Disproportionate Penalties for Drug Offenses in Mexico

The story of the Mexican drug war has generally focused on the violence perpetrated by drug cartels and the apparent inability to bring so many criminals to justice. 

Unfortunately—while it’s true many have evaded justice—there remain many more people who use drugs and those with very low levels of involvement in the drug trade, who have been swept up in recent crackdowns. A new report reveals that in Mexico’s drug war, those detained and prosecuted for drug-related offenses are mainly consumers and/or small-scale dealers. In addition, the sanctions set for many drug crimes are disproportionate and tend to be harsher than those for rape, possession of weapons reserved for the army, or violent robbery. 

A new study published by the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de investigación y docencia en económicas, CIDE) and the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD) finds that in 2010, the crimes of possession and consumption accounted for 71 percent of all drug-related investigations initiated by the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público). Of all the rulings (convictions or acquittals) issued in 2010 for drug-related crimes, 18,343—80.7 percent—were for a single crime, meaning that no other crime was committed apart from the drug offense for which the person was sentenced or absolved.

Drawing on federal data, the study, entitled (Dis) proportionality and Drug crimes in Mexico, shows that the bulk of federal resources for drug law enforcement are dedicated to the investigation, prosecution, and conviction of minor drug-related cases in which offenders are either young consumers or dealers of small amounts of cocaine or marijuana. In 2010, for example, 74 percent of the detentions reported by the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) were for drug-related offenses, and 41.9 percent of those detentions were for small-scale dealing.

By using law enforcement resources to prosecute and punish consumers and small-scale dealers, fewer resources are available to investigate and punish the violent crimes that are devastating Mexico; crimes like homicides, bank robberies, and kidnappings, all of which have dramatically risen in the last five years.

Furthermore, sanctions established for many drug crimes are higher than those set for other more heinous crimes. For example, the maximum prison sentence for the crimes of production, commerce, supply, and trafficking of drugs—all non-violent crimes—is more than the maximum sentence established for violent crimes, including intentional homicide, rape—both of minors and adults—and robbery. The maximum prison sentence established for rape among adults is 11 years shorter than the maximum sentence established for drug offenses, and the maximum sentence established for robbery is 15 years, 10 years less than for drug crimes. The same occurs with the crime of carrying illegal weapons. 

This reveals a disproportionate treatment of offenders and a violation of one of the basic principles of criminal law; that offenders should be treated not only according to the harm they cause but also in relation to the severity with which other offenders are treated. The alternative, therefore, is not to sanction serious crimes more severely but rather to re-evaluate the harm caused by drug-related offenses. A more reasonable policy should distinguish between substances and between the different levels in the drug trafficking chain, and set consumers clearly apart.

Mexico’s drug war has left more than 60,000 dead during this administration, according to the Federal Government. Current drug laws do little to combat the violence that is in fact threatening common citizens.

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