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Latin America’s Crackdown on Drugs Defies Its Progressive Rhetoric

Women behind bars in a jail cell
Inmates wait behind bars at the Carcel de Mujeres (Women’s Prison) in El Salvador in May 2012. © Juan Carlos/Newscom

“We were having dinner—my daughter, grandchild, and me,” says Ramona, a 67-year-old Mexican woman who is serving a sentence of four-and-a-half years in one of Mexico’s most dangerous prisons. “I was lying on the couch watching a soap opera … when I realized that there were several men inside the house yelling at me to hand over the drugs.”

The police, wearing masks, ransacked Ramona’s house and allegedly stole her personal belongings before hauling her off to the prosecutor’s office. They claimed they had witnessed her selling marijuana and crack cocaine to a man, though the man himself said he had never seen her before.

Ramona’s case illustrates a startling trend in Latin America. Despite some high-profile signs of progress—including Mexico’s Supreme Court ruling last week on cannabis for personal use—new analysis from the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, or CEDD) shows that mass incarceration for low-level drug crimes has increased across the region—particularly among women.

One study, Drug Policy Reform in Latin America: Discourse and Reality, found that in most of the Latin American countries examined, at least one in five prisoners were incarcerated for drug offenses. In several places, like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, and Colombia, that population increased at a faster rate than the general prison population.

The findings are all the more troubling because they appear to negate seemingly positive trends. Today, many of the most punitive laws of the war on drugs are recognized as unjust. In the United States, these issues are hotly debated by activists, legislators, and even police chiefs and district attorneys, who are coming to recognize that such laws do more harm than good.  

As the CEDD study shows, however, Latin America is going the other way, actively increasing its enforcement of drug crimes and worsening conditions in already overcrowded prisons. The impact of long and unfair sentences can have a devastating effect on prisoners, their families, and their communities. In many countries, low-level and nonviolent drug crimes can carry sentences of up to 25 years.  

This finding is all the more surprising given Latin America’s reputation as a champion of the drug reform debate, where high-level government officials have publicly advocated changes to the punishment-oriented drug control paradigm.

Colombia exemplifies this contradiction. The country’s government is one of the most vocal proponents of incorporating human rights into the debate on the UN’s 2016 General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs. Yet in the past 14 years, Colombia has seen the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses almost quadruple, from just over 6,000 in 2000 to over 23,000 in 2014.

Brazil, which has been less active in the UNGASS debate, has seen a similar trend: the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses there increased 320 percent between 2005 and 2012.

This dynamic presents a particularly harsh fate for women. While it’s true that there are fewer women than men in prison in Latin America, they are being incarcerated for drug offenses at a much more rapid rate. The CEDD research reveals that in Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru, more than 60 percent of the female prison population is incarcerated on drug offenses.

The vast majority—over 90 percent in some cases, such as in Costa Rica—are single mothers. Often, these women turn to low-level dealing or transporting drugs as a way to put food on the table for their children. For young offenders, landing in jail or juvenile detention centers can scar them for life.

Support for excessively harsh drug laws stems from very real concerns in Latin America—the region with the world’s highest homicide rate—that drug markets generate instability and violence. However, data from previous CEDD research shows that the incarcerated are mainly low-level drug offenders, whose arrests have little or no impact on the drug trade, as they are the easiest to replace.

It is beyond time for Latin American governments to step up and match their discourse with action. Alternatives to incarceration should be implemented, especially in the case of women with dependents. No pregnant woman or mother of minors should be incarcerated for a drug offense. Latin America not only has the opportunity to be at the vanguard of the debate, but to chart a new course that is more effective, humane, and just. 

The Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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