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Bolivia: National Security
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security


The armed forces of Bolivia, principally the army, traditionally have played a central role in the nation's politics, intervening frequently and ruling arbitrarily. The influence of the military in politics predominated for most of the nineteenth century, from the revolt against Spain in 1809 until the ignominious defeat of the armed forces by Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1880. With a few exceptions, civilian leaders governed the country until 1936, when the military, angered by their humiliating defeat by Paraguay in the Chaco War (1932-35), which they blamed on inept civilian leadership, ousted the civilian president who had led the country into the disastrous war.

The 1952 Revolution reestablished civilian rule. Its leaders, members of the ruling Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, stopped short of completely disbanding Bolivia's army, however, when they realized that only it could control the increasingly militant peasants' and miners' militias. Although the leaders of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement tried to keep the military subordinate, its power continued to increase. The force of military tradition eventually prevailed as the military seized power in 1964. From then until 1982, Bolivia had eleven military governments. With its reputation at a low point as a result of the corrupt and brutal dictatorship of General Luis García Meza Tejada (1980-81), the military returned to the barracks in 1982.

A civilian president, democratically elected in 1980, was finally able to take office in 1982. By decade's end, Bolivia was still under democratic rule, and a more professional military had emerged. It had dissociated itself from García Meza and purged its ranks of many officers who had been implicated in narcotics trafficking. Moreover, it had not reverted to its traditional pattern of intervention and coups.

Bolivian-United States military relations improved considerably in the second half of the 1980s, when the United States once again became the principal source of foreign military assistance. In 1985, after an eight-year suspension, the United States renewed military aid. Although Bolivia did not have a guerrilla insurgency problem, joint Bolivian-United States counterinsurgency exercises were held in the eastern lowlands on two occasions, in 1986 and 1987, but public criticism forced the cancellation of the one scheduled for 1988. Nevertheless, United States military assistance continued, and some major civic-action projects were undertaken in 1989.

As the world's second largest source of cocaine, after Peru, Bolivia had a major problem in the 1980s with narcotics trafficking and the accompanying violence, corruption, and drug abuse. Because it was the destination for an estimated 80 percent of Bolivian cocaine, the United States began providing significant assistance to the antidrug efforts of Bolivia's security forces. Special Bolivian antinarcotics police were created under a 1983 Bolivian-United States antidrug agreement. United States military personnel and equipment were used in Bolivia during the joint Bolivian-United States Operation Blast Furnace. The controversial operation marked the first time that the United States had committed military troops to a narcoticscontrol mission on foreign soil.

Drug trafficking also became an increasing concern for Bolivian national security in the late 1980s, as wealthy traffickers, including Colombia's Medellín Cartel, lobbied for the Bolivian cocaine industry. This lobbying included bribing, intimidating, and assassinating government, judicial, military, and security officials; contributing to and discrediting political parties; instigating and financing militant demonstrations by coca growers; and developing ties with local guerrilla or paramilitary groups. To counter these efforts, the 1985-89 government of Víctor Paz Estenssoro signed another agreement with the United States in 1987. Paz Estenssoro subsequently revamped the antinarcotics structure and, in 1988, adopted a stringent antidrug law, which met with militant opposition from the organized, coca-cultivating peasantry in Cochabamba and Beni departments.

The Paz Estenssoro government also took steps to reform the overburdened judicial system, which was frequently corrupted by narcotics traffickers. In addition to dismissing a number of judges suspected of taking bribes, the government in 1988 created thirteen special courts to expedite the prosecution of drug traffickers and the confiscation of their assets.

Data as of December 1989

Last Updated: December 1989

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Bolivia was first published in 1989. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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