The justice system in Bolivia
The socialist government of President Evo Morales reckons that the way to restore public faith in the judicial system is to replace the judges with elected ones. On January 3rd, with much fanfare, he swore in 56 judges elected in a national ballot last October. They will now compose the country’s four highest courts.
For Mr Morales’s supporters, this represents popular justice. The judiciary was “packed by middle-class opportunistic lackeys of the government of the day”, complained Idon Chivi, an official responsible for the reform. The new judges, he says, are more representative: 50% are women and some, for the first time, are Amerindian.
The opposition complains that the new judges are in practice handpicked government appointees. It sees the judicial election as intensification of the politicised justice already dispensed under Mr Morales. Many Bolivians heeded an opposition call to register a protest vote in October. Only 40.5% of the votes cast in the judicial vote were valid; 41% were spoiled and 18.5% blank. The opposition campaign was spearheaded by Juan del Granado, a former mayor of La Paz who until 2009 was a close ally of Mr Morales.
The government already controlled the nominally independent public prosecutors. In 2010 it used its legislative majority to approve a law that requires elected officials to be suspended from office if charges of any kind are filed against them, even before any evidence has been presented in court. Two opposition governors and two mayors have been ousted in this way. Next may be the governor of Santa Cruz, Rubén Costas, one of the government’s fiercest critics, and the current mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla, from Mr del Granado’s party.
Juan Antonio Morales, president of the Central Bank from 1995 to 2006 and an internationally respected economist, has been under house arrest since September. He is accused of receiving salary bonuses during his term at the bank, a normal practice for most senior civil servants at the time. The first court hearing of Mr Morales’s case was postponed six times last year. All of Bolivia’s living former presidents since 1996 have been charged with offences, and in some cases have yet to be given a hearing. Their work and travel rights have been periodically restricted.
Certainly there is much in the judicial system that needs reform. At least two-thirds of the prison population is on remand, awaiting trial. As well as slow, the courts are underfunded, inefficient and often corrupt. The judicial system’s budget was just $75m last year, and it is due to shrink in real terms this year. Salaries of top judges are capped at $2,174 per month, an invitation to graft. Even the new judges have asked for the cap to be doubled.
Many rural Bolivians have no access to the courts. The new constitution drawn up by Mr Morales’s party and approved in 2009 has legalised traditional justice dispensed by village elders. Community justice can sometimes resemble legalised lynching, featuring stoning, strangulation or burning with petrol. The police do not keep separate records of these acts. Carlos Valverde, an investigative journalist, chronicled 16 such killings in 2009 and 13 in the first half of 2010, including the kidnap, torture and murder of four policemen.
Far from improving the quality of justice in Bolivia, Mr Morales’s reforms risk making it worse.