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Study reveals alarming pattern in imprisonment for drug crimes in Latin America

Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America
Buenos Aires (Argentina)

Portada-Sistemas_sobrecargadosA comparative study on the impact of drug policies on the prison systems of eight Latin American countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay – reveals that drug laws have contributed to the prison crises these countries are experiencing. The study Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America, published by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), found that the persons who are incarcerated for drug offenses tend to be individuals caught with small amounts of drugs, often users, as well as street-level dealers.

The drug laws impose penalties disproportionate to many of the drug offenses committed, do not give sufficient consideration to the use of alternative sanctions, and promote the excessive use of preventive detention. The weight of the law falls on the most vulnerable individuals, overcrowding the prisons, but allowing drug trafficking to flourish.

Specifically, the study finds that most of the persons imprisoned for drugs are not high- or medium-level drug traffickers, but rather occupy the lowest links in the chain. According to the report, these laws have overcrowded the prisons – with a high human cost – but have not curbed the production, trafficking, or use of drugs. “Imprisoning minor offenders to restrict drug trafficking is useless, for the next day the bosses at the top replace them. But for the persons locked up, prison can destroy their lives,” according to Pien Metaal, coordinator of TNI’s drug law reform project. “The criminal law approach to these persons also swamps the systems of administration of justice, thereby negatively impacting society as a whole,” adds Metaal. One example is Colombia, where the study concluded that 98 percent of the persons imprisoned for drug offenses from 2007 to 2009 were low-level offenders, or at least that it was not possible to prove otherwise.

Despite differences among the eight countries, the study finds many problems in common. For example, the persons imprisoned for drugs generally come from the most vulnerable sectors of society, those with little formal education, low incomes, and limited opportunities. “Poverty is evident in the prisons in all these countries,” says Coletta Youngers, a Senior Fellow with WOLA. “Many of the persons enter the drug ‘business’ out of economic desperation, but the reality is that transporting, selling, and producing at that low level doesn’t get anyone out of poverty; but it becomes an option despite the risks because it represents a steady income,” adds Youngers.

This economic desperation may well have led to what the study identifies as a “feminization” of drug offenses: Most of those imprisoned for drug offenses are men, yet the percentage of women prisoners who are behind bars for drug offenses is greater than the percentage of male prisoners locked up for the same reason. This is particularly visible in Argentina and Ecuador. “Many of these women are single and poor mothers. The fear they may have of ending up in prison or getting involved in the drug business is trumped by their need to provide for their families,” says Coletta Youngers of WOLA. “These single mothers and other similar offenders should be considered for sanctions other than prison, especially because while they are in prison their children are unprotected.”

However, as the study concludes, the persons charged with and convicted of drug offenses are often denied access to penalties that constitute alternatives to imprisonment. Indeed, in most of the countries studied, the severity of the penalties may be grossly disproportionate to the crimes committed. For example in Ecuador a “mule,” or low level transporter of drugs, may receive a longer prison sentence than a murderer.

The study concludes that this disproportionality in sentencing is due in part to these countries’ laws not distinguishing clearly among users, small-scale dealers, small-scale transporters, and medium- and large-scale traffickers. “Many drug users end up in jail – even when their country’s law does not provide for imprisonment of users – as they are taken for dealers,” says Metaal of TNI. “To reestablish proportionality in sentencing, it is important that the authorities introduce clearer guidelines to identify the different levels of trafficking and the different types of drugs, and to keep users from ending up in prison,concludes Metaal.

Another problem detected by the study is that in these eight Latin American countries the prisons do not guarantee international minimum standards due to deficient budgets and infrastructures. One particularly serious case is Bolivia, where the lack of resources has generated health and nutrition problems among the inmates. The daily food budget in Bolivia’s prisons is only US$ 0.80 per prisoner.

Systems Overload offers several recommendations for more effective and humane policies. These include:

  • Establish and expand alternatives to incarceration for those charged with low-level drug offenses, including removing criminal sanctions for possession for personal use.
  • Abolish mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Avoid preventive detention in the case of low-level, non-violent offenders.
  • Stimulate an open debate about the advantages and disadvantages of moving towards a legal, regulated market for cannabis.

This study makes clear who the real victims in the ‘war on drugs’ are,” says John Walsh, coordinator of WOLA’s drug policy program. “The problems described sound the alarm about the need to reform drug laws in the Americas.”

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The TNI/WOLA Drug Law Reform Project promotes more effective and humane drug policies through dialogue and analysis.


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