An inspirational proposal from Ecuador

An impression of our Quito dialogue
Monday, March 3, 2008
On 21-23 February we organised our now seventh ‘informal drug policy dialogue’, this time in collaboration with the Ecuadorian government and with WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America). Government officials were present from seven Latin American countries, in total some 45 persons participated in the meeting. Much of the agenda was focussed on the preparations for the upcoming UNGASS review process in Vienna. One of the most inspiring themes was Ecuador's  proposal to pardon drug couriers.

Pardon for drug couriers

One of the themes we discussed especially inspired me: the proposal by the Correa government in Ecuador to pardon drug couriers. Ecuadorian prisons, like most in Latin America and in many other places, have been filled up to unmanageable levels over the past decade largely due to tightened drug laws and increased sentences for drug law violators. Among them many couriers, ‘mulas’, that for some minor financial benefits tried to leave the country with small amounts of cocaine. Ecuadorian laws are draconian, not dissimilar to several other countries, but in the Latin American context among the worst. No distinction is made at all between small traders, those involved in the illegal market for absence of legal job opportunities, and the ‘big fish’, the ones organising the business as members of criminal organisations.

As President Rafael Correa said, the current law "treats as the same the boss of the Cali cartel and a poor unemployed single mother who dared to carry 300 grams of drugs. It's a barbarity." He called it ‘absurd’ that people driven by poverty end up with a jail sentence of sometimes 12-16 years for carrying small amounts of drugs. And he knows what he’s talking about. His own father, back in the 1960s, after losing his job did the same, smuggled a small amount of drugs out of the country, was caught, spent four years in a US prison and came home to a devastated family and then killed himself out of desperation.

Modest but inspiring

The Ecuadorian proposal is a modest one: those who tried to smuggle less than two kilogrammes, for whom it was a first offence and who have spent more than a year in prison already, should be set free. A very rough first estimate is that around 1500 prisoners across the country would be immediately released if the proposal is accepted by the Constitutional Assembly that has been installed to rewrite the constitution and that has been tasked to decide about this proposal. Legally, this is not an easy step to take as it raises many questions: what about the two kgs limit, considered to be roughly the maximum amount a person can swallow, what about the disparity with small street dealers often caught with much lower amounts who will not benefit from this pardon, or what about new couriers being caught every day?

Current drug laws inhumane

The answer the Ecuadorian representatives present at our dialogue gave to all those questions was that they were only clear at this point that the current drug laws were inhumane. The gesture of a pardon, therefore, needs to be followed by a thorough review of those laws themselves, a task that would be one of the priorities for a new Parliament to be installed after a referendum on the new Constitution and after new general elections. The Correa government is honest about the fact that they do not yet know all the answers to the current injustices they intend to repair. But they want to give a clear early sign with the gesture of a pardon for drug couriers: this drug law is absurd and something better and more humane needs to replace it in the near future.

The Ecuadorian proposal not only inspired me, but also intrigued many of the representatives from other countries, most of them faced with similar incarceration crises at home. So far, no one has been able to come up with any evidence that the draconian sanctions for drug-law violations have had any impact on the illegal market whatsoever. In the US (the world champion in incarceration rates, followed by China and Russia) by now more than 1 out of every 100 adults is imprisoned and for black males between 20-35 years the figure reaches a frightening level of 1 out of  9… Worldwide, prison populations have roughly doubled in the past two decades, in part as a consequence of tightened anti-drug laws after the adoption of the 1988 UN Convention on drug trafficking.

Humanize drug control

The Ecuadorian proposal is a very humane gesture indeed, an example not just for Latin America but for the whole world. A very welcome gesture now that the international community enters a period of reflection about drug control efforts since the 1998 UNGASS on drugs. I can only hope the gesture, once approved, will inspire many others around the world that it is due time to humanize drug control, to introduce proportionality of sentences in view of their high social consequences and their low – or rather absent – impact on reducing the illicit drugs market, and to fully respect human rights in a drug war that has spinned out of control.