In the Plurinational State of Bolivia, women account for 8 percent of the country’s more than 17,000 people behind bars. In only three other Latin American countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Chile) do women comprise a larger share of the overall incarcerated population. Almost 40 percent of the women behind bars in Bolivia are held for lowlevel drug offenses, often as a result of structural socioeconomic conditions, such as poverty and the pressures of single parenting.
These women are typically poor, have limited education, and do not have access to stable jobs with decent pay; a startling percentage have been victims of domestic and sexual violence. They are often driven into the drug trade out of economic necessity. High rates of pretrial detention have also contributed to severe prison overcrowding. Indeed, Bolivian prisons are ranked as the eighth most congested in the world.
In response to extreme prison overcrowding, between 2012 and 2018 the government of President Evo Morales enacted six prison pardon, sentence reduction, and amnesty initiatives, leading to the release of almost a third of Bolivia’s total incarcerated population. Specific gender-sensitive clauses benefited mothers and caregivers. These pardon, sentence reduction, and amnesty initiatives with a gender focus, paired with poverty reduction and increased state support for mothers, contributed to an 84 percent decrease between 2012 and 2017 in the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses, going against the trend of increasing female incarceration for drug-related offenses in most Latin American countries.
But Bolivia’s considerable progress in reducing the incarceration of women for drug offenses risks reversal without the enactment and implementation of broader judicial reform efforts. Bolivia’s 1988 drug law, Law 1008, includes harsh provisions that fail to distinguish between small, medium, and large-scale trafficking, with disproportionally high sentences for all offenses ranging from 10 to 25 years. Law 1008 initially mandated pretrial detention for anyone accused of a drug offense and blocked those individuals from benefitting from alternatives to incarceration.
Upon assuming office in January 2006, the Morales Administration promised to reform Law 1008 and to propose separate legislation for coca cultivation. More than 10 years later, in 2017, the Bolivian legislature finally passed new laws on coca and on controlled substances. A new penal code approved later that year would have reduced sentences for drug offenses and could have significantly reduced the number of incarcerated women. However, in the face of widespread protests, the legislature subsequently revoked it, meaning that the extremely high sentences for drug offenses provided under Law 1008 remain in effect.