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Bolivia: Early History
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Evolution of the Military Role in Society and Government > Early History


Bolivia's pattern of military revolts was established soon after independence in 1825, as one economic elite or another promoted its interests by backing a particular general or colonel. Soon after taking office, Marshal Andrés de Santa Cruz y Calahumana (1829-39) created an armed forces command and organized an army of between 5,000 and 10,000 members; he also established the Military Academy (Colegio Militar) in 1835. The army was reorganized in 1839 following its decisive defeat by Chile in the Battle of Yungay and divided into regular and paramilitary forces. Six years of military service became obligatory for single men. After soundly defeating the 5,400-member invading Peruvian forces in the Battle of Ingavi outside La Paz in 1841, Bolivia's army, with 4,100 members, was reduced to between 1,500 and 2,000 men.

At the outbreak of the disastrous War of the Pacific in 1879, the army consisted of 690 officers and 2,165 other ranks, but it was able to mobilize about 12,100 men. Nevertheless, the Chileans easily defeated Bolivia's unprepared army, which had been weakened by years of declining military budgets. The Chilean armed forces killed 5,000 Bolivian troops at Tacna on May 26, 1880, under the command of General Narcisco Campero Leyes Although the incipient Bolivian naval force had played no role in the war, it lost its three warships and Bolivia's four Pacific Coast ports. Henceforth, Bolivian boats were limited to navigating Lake Titicaca and Bolivia's lowland rivers.

Postwar leaders attempted to create a more professional army. General Campero (1880-84), Bolivia's leading, European-trained army officer, removed its discredited older officers. Aniceto Arce Ruíz (1888-92) reopened the Military Academy in 1891 (closed since 1847), under the command of a Bolivian graduate of France's War School. The academy relocated from Sucre to La Paz in 1899. Arce also initiated a draft service and established the "Sergeant Maximiliano Paredes" Noncommissioned Officers School (Escuela de Clases "Sargento Maximiliano Paredes" -- EC), in 1900. Despite these advances, the army was unable to defeat the secessionist movement in Acre (1900-1903), and Bolivia ceded the territory to Brazil in 1903.

The Bolivian government sought European help in reorganizing its army. As a result, the principal foreign influences on the army in the early twentieth century were French and German. In 1905 Bolivia contracted with a five-member French military mission, which, over the next four years, established a rudimentary armed forces General Staff (Estado Mayor General -- EMG), a Staff College (Colegio del Estado Mayor -- CEM), and a Reserve Officers School (Escuela de Oficiales de la Reserva). From 1911 until the outbreak of World War I, an eighteen-member German military mission directed the Military Academy and trained and advised the army, giving it a Prussian look but failing to enhance its military efficiency. Cut off from European sources of equipment and advice during the war, the army stagnated.

Some German military advisers returned after the war, and one, General Hans Kundt, was named EMG chief in 1921, minister of national defense in 1925, and again EMG chief in 1931 (he was dismissed shortly thereafter for interfering in politics). During that period, Bolivia's military made some progress. By 1923 Bolivia had created the Aviation Corps (Cuerpo de Aviación). It was expanded two years later into a military aviation service that included the "Germán Busch" Military Aviation Academy (Colegio Militar de Aviación "Germán Busch" -- Colmilav).

In 1924 the army was reorganized into divisions, each with six regiments. Under President Hernando Siles Reyes (1926-30), the army implemented a new organizational statute, established military zones, and reformed the curriculum of the Military Academy and CEM. It also established the Army Health Organization. Despite the improvements, the army was unable to defend Bolivia's borders when two years of mounting tension over the northern part of the Chaco region erupted into war with Paraguay in December 1928.

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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