, with a prison overpopulation rate at around 300 percent. But conditions in the country’s prisons have worsened since the government implemented new measures in April 2016 for several gang prisons. The El Salvador Attorney General’s office for human rights documented the conditions in a report in November.

“The fact that they are served food in their hands is … inhumane. The overcrowding … all in the same cell for 24 hours! It’s like … the torture facilities of the past,” Raquel Caballero, of El Salvador’s Attorney General’s office for human rights, told El Faro.

The new measures, which were enacted for a year with the possibility of extension, also eliminated family visits, halted the delivery of basic hygiene products and prevented maximum-security prisoners from accessing medical treatment.

During the first four months of the new measures, four inmates died for lack of medical attention and 11 inmates were killed by rival gang members inside the prisons.

A rise in prison violence has added urgency to governments’ need to tackle overcrowding, which is considered endemic across Latin America. And while countries such as Bolivia have made efforts to reduce overcrowding by limiting the use of pre-trial detention, some human rights advocates argue such reforms are not enough to effectively overhaul the current justice systems.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at