Bolivia is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected president and a bicameral legislature. On October 18, Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, candidate for the Movement Toward Socialism Party, won a presidential election with 55 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Citizen Community coalition candidate Carlos Diego Mesa Gisbert, won 28.8 percent. International electoral observation missions and domestic electoral observation organizations characterized the elections as free, fair, and transparent.
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 the Armed Forces, which report to the Ministry of Defense, may be called to help in critical situations. Immigration officials report to the Ministry of Government, and police and military share responsibilities for border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious problems concerning judicial independence; restrictions on free expression, the press, and other media, including violence against journalists by state security forces and censorship; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; 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:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year.
The Institute of Forensic Investigations recorded 30 persons killed from October 20 to November 15, 2019, in the context of the postelectoral crisis. The death toll was corroborated by Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Of these 30 deaths, OHCHR and forensic reports indicated nine persons were killed and more than 100 injured during demonstrations in Sacaba, Cochabamba Department, on November 15, 2019, and another 10 were killed and 30 injured during protests near the Senkata gas facility in El Alto, La Paz Department, on November 19, 2019.
Regarding the violent disturbances that occurred in the postelectoral period in October-November 2019, an August OHCHR report cited Institute of Forensic Investigation reporting that the use of lethal ammunition led to deaths and injuries during protests in Sacaba and Senkata. The OHCHR report also highlighted there were no reports of security forces being killed or wounded by gunfire during these same protests, although Ministry of Justice officials stated a number of security forces were wounded during the Sacaba incident. A December 2019 preliminary report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated the injury patterns in both cases “point strongly to extrajudicial killing practices.” Government authorities denied security forces were responsible for these deaths, claiming the protesters used their own firearms and that some calibers of the bullets found in victims’ corpses did not correspond to standard ammunition issued to police or armed forces. In a February interview with Human Rights Watch, then minister of government Arturo Murillo claimed leaders of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party killed their party’s own supporters in Sacaba and Senkata, referencing the forensic reports that allegedly found bullets in victims that were inconsistent with the caliber used by security forces. The August OHCHR report cited forensic reports indicating authorities were unable to recover the vast majority of bullets that killed and injured protesters in the two incidents and that authorities had not conducted any formal assessment of the weapons carried by security forces during those operations. Government officials stated the use of force by security forces was proportional to the protesters’ level of violence. The officials indicated protesters had homemade weapons and explosive material and that they intended to cause an explosion at the gas installation the armed forces were guarding in Senkata. The OHCHR also reported accounts of the events from authorities, victims, and witnesses revealed inconsistencies that needed to be investigated.
A September Human Rights Watch report indicated other persons died in subsequent clashes between pro-Morales supporters and their opponents, including two men allegedly killed by Morales supporters in Montero, Santa Cruz Department. According to local media, two police officers were also killed in the postelection violence. In November 2019 police sergeant Juan Alarcon Parra died of injuries after allegedly being beaten by a mob, and Lieutenant Coronel Heybar Alarcon died in a motorcycle accident allegedly after being attacked by protesters.
In December 2019 the IACHR announced it had signed an agreement with the transitional government to create a mechanism to support the investigation of acts of violence and human rights abuses that took place between September and December 2019. Subsequently, an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) was created by the IACHR with the agreement of the transitional government to investigate the events for a period of six months, which could be extended by agreement of the parties for as long as necessary to fulfill its mission.
On November 23, the Arce government and the IACHR signed a protocol agreement during a public ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to install the five-member GIEI and officially begin the investigation into the acts of violence that occurred between September and December 2019. The group of international human rights experts is scheduled to conduct meetings with victims, witnesses, government authorities, and civil society. The government authorized the group to have access to police and military records to conduct an independent and impartial investigation of the acts of violence surrounding the October 2019 general election.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
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 reports that government officials employed them. The penal code carries only minimum penalties for persons convicted of torture, but no public official had ever been found guilty of the crime.
A representative of the Ombudsman Office, Nelson Cox, alleged that nine prisoners from the Chapare region detained on drug charges were physically and psychologically attacked by police after they were sent on April 26 to the El Abra Prison in Cochabamba. Cox referenced a report from the prison physician that found bruising and lesions on the prisoners resulting from blows to their lower extremities, back, and ribs.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) charged that the Ministry of Justice’s Service to Prevent Torture failed to denounce consistently torture by police and military personnel, who employed it frequently. NGOs reported that police investigations relied heavily on torture 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 rape, gang rape by guards, sensory deprivation, use of improvised tear gas chambers and Tasers, asphyxiation, verbal abuse, and threats of violence.
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.
Impunity remained a significant problem in the National Police due to corruption and politicization of the judicial system, with mechanisms to investigate abuse rarely utilized or enforced. Complex legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, executive interference, corruption, and inadequate case-tracking mechanisms contributed to police impunity. According to a 2019 report by the Department of Inspection and Control of Disciplinary Cases of the Institution of Order, 180 police officers cited in criminal proceedings between 2014 and 2019 were reinstated after their cases were closed. Of the 180 officers, 84 were involved in drug trafficking and corruption cases. Mechanisms to investigate abuse exist, but investigations frequently were not completed due to systemic corruption that encouraged investigated parties to pay off investigators. NGOs and the international community offered most training courses to increase respect for human rights, but few took place throughout the year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
According to an August OHCHR report, the Office of the Attorney General initiated criminal proceedings against approximately 150 former Morales government officials at all levels from November 2019 to February. Common charges included sedition, terrorism, and breach of duties, and the proceedings were often initiated by legal complaints from interim government officials. The OHCHR expressed concern that the overly broad and vague definitions of crimes such as terrorism, sedition, and breach of duties “could be arbitrarily applied to restrict the rights of a person.” The report also noted violations of legal due-process provisions, irregularities in the notification of legal warrants, and the detention and prosecution of defense attorneys. In September, Ministry of Justice officials denied these figures, claiming that only a handful of terrorism or sedition investigations remained open. The officials cited the case of former minister of culture Wilma Alanoca Mamani and nine other colleagues from the Ministry of Culture who allegedly fabricated Molotov cocktails and distributed them to MAS supporters in the days preceding Morales’ resignation.
On August 19, the International Policy Commission in the MAS-controlled Chamber of Deputies approved the extension of a bill for the safe conduct of former officials in the Morales administration who had claimed asylum in the residence of the Mexican embassy since late 2019. Following the departure of Morales in November 2019, seven former officials sought asylum in the Mexican embassy, among them former presidency minister Juan Ramon Quintana, former defense minister Javier Zabaleta, and former justice minister Hector Arce. Gonzalo Aguilar, a MAS deputy, claimed these former officials had not been found guilty of any crime and had been accused of political crimes. Officials in the interim government’s Foreign Ministry disagreed, stating that Congress could not encroach other legal jurisdictions and that many of the former officials had urgent arrest orders pending against them for charges of sedition, terrorism, terrorist financing, and public incitement to commit a crime. Following the October 18 elections, the majority of the detention orders and criminal investigations against the former officials were dropped, and all seven officials eventually left the Mexican embassy. On October 25, a judge annulled the detention order against Zabaleta, and on November 1, judges annulled the detention orders against Quintana and Hector Arce.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the former Morales government, and to a lesser extent the transitional government, carried out reprisals against media outlets that expressed dissenting opinions. Some media outlets reported the government pressured and intimidated them to report favorably regarding its policies, particularly by withholding government advertising and imposing steep taxes.
Freedom of Speech: On March 25, the interim government issued Presidential Decree 4200 as one of the first major government decrees to fight the COVID-19 pandemic by mandating a national quarantine through April 15 (which was later extended due to an increase in COVID-19 cases). In a section titled “Sanctions for Lack of Compliance,” the second clause reads: “Individuals who incite noncompliance with this decree or misinform or cause uncertainty in the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health.” A subsequent clause states persons who commit crimes against public health “will be subject to imprisonment for one to 10 years, in accordance with the stipulations of the penal code.” The decree itself establishes no legal sanctions beyond those that already exist. The decree’s language led to criticisms from international observers. On April 7, Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch called the decree’s provision “overly broad” and argued the interim government “appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to give itself the power to punish anyone who publishes information the government deems ‘incorrect,’ in violation of free speech protections.” On April 11, the IACHR special rapporteur for freedom of expression echoed this sentiment in a tweet, claiming the provision reflected a “disproportionate use of penal law to criminalize commentary on issues of public interest.”
On May 7, the interim government issued Presidential Decree 4231, which states that persons who disseminate information “be it in written, printed, artistic form and/or by any other procedure that puts them at risk or affects public health, or generates uncertainty in the population, will be liable to complaints for the commission of crimes established in the penal code.” This decree built upon Presidential Decree 4200 to deter the spread of “misinformation” related to COVID-19 by broadening the potential methods of disinformation to include “printed and/or artistic form.” Following this decree, the Ombudsman’s Office announced it would file an action before the Constitutional Tribunal to declare Decree 4231 was unconstitutional and violated the fundamental democratic right to freedom of expression. Many entities previously critical of the Morales government’s record on free speech issues noted the decree represented a similar threat against freedom of speech. The Association of Journalists of Bolivia and the Association of Journalists of La Paz called for the repeal of Decree 4231, since “it establishes a severe unconstitutional and unconventional restrictions by penalizing the human and fundamental right to freedom of expression.”
Following a May 14 cabinet meeting, the interim government announced it was annulling the relevant provisions of each “disinformation” decree. The interim government had been widely criticized by domestic and international groups, including the IACHR, for the decrees’ language, which many had argued countered citizens’ free speech and free press rights and international commitments.
On April 21, Mauricio Jara Pacheco was arrested and placed into pretrial detention for allegedly inciting the population via WhatsApp Messenger groups to ignore the rigid national quarantine measures and for belonging to a group of “digital warriors” tied to the previous Morales administration. He was charged with sedition, public instigation to commit a crime, and attacks against public health. On April 29, a total of 46 journalists and media figures released a public statement demanding his release and urging the government to respect freedom of expression. As of September, Jara Pacheco remained in pretrial detention while the investigation continued.
Freedom of the Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to Supreme Decree 181, the government should provide goods and services to all media outlets in a nondiscriminatory manner, but it did not purchase advertisements in media outlets considered adversarial.
Media outlets alleged the government pressured news organizations to report favorably on government policies and retaliated against news organizations that did not comply. The National Press Association of Bolivia (ANP) and several journalists alleged the government’s retaliatory tactics included withdrawing advertisements and conducting excessive tax audits, which forced companies to spend significant time and resources to defend themselves. Civil society organizations explained that while reported harassment under the interim government was not as serious as during the Morales government, other forms of economic pressure via advertising used under the Morales administration continued relatively unchanged. In late 2019 Minister of Communication and Minister of Government Murillo threatened journalists who published stories against the government, but no charges were filed.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists faced threats. On September 11, the ANP Monitoring Unit released a report that detailed 87 cases of assault or attacks against journalists in 2019, up 165 percent from 2018. The unit cited increased social tension during an electoral year as the principal cause. In addition to the 87 cases of direct attacks, the report also highlighted other “alerts” of aggression against freedom of expression that included restricting access to information, stigmatizing discourse, and internet restrictions. Of the 162 total alerts (including the 87 cases of attacks against journalists), the report identified the government as the perpetrator in 28 percent of them, with the other alerts attributed to nonstate actors (mainly protesters) or unknown perpetrators.
On July 29, the ANP reported that at least four journalists were physically and verbally attacked during a march organized by the trade union federation Central Obrera Boliviana and organizations aligned with MAS against the postponement of the general election date, but several of those affected opted for self-censorship to avoid retaliation. Protesters tried to take mobile phones from press envoys filming the marches, and other press workers were insulted and threatened by marchers. One federation leader, who organized the protests, claimed the leadership lacked the ability to control “radical people” among the bases.
On May 20, the ANP reported that a journalist and cameraman were ambushed by MAS-aligned protesters in the K’ara neighborhood of Cochabamba as they attempted to cover a conciliation meeting between community members and municipal authorities regarding a garbage dump that had been temporarily closed due to COVID-19 concerns. According to victim testimony and video from the incident, protesters threw large rocks through the windshield of a press vehicle and chased the journalists as they attempted to flee. The cameraman suffered chest injuries from the stone and shattered glass.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship due to fear of losing their jobs or losing access to government sources, in addition to fear of prosecution and harassment.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although political considerations allegedly influenced academic appointments.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but some civil society organizations criticized the interim government for using the pretext of the COVID-19 national quarantine to restrict the right of freedom of assembly. The government generally respected the right of freedom of association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
While the law requires a permit for most demonstrations, the government rarely enforced the provisions, and most protesters demonstrated without obtaining permits. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but occasionally demonstrators carried weapons, including clubs, machetes, firearms, firecrackers, and dynamite. Security forces at times dispersed protest groups carrying weapons or threatening government and private facilities. The number of protests sharply increased due to the postponement of the election to October 18. Protesters established roadblocks that impeded highway traffic for nearly two weeks, and counterprotesters clashed with blockaders in many cities. In September parents of public school students in major cities initiated peaceful, targeted protests to demand school breakfasts for their children, which had been halted when schools closed at the start of the national quarantine.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On October 18, MAS candidate Luis Arce won the election for president with 55 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Citizen Community candidate Carlos Mesa, won 28.8 percent of the vote. The elections were peaceful, and Mesa conceded soon after the release of the preliminary vote tabulations. International electoral observation missions and domestic electoral observation organizations characterized the elections as free, fair, and transparent. On November 8, Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca were sworn in as president and vice president, along with the 36 newly elected members of the Senate and 130 members of the Chamber of Deputies.
After negotiations in November 2019 produced the framework for a new electoral process, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) set the initial date for general elections on May 3. As the prospects for that date waned due to a national quarantine and COVID-19 fears, in March the TSE, in consultation with political parties and the National Assembly (ALP), postponed the elections from the May 3 date without announcing a date. After the MAS sought to force elections by early August, a timeframe to which the TSE never agreed, on June 2, the TSE again negotiated an agreement with most parties to move the date to September 6. Soon afterward, the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became more apparent, with the collapse of health-care system’s ability to handle patients and several high-profile deaths. On July 23, the TSE announced that it was postponing national elections for the second time to October 18, with a second-round presidential runoff election to be held on November 29, if necessary. Marking a first, the TSE made its decision without the assent of the National Assembly (ALP), asserting its authority to do so as a fourth and coequal branch of government. This decision marked the third time an election date had been set since the annulled, fraudulent election of October 2019.
Despite protests and subsequent blockades from the opposition, legal and electoral experts agreed the TSE acted within its constitutional limits regarding its decision to delay national elections by six weeks due to rising COVID-19 cases. TSE leaders justified their decision to postpone elections to October 18 without obtaining assent from the ALP by citing the 2009 constitution and later electoral laws that establish the electoral body as an independent and coequal branch of government with well defined electoral prerogatives. TSE President Salvador Ignacio Romero Ballivian stated the TSE consulted various epidemiological studies from the Ministry of Health and international health organizations to assess forecasts of the pandemic peaking in September. Romero explained the TSE ultimately decided to push back the election date to minimize public-health risks during the peak of the crisis. Prior to the TSE decision, many civil society groups and the majority of presidential candidates, with the exception of MAS candidate Luis Arce, had called on the TSE to delay the election due to the exponential rise in coronavirus cases and threats to public safety.
Article 12 of the 2009 constitution clearly identifies the TSE as a coequal branch of the state that maintains its independence and separation from the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Article 24 of the 2008 Electoral Body Law further delineates the TSE responsibilities to call fixed electoral processes, decide election dates, and approve the respective electoral calendar. Local media reports quoted a number of constitutional and electoral experts who argued the TSE acted within its legal scope of responsibilities to move the election date back based on legitimate public-health concerns. In a press release, the United Nations expressed support for the decision to delay the elections and expressed full confidence “in the professionalism and independence of the Plurinational Electoral Body (OEP).” The UN release also recalled how the TSE members were selected on the individual merits by all the political parties of the ALP and that TSE President Romero was appointed due to his “recognized and impeccable career in electoral matters.”
On August 12, following nearly two weeks of extensive protests and road blockades that paralyzed the country and restricted passage of vital medical supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, political parties within the ALP reached an agreement giving legal approval for the postponement of elections to October 18. On August 13, interim president Anez signed the bill into law, and the TSE unanimously approved a resolution setting the election date for October 18.
In the face of international condemnation and dwindling public support for the protesters’ activities, MAS leadership began to distance themselves from initial solidarity, calling instead for “reflection” and eventually agreeing in principle on an August 8 election date. Other protest leaders from the Unity Pact initially rejected the MAS position and vowed to continue the protests and blockades. International organizations and humanitarian groups had criticized the protesters for preventing the passage of medical supplies through blockade lines. According to the interim government, these blockades resulted in the deaths of more than 30 COVID-19 patients who perished because trucks carrying life-saving oxygen tanks to hospitals were blocked. Local media also documented numerous acts of violent intimidation perpetrated by the protesters, including kidnapping, physical assault, arson, and vandalism. Despite vows from a small number of social organizations to continue the blockades in spite of the political agreement, overall support for the blockades quickly evaporated, and the majority of roadblocks had been cleared by August 17. Clashes between neighborhood civil groups and the blockaders were reported in the departments of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz during this period.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The law prohibits and sanctions the requirement of contributions to a political campaign and states political organizations “may not manage, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, any type of contributions, donations, subsidies, or support that have been provided from persons who had been forced to make the contribution by their superiors or employers, whether in public or private entities.”
On September 7, the Second Constitutional Chamber of La Paz ruled to deny the petition of former president Morales to run as a MAS candidate for the Senate. The ruling ratified the TSE’s February 21 decision to disqualify Morales’ Senate candidature due to his failure to meet the minimum permanent residency requirements from his asylum in Argentina. Following the TSE’s decision, representatives of the former president filed a constitutional protection case to reverse his disqualification. On September 7, the chamber ruled two-to-one against Morales’ constitutional protection petition.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law mandates gender parity in the candidate selection process at national, regional, and municipal legislative level.
While women had a substantial amount of representation on the legislative level, occupying 52 percent of legislative seats, they remained significantly underrepresented in executive positions. Candidates for mayor, governor, vice president, and president were not chosen from party lists, and the majority of executive political positions were held by men.
Women participating in politics faced violence and harassment. According to a survey conducted by the Association of Female Mayors and Councilwomen of Bolivia, 59 percent of councilwomen polled had suffered some type of violence or political harassment in their municipality, and 39 percent did not complete their term due to the severity of the threats and hostility they received.
On April 21, Patricia Arce, a MAS-affiliated mayor of Vinto, who was assaulted by a crowd of men in November 2019, was detained for an alleged breach of the national quarantine after police accused Arce and seven other persons of participating in a party in their private homes. Arce described the detention as a political act. The Association of Female Mayors and Councilwomen of Bolivia denounced the “irregular apprehension” of Arce and demanded an impartial investigation to determine whether excessive force was used during the arrest. On August 7, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented criminal charges against Arce for making municipal dump trucks available to transfer rocks and debris to block the entrance and exit from an oxygen factory in Cochabamba during the two weeks of protests and blockades, following the TSE decision to postpone elections until October 18.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the former Morales government and to a lesser extent the transitional government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: On May 20, authorities arrested Minister of Health Marcelo Navajas Salinas as part of an investigation into claims that the government paid inflated prices for ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients. In addition the state prosecutor announced four other Health Ministry officials had also been detained in relation to the investigation and that officials abroad and intermediaries involved in the purchases would also be investigated. Local newspaper Pagina Siete reported the government paid $4.7 million for 170 ventilators from the Spanish company GPA Innova, despite the contract being worth only $1.2 million. Press reports noted the steep premium paid for the ventilators, bought at approximately $27,500 each, were purchased from emergency funds the government received from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The IDB stated it was concerned regarding “possible irregularities in the purchase of the respirators” by the Health Ministry.
In addition to former minister Navajas, lead prosecutor Mejillones stated that former legal director of the Ministry of Health, Fernando Valenzuela; former director of the Agency for Infrastructure in Health and Medical Equipment, Geovanni Pacheco Fiorilo; and the consul of Bolivia in Barcelona, Alberto Pareja, were also charged in the case. Mejillones further reported that a consultant for the IDB who gave “no objection” to the acquisition process was also charged.
On August 17, a judge ordered the former governor of Beni, Alex Ferrier Abidar of the MAS Party, to four months of pretrial detention after being accused of misappropriation of resources, embezzlement, and breach of duties associated with two large public works projects while he was governor. The largest project involved construction of the Trinidad-Loreto highway and alleged construction work that began without proper contract tenders being issued or awards being granted.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to report potential personal and financial conflicts of interest and to declare their income and assets. The law mandates that elected and appointed officials disclose their financial information to the auditor general, but their declarations are not available to the public. By law noncompliance results in internal sanctions, including dismissal.