The GULS Law Review

Getting you through the GU law degree!

header photo

Military Dictatorship in Bolivia and the Contemporary Campaign for Justice

Written by Jamie Hislop, graduate of the University of Glasgow and currently working with Servicio Internacional Británico, a human rights-based development organisation, in La Paz, Bolivia.

In tents on the kerb of El Prado, the main thoroughfare of La Paz, live a group of elderly Bolivians. At night, they endure freezing altiplano temperatures and risk of violent attack from drunks and thieves. By day, cars and antiquated buses belch choking pollution into their home. Each morning, ministers and officials enter the Ministry of Justice opposite, willfully ignoring the plea of those camped at their door; the plea for information, and for justice.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, numerous Central and South American countries experienced repressive military dictatorships. The regime of General Pinochet in Chile is perhaps the most infamous, but Bolivia also had numerous general-led dictatorships. Those of Hugo Banzer Suárez and Luis García Meza were notorious for their brutality.


Military Dictatorship in Bolivia

In August 1971, General Hugo Banzer Suárez led a coup d’état and established a tyrannical military dictatorship. In implementing a regime of repression, the Department for Political Order (Dirección de Orden Político) was established to quash political opponents.[1] This department controlled numerous detention centres, including concentration camps at Achocalla near La Paz, at El Pari in Bolivia’s second city, Santa Cruz, and on the Isla de la Luna, Lake Titicaca. These centres were used to indefinitely deprive individuals of their liberty, conduct torturous interrogations, and extrajudicially execute political opponents.

According to evidence presented before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the types of torture inflicted upon victims included beatings, the placement of needles under prisoners’ fingernails, electric shocks, hot iron branding, and simulated execution by firing squad. After an individual had been detained and extensively tortured, his or her next of kin were commonly forced to visit the centre: witnessing the condition of detained relatives was intended to act as a deterrent to any continued opposition to military rule.[2]

Furthermore, the military regime controlled all media outlets. It could therefore disseminate propaganda and publish fabricated press releases which “justified” killings. Newspapers would routinely report that inmates of detention centres had been killed during attempted breakouts. In reality, those persons would have been extrajudicially executed by military personnel and their remains disposed of in an undisclosed location.[3]

The Suárez policy of systematic disappearances mirrors that of General Pinochet in neighbouring Chile: between 1974 and 1977 hundreds of Chilean political activists were forcibly disappeared under a planned and coordinated government strategy.[4] In 1975, Suárez implemented ‘Operation Condor’ in conjunction with other South American dictators to silence communist and left-wing political opposition. Human rights abuses became widespread in Bolivia.

The approximate number of victims remains unclear, but the Association of Relatives of the Detainees, Disappeared Persons and Martyrs for National Liberation (Asociacíon de Familiares de Detenidos, Desaparecidos y Mártires por la Liberación) reports that at least 68 people were forcibly disappeared and 78 were subject to extrajudicial executions.[5] This is in addition to the mass exile of political opponents and innumerable victims of torture. Suárez was removed from power in 1978 during a coup d’état which attempted to restore presidential democracy.

However, the institution of democratic processes was again interrupted by a coup d’état led by General Luis García Meza. The Presidential Palace was occupied by military forces on 17 July 1980 and acting Constitutional President, Mrs Lidia Gueiler, was forced to resign. The presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, Mr Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, was executed by military agents and other leftist political leaders were imprisoned.[6]

During the García Meza dictatorship, a policy intimidation, harassment and extermination was implemented against members of the Revolutionary Leftist Movement and other groups considered as opposition to the military junta. Thousands were imprisoned and subject to torture in centres controlled by the military, including at facilities of the Army Intelligence Services in central La Paz.[7] Again, forced disappearances were common.

Military rule continued until 1982, when democracy was finally restored to Bolivia.

Despite obligations under the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, there has been little prosecution of those most responsible for human rights violations in Bolivia.[8] In 1995, García Meza was extradited from Brazil and remains imprisoned following a conviction for gross human rights abuses. However, Banzer Suárez was democratically elected as President of Bolivia in 1997. He resigned in 2001 and died the following year. He was never formally tried for abuses conducted during his earlier military dictatorship.


Campaign for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The protest group, “Plataforma de Luchadores Sociales Contra la Impunidad por la Justicia y la Memoria Histórica del Pueblo Boliviano” (“Los Luchadores”), has been occupying El Prado for over six hundred days. All are victims of repression and many bare the scars of brutal treatment by the military. The president of the association, Don Julio, lost a finger during a tortuous interrogation. They are relentlessly campaigning for a series of reparations to be made by the government, including the initiation of a truth and reconciliation commission and the recording of individual stories.

Such a commission was established in Chile following the restoration of democracy. The Chilean National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisíon Nacional Verdad y Reconciliacíon) documented almost 3,000 cases of disappearance, killing, torture and kidnapping during the Pinochet regime.[9] The final report, the “Rettig Report”, was published in 1991 and formally publicised short accounts of victims’ stories heard by the Commission.

Truth commissions generally require amnesties for perpetrators of human rights abuses. Without them, those responsible are unlikely to testify. Nevertheless, Chileans found that the Commission, whilst overlooking a victim’s interest in retributive justice, brought peace and national reconciliation. It was public acknowledgement of individual experiences which mattered most to victims.

However, it is doubtful such a commission would be successful in modern Bolivia. Such undertakings require determination in the national psyche to uncover the truth and enthusiasm, on all sides, to publicly share experiences. The public sentiment is that Bolivia should look forward in fostering economic and social development; there is a general unwillingness to revisit the past. Additionally, truth commissions in other countries have been initiated immediately after the restoration of peace; it may now be too late to revive the memories of pre-1982 Bolivia on a national scale.


Bolivia’s Obligation to Release Information and to Provide Reparation to Victims

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has asserted that states have the duty to seriously investigate human rights violations and guarantee adequate reparations to victims.[10] The forced disappearance of persons has been condemned as a gross violation of human rights not only for victims, but also for the families of victims.

In its final report, the Chilean Commission recommended that a National Corporation for Reparations and Reconciliation be established to provide assistance to victims. It suggested that reparations should include symbolic measures as well as significant legal, financial, medical and administrative assistance.[11]

Los Luchadores are calling for similar reparations to be made in Bolivia, and for the government to release information.  However, the Bolivian government has thus far made only limited progress in upholding its obligations to investigate human rights violations and provide reparations to victims.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has been one source of reparation for victims, and the Bolivian government has been cooperative with the Court. For example, under the Suárez regime, Mr Ibsen Peña and his son Rainer Ibsen Cárdenas were forcibly disappeared. In 2010, at a public hearing in Lima, the Bolivian government apologised to the family and accepted responsibility for human rights violations.[12] The Court ordered that a public memorial be created, that the family receive free medical and psychological care, and be awarded financial compensation.[13] Similar reparations were provided to the family of Mr Renato Ticona, who disappeared in 1980.[14]

However, for the vast majority of Bolivians, legal representation and access to judicial mechanisms of reparation are prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, the restriction of information by the government is hampering access to compensation.

The National Commission for the Investigation of Citizens Forcibly Disappeared was established in 1982 to analyse, investigate, and determine the situation of persons whose whereabouts remain unknown.[15] Any citizen who may be affected by the circumstances under which next of kin or close friends disappeared may file a complaint, which the Commission is under an obligation to investigate.[16] However, in reality, where remains have been discovered, they have often simply been relocated and reburied without any investigation or notification of relatives.[17]

Additionally, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, President Evo Morales, swept to power in 2005 on the back of promises to create a fairer, more just society. He pledged to make available information held by the government on the disappeared and other victims of military dictatorship. However, the armed forces do retain significant political influence and officials of the Morales administration have supported the military’s refusal to release records.[18]

Those claiming reparation from the Bolivian government are required to demonstrate evidence of human rights abuses. Los Luchadores and other human rights groups argue that this is impossible. Where victims were forcibly expatriated, their exit and entry from Bolivia was illegal; they do not possess the necessary papers to verify political exile. Without access to official records, those claiming detention and torture cannot prove ill-treatment under military rule.

The withholding of government records is impeding access to reparation. Hundreds are unable to access justice or discover the fate of their relatives. Bolivia is failing in its human rights obligations to victims.


A Continued Fight for Justice

Every day, a continuous commotion of cars and buses trundle along El Prado, occupants eager to reach their destination. Teenagers and market hawkers meander, absently ignoring the protestors. Ministers and businessmen hurriedly dash past the tents on their way to lunch meetings. Modern Bolivia marches forward in search of economic growth and in establishing itself as a modern, democratic Latin American state.

Meanwhile, it is ignoring those who suffered terribly in their relentless fight for democracy and for fundamental freedoms. But their fight for acknowledgment, for their rights, and for justice, shall continue.


[1] The Dirección de Orden Político was established under Supreme Decree No. 10108 on January 25, 1972.

[2] Case of Ibsen Cárdenas and Ibsen Peña v Bolivia. Merits, Reparations, and Costs. Judgment of September 1, 2010. Series C No. 217. para. 54.

[3] For example, Rainer Ibsen Cárdenas was extrajudicially executed in a La Paz detention centre, but the daily newspaper Presencia reported otherwise. See Ibsen Cárdenas and Ibsen Peña v Bolivia, para. 75.

[4] Report of the Chilean National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, 1991, pp. 613 - 812.

[5] Asociacíon de Familiares de Detenidos, Desaparecidos y Mártires por la Liberación, ’35 Years After the Dictatorship of Hugo Banzer Suárez 1971 - 2006’, Report of August 2007.

[6] Case of Ticona Estrada et al. v Bolivia. Merits, Reparations, and Costs. Judgment of November 27, 2008. Series C No. 191. para. 46.

[7] Ibid., para. 47 - 48.

[8] Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, Article 1(b). The Article provides that states parties must punish those who commit the forced disappearance of persons.

[9] Report of the Chilean National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, p. 1122.

[10] Case of the “Mapiripán Massacre” v Columbia. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of September 15, 2005. Series C No. 134. paras. 111 and 113.

[11] Report of the Chilean National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, p. 1057 - 1073.

[12] Ibsen Cárdenas and Ibsen Peña v Bolivia, para. 25.

[13] Ibid., paras. 249, 253 - 254.

[14] Ticona Estrada et al. v Bolivia.

[15] The National Commission for the Investigation of Citizens Forcibly Disappeared was established under Supreme Decree No. 19241 of October 28, 1982.

[16] Supreme Decree No. 19241, Article 2.

[17] Ibsen Cárdenas and Ibsen Peña v Bolivia, paras. 85 - 88.

[18] Human Rights Watch, ‘World Report 2011 - Country Summary: Bolivia’, January 2011, p. 1 (available at: - Accessed November 26, 2013).



Go Back