Armed Forces Overview: Although its political history has been dominated by military coups, Bolivia’s armed forces are relatively small and undeveloped. Bolivia currently has secure borders and few international threats, in comparison with previous times in its history. Efforts to reform and modernize the Bolivian armed forces have been suppressed as a result of the need to retain the support of the military establishment and because of more pressing political and civil issues. In spite of its weakness on the world scale, the Bolivian military historically has been the only institution that can maintain law and order in the country.
Foreign Military Relations: Bolivia receives military aid from the United States for its continuing fight against illicit drug production and trade. Bolivia and the United States have conducted joint training exercises, and Bolivia has received training funds through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. Military relations with regional neighbors remain stable, but tensions between Peru and Chile have the potential to unbalance the military equilibrium currently governing South America. Bolivia opposes most Chilean interests as a result of lingering resentment over the War of the Pacific (1879–80).
External Threats: Since losing territory to Chile and Paraguay through military conflict in the early twentieth century, Bolivia has remained relatively safe from international threats. Internal riots and resistance represent a much more significant threat to Bolivian stability than do external threats.
Defense Budget: In 2004 Bolivia devoted US$132 million to military expenditures. Bolivia ranks near the bottom third of world countries in terms of both military spending and military expenditures as a percentage of GDP.
Major Military Units: Bolivia has three military services⎯the army, air force, and navy. The army has the majority of the military manpower, with 25,000 troops of the 31,500 in the Bolivian armed forces. The army is divided into six military divisions and includes a presidential guard infantry unit. The army still includes five horse-riding cavalry groups, along with one motorized cavalry group, one assault cavalry group, two airborne regiments, two mechanized infantry regiments, three motorized infantry regiments, six artillery regiments, six engineer battalions, and 21 infantry battalions. The 3,000-member air force is organized in two fighter squadrons; other squadrons are devoted to helicopters, weapons training, survey, air defense, and transport. Bolivia’s navy has 3,500 personnel, 1,700 of whom are marines. Without ocean access, Bolivia’s navy focuses on the country’s rivers and Lake Titicaca. Six naval districts cover the country. One battalion of marines operates in each of the six districts.
Major Military Equipment: Much of Bolivia’s military equipment is outdated. The army inventory includes 36 SK–105 Kuerassierlight tanks, 24 Cascavelreconnaissance vehicles, and 59 armored personnel carriers. In terms of artillery, the army has 75-, 105-, and 122-millimeter towed guns. Additionally, the army has 81-millimeter and 107-millimeter mortars. Bolivia’s air force makes use of an aged fleet of planes. Presently, it has 37 combat aircraft and 16 armed helicopters. Bolivia’s fighter squadrons fly 18 AT–33AN fighter jets and 19 PC–7s. For transport and surveillance, a collection of Cessnas, Learjets, Saberliners, and King Airaircraft are used. Bolivia’s naval fleet consists of 60 riverine and 18 support craft.
Military Service: Military service is voluntary unless enlistments fail to meet government quotas, which has been the case in recent history. More than half (20,000) of Bolivia’s active troops are conscripted. Males become eligible for voluntary service at 18 but may be conscripted as young as 14. According to one estimate, nearly 40 percent of military personnel are less than 18 years of age. Active members of the armed services serve for periods of one year.
Paramilitary Forces: Bolivia’s paramilitary force is larger than its armed forces. More than 31,000 national police officers and 6,000 narcotics police officers serve Bolivia’s citizenry. The national police force is divided into nine brigades, two rapid response regiments, and 27 frontier units. Political instability and frequent civil unrest have made the paramilitary forces vital to Bolivia’s well-being.
Foreign Military Forces: In the 1980s, the U.S. military collaborated with Bolivian forcesto attempt to eradicate drug production. Public outcries against the presence of U.S. military forces, however, led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Currently, no foreign forces reside in Bolivia.
Military Forces Abroad: Bolivia plays a limited role in international peacekeeping. In 2004 Bolivia sent 207 troops the Democratic Republic of the Congo to participate in peacekeeping operations. Additionally, Bolivia sent observers to United Nations operations in Côte d’Ivoire, East Timor, Haiti, Liberia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Sierra Leone.
Police: Bolivia has a national police force of 31,000 officers that is responsible for internal security and maintaining law and order. Unlike in most Latin American countries, the Bolivian police force always has been responsible to the national government rather than to state or local officials. The 1950 Organic Law of Police and Carabineers officially separated the police from the military. Frequently, however, the national police call upon the military for assistance in quelling riots and civil protests.
Internal Threat: Bolivia has internal conflicts stemming from a variety of sources. Coca farmers resisting government efforts at crop eradication frequently have resorted to protest and violence against national police forces. In 2003 coca farmers and Bolivian troops clashed repeatedly, leaving more than 60 dead. Similarly, indigenous groups have organized in opposition to the perceived injustice of exporting natural gas for the primary benefit of large companies. And more generally, Bolivia’s long-term poverty has produced instability and a rift between rural and urban communities. Although democratic participation is present in Bolivia, the fragmented political parties frequently serve as instigators of internal divisions rather than as functional outlets for varying opinions.
Terrorism: Bolivia is a signatory to the Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism and the Asunción Declaration of 2003, which unites Latin American countries to fight alongside the Colombian government against terrorism and drug trafficking. Despite its meager military budget, Bolivia has been one of the United States’ most reliable South American partners in the war on terrorism. Bolivia has shared financial information with the United States regarding suspected terrorists in the country. In 2004 Bolivia established a counterterrorism coordination unit to bring together police, military, and diplomatic leaders.
Bolivia’s efforts to eradicate the coca industry have been modestly successful. Increased pressure on coca farmers, however, has resulted in heightened domestic conflict and opened new possibilities for cooperation with terrorist organizations. Bolivia’s varied topography and porous borders make the country a possible haven for terrorist groups. However, no major terrorist actions have taken place on Bolivian soil, and there is no evidence of the presence of international terrorist organizations in the country.
Human Rights: Bolivia is in accord with general human rights standards. It affords its citizens freedom of the press, speech, religion, and assembly. Those accused of committing crimes in Bolivia enjoy the right to a trial by jury and to legal representation. Although the judiciary operates independently, low pay makes many judges susceptible to bribes. Prisoners do not enjoy equal treatment. Those with money are able to buy larger cells and more food than those without access to funds.
Bolivians enjoy the right to vote in regular political elections and to assemble for political protests. Oftentimes, however, political protests have devolved into violence, and military and police forces have used violent measures to restore order. Bolivian political parties range from extreme conservative to extreme liberal, and citizens are unrestricted in joining the political party of their choice. Additionally, Bolivian workers have the right to unionize. About 25 percent of workers employed in the formal work sector belong to unions. A minimum wage and workweek standards exist, but enforcement has proved difficult.
Abuse of women and children is widespread and often unreported in Bolivia. Family violence, when reported, results in only a few days in jail and a small fine. The punishment for rape has become more severe in recent years. Those convicted of rape, including statutory rape, face significant jail time. However, a victim must press charges in order for rape to be a crime. Economic scarcity has led to human trafficking and child labor in Bolivia. Prostitution is legal in Bolivia, but many Bolivian women are taken against their will to other countries and forced to work in prostitution for little compensation. Children are often trafficked for labor. The Bolivian government, in cooperation with the United Nations, is working to curb abuse of Bolivian women and children both within Bolivia and abroad.