The War on Drugs: Reaching Past the US Prison System to Latin America

Victoria Law

“I once dealt a small packet of drugs,”admits Analia Silva. Unable to read or write, lacking employment and needing to provide for her two children, she sold drugs whose names she did not know. When the police raided her house, they found 335 grams (less than 12 ounces) of drugs and arrested her.

“I had no clue about the judicial process,” she recalled, “because the reality is that when you are poor and you’re someone who hasn’t had the chance to study, you can’t talk because you’re ignorant about such things.” Silva was sentenced to eight years in prison.

If Analia Silva were in the US, she might be eligible for President Obama’s recently announced clemency program. In April 2014, the Obama administration said it would consider cases of people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug felonies for possible commutation or sentence reduction. The requirements for consideration are stringent. Each person must have served at least 10 years of that sentence, be considered a non-violent, low-level offender and have demonstrated “good conduct” in prison.

Analia Silva might fit that profile except for one thing: She was arrested and incarcerated in Ecuador. To gain US aid, in 1991, Ecuador passed Law 108 (the Narcotic Psychotropic Substances Law) that established undifferentiated sentences for mules (people who are paid small amounts to transport drugs across borders inside their bodies), small-scale dealers like Analia and large-scale traffickers.

In the decades that followed its declaration of the War on Drugs, the United States has influenced, if not directly pressured, Latin American countries to adopt similar drug policies. With promises of trade benefits and economic assistance, the US government pushed Latin American countries, including Ecuador, to adopt US drug strategies, including targeting minor dealers and enforcing mandatory minimum prison sentences. And, as in the United States, these drug laws have caused prison populations to skyrocket.

These repressive policies have particularly impacted women. In four years, the women’s prison population in Latin America has nearly doubled, from 40,000 in 2006 to 74,000 in 2010. While that number still lags behind the 108,772 women in state and federal prisons in the United States (keeping in mind that the US figure excludes women in jail or ICE detention as well as trans women in men’s prisons), the implementation of harsh drug laws has caused Latin America’s women’s prison population to balloon.

Who Goes to Prison? A Comparison of Women on Both Sides of the Border

In Latin America, as in the United States, a high percentage of women behind bars are incarcerated for drug-related offenses:

  • 75 to 80 percent in Ecuador
  • 68 percent in Argentina
  • 64 percent in Costa Rica
  • 60 percent in Brazil
  • 30 to 60 percent in Mexico’s state prisons (and 80 percent in its federal prisons)

“An important thing to remember is that most of them are not imprisoned as protagonists and leaders of cartels and gangs,” noted Nischa Pieris, a researcher and analyst at the Inter-American Commission of Women and author of the recent policy paper “Women and Drugs in the Americas.” “They weren’t necessarily carrying great quantities of drugs. They didn’t manage information. They were participating on lower levels.”

Approximately 70 percent of women incarcerated in the Americas are in prison for non-violent micro-trafficking offenses. Micro-trafficking refers to the possession and small-scale distribution of low quantities of drugs. Like New York State’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated a sentence of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of narcotics, micro-trafficking in Latin America is punished with disproportionately long sentences.

According to Pieris, women imprisoned in Latin America have little formal education (with many not having completed primary school), little income and few opportunities in the formal economy. Like their US counterparts, many have experienced violence prior to their arrest and incarceration.

“As low level participants in drug trafficking and supplying, this makes women expendable,” Pieris noted. Women’s lack of education and income frequently leads to a lack of knowledge about their rights and access to an adequate legal defense.

She gives the example of Rosa, who was arrested in Guerrero, Mexico, on low-level drug charges. Rosa had never learned to read or write and was unable to keep up with the legal terms that the judge and lawyers were using. She was not provided with a legal defense. While in jail, Rosa was beaten and sexually assaulted by guards until she put her thumb print on a written confession. That written confession was used to convict and sentence her to 22 years in prison.

Corina Giacomello is a researcher and author of the International Drug Policy Consortium report, “Women, Drug Offenses and Penitentiary Systems in Latin America.” She points out that Latin America has the world’s highest rate of economic inequality and that a large percentage of those living in poverty are female, making them more vulnerable to being recruited as drug carriers.

As in the United States, many women behind bars are mothers. Giacomello points out that participating in the drug trade enables mothers, particularly those living in poverty, to balance their caregiving responsibilities with financially supporting their families. She notes a recurring theme in her interviews with women incarcerated for low-level drug trafficking and dealing: “They needed to combine their traditional gender roles of stay-at-home mother and taking care of their children (or else they’re bad mothers) and, at the same time, maintain their kids.” Nearly all of the women interviewed were approached by someone who offered them more money to carry drugs than they could otherwise earn. Again and again, the women told Giacomello that they were told, “Don’t worry. Just carry this. Everything will be okay.”

In the United States, the children of incarcerated parents are sent to live with family members or placed in foster care. In many Latin American countries, however, parents have the option of bringing their children to live with them in the prison. The International Drug Policy Consortium has found that more than 2,000 children live in prison with their mother or father. In Bolivia, for example, children under age six are allowed to stay in their parents’ cell. Once they reach age six, legislation dictates that they may no longer live with their imprisoned parent. However, Tomas Molina, head of Bolivia’s prison system, told the BBC that children frequently have no one outside to care for them and so remain inside prison until they are much older. In addition, Bolivian authorities have stated that the number of children living in prisons has increased since the 1980s when the government began taking a harsher stance on drug charges. However, prisons often fail to provide pediatric health care, nutritious diets or other necessities for the children imprisoned alongside their parents.

Pretrial Detention

In the US, people are frequently held in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail. Several Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, hold people facing drug charges, even low-level charges, in pretrial detention as a matter of course.

In 1988, under pressure from the US government, Bolivia passed Law 1008. Under the law, Bolivians charged with drug offenses, no matter how minor, are held with no possibility of pretrial release. Even after an acquittal, the person remains behind bars until the Supreme Court reviews the trial court’s decision, a process that frequently takes years. Four years later, in 1992, 8,500 people were incarcerated in Bolivia. Ninety-two percent were in pretrial detention.

Read more