The arrest of a Bolivian minister for alleged bribery related to land trafficking highlights how this practice has fueled corruption in the country time and time again.
Last week, Interior Minister Eduardo del Castillo announced that his cabinet colleague and the Minister for Rural Development and Land, Edwin Ronald Characayo Villega, had been arrested along with another senior official for allegedly accepting a cash bribe of $20,000.
According to del Castillo, Characayo had used his role to act in favor of certain people seeking to acquire and clear land for agricultural purposes.
A government press release stated that a police investigation had uncovered a network of collaborators helping Characayo charge bribes related to land trafficking.
Media outlet La Razón, which obtained a police report on the case, claimed Characayo and other public officials were due to receive some $380,000 in total to transfer the ownership of a property located in the municipality of San Ramón, located to the northeast of Santa Cruz de la Sierra city in Bolivia’s eastern department of Santa Cruz.
Characayo was charged with the alleged crimes of “passive bribery, extortion, undue use of influence and obtaining benefits through using his position”, according to Alberto Aguilar, director of Bolivia’s Special Anti-Crime Task Force (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Crimen – FELCC). The former minister has denied all claims made against him.
This is Bolivia’s second rural development minister to find himself in hot water. Last December, Characayo’s predecessor, Wilson Cáceres, was fired by President Luis Arce, for alleged acts of nepotism and influence peddling.
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Characayo’s arrest has brought to light how corrupt schemes related to land trafficking corruption has plagued successive governments, regardless of who is in office.
InSight Crime has previously reported on how illegally trading land titles in Latin America is often only possible through connections to government officials who can give illicit deals a necessary veneer of legitimacy.
This has long been the case in Bolivia.
Former presidential chief of staff, Juan Ramón Quintana, recently proposed an independent commission be set up to investigate alleged land trafficking under the previous administration of former interim president Jeanine Áñez.
Last year, Fundación Tierra, a Bolivian non-governmental organization dedicated to the promotion of sustainable rural development, claimed Áñez had awarded over 34,000 hectares of land to the family of her economy minister, Branko Marinković. The foundation detailed how the land was awarded in record time, allegedly violating obligatory legal processes.
Meanwhile, Bolivia’s National Agrarian Reform Institute (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria – INRA) has been plagued by corruption allegations linked to land trafficking. In May 2020, an investigation carried out by the incoming INRA administration found “clans of former officials” had been benefiting from the criminal activity.
Between 2014 and 2019, INRA made some 1,400 authorizations establishing settlements for “new communities” in the department of Santa Cruz, according to non-governmental organization Fundación Tierra. But the NGO claims some of these territories are “ghost communities” that lie in the hands of traffickers.
In 2014, Bolivia passed legislation that established a prison sentence of up to eight years for those illegally selling or trading land.