- Due to natural resources such as gold and timber, a strategic location that connects to five South American countries, and few law-enforcement agents, criminal groups are dominating the Bolivian Amazon. They use the region for drug processing, storage, and transportation. There is also cultivation of the coca plant, but this is less common than in neighboring Peru.
- The most prominent criminal organizations that operate in the Bolivian Amazon are the First Capital Command and the Red Command, both from Brazil. However, a local organization, whose leaders previously worked for the Brazilian gangs, has emerged in recent years to compete for drug-smuggling routes: the Choleros.
- Official government statements have praised Bolivian law-enforcement agencies for combatting criminal organizations in the Amazon. However, journalist Iván Paredes and Senator Luisa Nayar contend that the state has been ineffective in halting the narco expansion.
On October 2, 2023, a study by Bolivian media outlet El Deber revealed the presence of criminal groups in 38 out of 50 municipalities they analyzed in the country’s Amazon region, which has 100 municipalities in total. These criminal groups carry out lucrative and illegal activities such as gold mining, drug production and smuggling, and timber logging and smuggling.
In addition to occupying 43 percent of the country’s territory and five out of the nine provinces, the Bolivian Amazon is home to 29 indigenous tribes. On August 28, Security Minister Eduardo Del Castillo affirmed that the majority of drug production and processing labs that the police have identified in the country are located in the Cochabamba province, which straddles the Amazon. In addition, he stated that other labs are located in the western part of the Santa Cruz province, also part of the Amazon.
Apart from Bolivia, seven other countries—Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador, and French Guiana—have a piece of the Amazon. With a territory of over 526 million hectares, the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. Due to its abundant resources, strategic location that connects eight different countries that have access to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and little presence of law enforcement, criminal groups control multiple sectors of the rainforest. For example, in June 2022, a group of illegal fishermen in the Brazilian Amazon killed British journalist Dom Phillips while he was covering a drug trafficking route.
This investigation explains how local and foreign criminal groups have penetrated the Bolivian Amazon and how they operate within the country. For this, the Impunity Observer interviewed Iván Paredes, a journalist focused on organized crime at the local media outlet El Deber, and Luisa Nayar, a senator for Santa Cruz state of the Citizen Community party.
Which Criminal Groups Operate in Bolivia’s Amazon?
The Bolivian Amazon is dominated by two foreign criminal organizations: the First Capital Command and Red Command, both from Brazil. In addition, the Choleros—according to a national police press conference in June 2022—is a local criminal organization that is located specifically in the Pando province in the Bolivian Amazon.
With around 30,000 members in South America, according to InSight Crime, the First Capital Command is a criminal organization that emerged in São Paulo, Brazil, in the early 1990s. It has since extended its operations to Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Although the organization has multiple sources of income across the region such as cigarette smuggling, in Bolivia its main source of income is drug smuggling and production, according to Paredes.
The Red Command is a criminal organization that emerged in Brazil in the 1970s as a leftist militia, but it expanded its operations to other countries in South America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru. Its main source of income is cocaine and marijuana smuggling and production across the region.
Apart from having territorial conflicts in Bolivia, the First Capital Command and the Red Command compete for territory and smuggling routes in the tri-border area between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The Impunity Observer previously reported that this area has illegal border crossings, poor or nonexistent customs controls, and corrupt public officials. In a similar vein, according to Paredes, Bolivian borders are “enormous,” which allows criminal organizations to avoid all customs controls, especially in the Amazon: “The Bolivia-Chile border has the best control, but there are still multiple illegal crossings where criminals smuggle drugs there too.”
The Choleros are a local criminal organization whose date of origin is “relatively new,” according to an El Deber conversation with a Bolivian police officer. Paredes asserts that the Choleros’ presence is limited to the Pando province, especially its capital city of Cobija, which has a population of around 80,000 residents.
With the objective of expanding their presence in the area and competing with the First Capital Command and the Red Command, the Choleros are recruiting local teenagers. Paredes told the Impunity Observer that the organization recruits youngsters in poverty because they are more vulnerable and “have little to lose.” The new members have low-ranking positions and are in charge of smuggling Bolivian and Peruvian drugs to Brazil and kidnapping or killing specific targets. They could be competing gangs or anyone, such as policemen, who impedes their operations. In addition, El Deber revealed that Choleros leaders worked for the Brazilian gangs prior to creating their own criminal organization.
In the Pando province, all three groups are engaged in violent turf war seeking territorial control for drug production, crystallization, and smuggling. These conflicts usually result in the death primarily of criminal organizations’ members. The combat tends to be in isolated areas far from population centers, although there have been prominent exceptions, such as a group-led assassination of an 18-year-old man in Cobija on June 19.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the Bolivian Amazon, “the Red Command and First Capital Command have the most dominant presence,” contends Paredes. In addition to these groups, he explains that there are “unidentified local and small groups” that work essentially as subcontractors for the two Brazilian gangs in the rest of the Amazon.
Why Is the Bolivian Amazon Attractive for Criminals?
Bolivia is rich in natural resources, including natural gas, timber, gold, and silver. The country has some of the most prominent mines such as Cerro Rico, which is the largest silver deposit in the world. In addition, the Uyuni salt flats hold among the largest lithium deposits in the world. While none of these is located in the Amazon, the jungle region is rich in timber and gold. Further, it has a large, remote, and unsupervised border with Brazil, which is 3,423 kilometers long and half of the country’s total border length.
Paredes told the Impunity Observer that the presence of local and foreign criminal groups in Bolivia’s Amazon region has been growing over the last decade. He adds that Venezuela’s criminal organization Aragua’s Train is expanding in the country. However, the Aragua’s Train presence is mainly in the west and not the Amazon. They smuggle drugs and illegal migrants to Chile as their income sources.
The Bolivian Amazon’s strategic location between Peru, Brazil, and Paraguay is attractive to drug smugglers. For example, the Pando province has borders with both Peru and Brazil where, according to Paredes, criminal organizations smuggle cocaine from Peru, crystallize it in Bolivia, and finally smuggle it to Brazil and Paraguay before meeting final consumption markets. He asserts that the objective of smuggling drugs to Brazil is that narcos can then send it overseas, through maritime ports, to markets such as the United States and Europe.
Organized crime has also penetrated national parks in the Amazon between Brazil and Bolivia. According to Senator Nayar, the state is “almost nonexistent” in these zones, which facilitates criminal operations. In December 2022, the Special Operations Unit carried out a raid in the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, where it found a clandestine runway for small planes and an unidentified criminal organization of about six people operating in the area. However, authorities failed to either identify or arrest the criminals. Both Nayar and Paredes agree that the region’s remoteness is another factor that facilitates criminal operations in the Amazon.
Is the Incumbent Administration Resisting Narco Operations?
Opinions on the central government’s fight against criminal organizations are divided. The official narrative holds that the authorities are effectively undermining narcos. Dissidents believe the administration is failing and not doing enough to halt narcos’ expansion in the country.
In 2023, Security Minister Del Castillo praised on multiple occasions the “outstanding” job that law-enforcement agencies were carrying out in Bolivia against criminals. According to the government’s official figures, its law-enforcement agencies have carried out 7,833 antidrug operations in 2023. This includes seizing drugs from criminal groups and destroying their drug production labs.
El ministro de Gobierno, Eduardo Del Castillo, informó sobre la destrucción de tres laboratorios de clorhidrato de cocaína, la aprehensión de seis personas y una afectación al narcotráfico de más de $us 1.2 millones.#EstamosSaliendoAdelante pic.twitter.com/HG9eg2lExv
— Ministerio De Gobierno Bolivia (@MindeGobierno) September 7, 2023
For Paredes, the incumbent administration and its antidrug agencies such as the National Police and the Special Task Force against Narcotrafficking have been carrying out multiple important operations against narcos in the country over the past months. However, he believes “these operations are insufficient” because narco presence is still spreading across Bolivia.
Nayar believes the authorities’ official figures are a “façade” for hiding their lack of results, as “they have not captured any major drug lord or criminal in recent years.” In addition, she—alongside members of the incumbent Socialist Movement party—has criticized that Del Castillo took a local influencer to an antidrug operation on September 5. For socialist Congressman Patricio Mendoza, the antidrug operations that the government is carrying out are a “joke.”
Nayar adds that some law-enforcement agents have ties with prominent drug lords such as the Uruguayan Sebastián Marset, who fled the country right after a drug operation against him. Marset himself, in an August 13 video, asserted that Del Castillo’s team tipped him off about the raid, which helped him escape hours before the operation. For Nayar, this case raises questions about the integrity of Bolivian officials.
Despite Bolivia having a low reported homicide rate compared to the rest of the region, with four per 100,000 inhabitants, two major Brazilian criminal organizations are expanding their operations in the Bolivian Amazon. The Movement for Socialism administration’s narrative praises itself for allegedly tackling the presence of criminal groups. However, journalists, the Bolivian opposition, and even fellow party members point out that the state has abandoned its national parks in the Amazon, which have become operation centers for narcos.
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