Bolivia’s Morales Says Challengers Bound for Jail (Update2)
December 2, 2009 -

By Jonathan J. Levin

Dec. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Bolivian President Evo Morales, who is running for re-election in a Dec. 6 vote, said he’s planning a justice system overhaul that would send leading challenger Manfred Reyes Villa to jail after the elections.

Reyes Villa, who trails Morales by at least 31 percentage points in every published poll, says he may be arraigned in coming weeks on charges he misused state funds as governor of Cochabamba, a post he left more than 18 months ago. Leopoldo Fernandez, his candidate for vice president, has been imprisoned in La Paz for more than a year awaiting formal charges.

“Leopoldo Fernandez ran for office to get out of prison, and Reyes Villa campaigned to stay out,” Morales said today, speaking to reporters at the presidential palace in La Paz. “We’re going to change the justice system, and both will end up in prison. They’re delinquents.”

While polls show Morales probably has enough support for a first-round victory, the Bolivian leader is seeking to marginalize other parties in a bid to take control of Congress and overhaul the country’s legal framework, said Napoleon Pacheco, an analyst with La Paz-based research company Fundacion Milenio.

Morales’s opponents, who govern four of the country’s nine provinces, are all facing criminal charges the government says stem from an anti-corruption drive.

Fernandez, the former governor of Pando, was deposed and jailed last year on accusations he ordered a violent attack on pro-Morales protestors that killed at least 11 people. Reyes Villa denies the charges against him and his running mate, and says Fernandez is being held as a “political hostage.”

Armed Clashes
The protestors died in a clash with armed supporters of the opposition governor, a United Nations report determined.

“It’s persecution, it’s a judicial lynching,” Reyes Villa, 54, said in a Nov. 22 interview in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba. “They’re trying to make me look bad with the population.”

Voters approved a new constitution backed by Morales in a referendum this year, and the president has pledged to pass about 100 laws as part of its implementation, including new mining and civil codes.

Gas Reserves
The new statutes, along with unclear judicial procedures, may scare off investors and curb growth in Bolivia’s $30.3 billion natural-gas and mining-based economy, Pacheco said.

Bolivia has the second-biggest natural-gas reserves in South America after Venezuela, and attracted about $274 million in hydrocarbon investment last year, according to state energy company YPF Bolivianos. That’s about a quarter of what neighboring Peru got.

Laws governing criminal cases as well as foreign investment are interpreted to suit the administration’s policies, Pacheco said in a telephone interview.

“It’s a fact that the courts have been politicized to impede the campaign of Reyes Villa,” Pacheco said.

The accusations against Morales’s other opponents include contract irregularities, mismanagement of funds and, in the case of Ruben Costas, the governor of the gas-producing state of Santa Cruz, providing financial support to assassins, hired by others, who were allegedly sent to kill the president.

All have denied the allegations, most of which originate with the president’s Minister of Transparency and the Fight Against Corruption, Nardi Suxo, whose position Morales created this year as part of a cabinet shakeup.

Che Portraits
Suxo, who has portraits of revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara hanging in her office, denied singling out opposition figures. She said she’s also preparing cases against Morales allies including the deposed president of YPF Bolivianos, Santos Ramirez, a Morales appointee. Ramirez is in prison awaiting charges for allegedly taking payoffs in exchange for construction contracts. He has denied the accusations.

Suxo said her office works primarily off complaints by citizens. Bolivia has a history of corrupt officials, including former Interior Minister Luis Arce Gomez, known as the Minister of Cocaine. He was convicted and jailed in the U.S in the 1980s for drug trafficking, and in July the U.S. returned him to Bolivia to serve a 30-year sentence for murder.

“The robbers, the violators, of course they all consider themselves victims of political persecution,” Suxo said in a Nov. 23 interview in La Paz. “They shouldn’t make a political defense; they have the obligation to defend themselves in court against the facts.”

“There’s a sense of victimization in the campaign of Manfred Reyes Villa,” said Adolfo Mendoza, a political scientist at the University of San Simon in Cochabamba and a Senate candidate for Morales’s party. “All the proceedings are under the courts, and at no time has the government exerted any influence.”

During the campaign, Morales refused to debate the other candidates because they lacked the “morals” to speak with him about policy issues.

Bolivia is the second-poorest country in South America after Guyana, according to International Monetary Fund data, based on gross domestic product per capita.

At a government anti-corruption forum on May 20, Morales said corrupt regional and city leaders caused 70 percent of the country’s economic problems. Transparency International said in a Nov. 17 report that Bolivia’s corruption had worsened, pushing its ranking among nations down to 120 from 102.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan J. Levin in La Paz at