Wednesday, June 18, 2014

VOXXI: Bolivian gang members create a lost generation

"Bolivian Gang Members create a Lost Generation"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
June 18, 2014

The Bolivian government claims an alarming 10,500 Bolivian teenagers are gang members, comprising most of the Andean nation’s major cities, including La Paz.
These statistics show that Bolivia could be experiencing a “lost generation” of young Bolivians who are not productive members of society. With the upcoming elections in October, the next government –whether President Evo Morales is re-elected or not–will hopefully prioritize internal security and social programs to aid the country’s youth. But this is unlikely.
Looking under the statistical hood
Some statistics are necessary to place the aforementioned estimate into proper perspective. According to a2012 census, Bolivia’s total population was at most, 10.496 million citizens. By 2014, let’s estimate that it has already surpassed 10.5 million. Women account for the majority, with 5.255 million female citizens compared to 5.240 million males.
A January 7, 2014, report in Bolivian daily La Razon regarding age demographics shows that the Bolivian population under 15 years of age is just over 3.2 million (31.6% total population), while an additional million are between 15-19 years old.
In other words, Bolivia has a significantly young population; hence it’s increasingly problematic that more and more young Bolivians are joining gangs. “La Razon” explains that Bolivian security agencies have arrested gang members who are as young as 13 years of age.
A report by the Bolivian think tank Observatorio Nacional de Seguridad Ciudadana (ONSC – National Observatory of Citizen Security) estimates that, based on data provided by the Bolivian Police, some 762 gangs exist in the capitals of most parts of the country.
Most gangs have approximately 50 members, though an estimated 10% have more than 50 members. TheBolivian ombudswoman Shirley Pardo explains that 34% of gangs in Bolivia are located in La Paz, 22% in Santa Cruz, and 14% in Cochabamba.
When breaking the gangs down by gender, 79% of gang members are male while 21% are female. It is worth highlighting that in spite of this gender difference, at least one all-female gang exists. The group is called “Bola 8-M” and seems to operate in the Pampa de la Isla township, in the department of Santa Cruz.
According to the ONSC, between 2011-2013, 17.2% of the gangs carried out fights with other criminal groups and committed crimes including robbery and vandalism. Tragically, fights between gangs tend to end in murder.
For example, in early May, a 16 year old gang member was killed during a fight with a 23 year old rival gang member, who stabbed him multiple times in his left thigh, causing him to bleed to death. There are also reports of gang members fighting with law enforcement agents, as the former tend to outnumber the latter.
Things to come with gangs?
The extent of the unfortunate situation in Bolivia is not easy to predict and it would be unhelpful to be overly pessimistic or exaggeratory.
On the one hand, Bolivian gangs tend to be small (to the extent that 50 members in a gang can be considered small) and operate in specific neighborhoods. In other words, we are not (yet) witnessing the creation of one gang with branches in various cities across the country or abroad, such as the maras in Central America.
That is the good news.
The bad news is how powerful Bolivian gangs could become if the Bolivian government and society in general are not able to reintegrate these young men and women back into society.
One particular concern is that foreign criminal entities may attract Bolivian gangs to become their proxies. The online security news agency InSightCrime has discussed reports that a Brazilian prison gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital, is increasing its presence in Bolivia.
Additionally, Bolivia remains a major producer of cocaine, and acts as a stopover for Peruvian cocaine traveling to Brazil and Paraguay. Closer relations between Peruvian drug syndicates and Bolivian drug traffickers and gangs are also a problematic scenario.
As for the government’s response, occasional legislations to crack down on gangs have been debated in the Bolivian congress to no major avail. Increasing the size and capabilities of the Bolivian police force is another logical option, particularly as a report by La Razon found severe personnel problems with police stations in La Paz; some stations only have one to three officers.
This past 14-15 of June, Bolivia hosted a major international summit of the G77 + China group. In order to prepare the city of Santa Cruz for the meeting, law enforcement agents cracked down on the city’s gangs and illegal migrants. This sounds eerily familiar to Brazil’s initiatives of pacifying favelas prior to the start of the ongoing World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The G77 + China summit was a success for the country’s government, but the existence of gangs, and the reasons why young Bolivians are joining them, persists. Hopefully the Bolivian government is thinking outside the box about long-term solutions to address this issue. But the little that has been reported gives us little reason to be hopeful.

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