As growing numbers of women languish in Latin American jails on drug-trafficking charges, their role in organized crime is under the spotlight - as is the prison system that incarcerates them, and the patriarchal society that appears to be failing them.
Although women still represent the minority of prisoners in these countries, their rates of incarceration are increasing much faster than those of males. The number of female inmates, which has been rising since the 1980s, became more pronounced in the 1990s, when stricter drug laws were enacted. From 2006 to 2011, the number of women prisoners in Latin America nearly doubled from 40,000 to over 74,000, according to an October 2013 briefing paper by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).
Most women prisoners are incarcerated because of drug-related crimes - usually trafficking. In Brazil, for example, 60 percent of women prisoners are in jail for trafficking. In Ecuador, while only 18.5 percent of female prisoners were in prison for drug offences in 1982, that figure now stands at 80 percent. The same upward trend is apparent in most Latin American countries, where an average of 70 percent of incarcerated women are doing time for drug-related offences.
Just why so many women are being held and tried on drug-trafficking charges, as well as the devastating impact of their incarceration on them, their families and broader society, were discussed at a panel discussion at the UN in New York earlier this month, where drug policy experts, including leading officials from Uruguay, spoke about the need for both drug policy and prison reform.
The high incidence of women in prison on drug-trafficking offences came to light when women criminologists conducted research on women in the prisons generally, said Coletta Youngers, panel moderator and IDPC member.
“Expendable drug mules”
So many of the women serving time or waiting to be sentenced were incarcerated for carrying drugs. The women, who tend to be uneducated and poor, are usually “on the lowest rungs of the crime ladder”, according to the IDPC briefing report.
Recruits are often unemployed or have earned money doing domestic work, informal trading or sex work. They work as couriers or “drug mules”, usually transporting small amounts of cocaine or heroin across borders, where the risk of being caught is extremely high. Drug trafficking is seductive because it allows women to earn money while carrying out traditional home-based roles in the family. They are paid small amounts for their “services” in comparison to male couriers or those above them on the criminal network ladder, for whom the monetary rewards from drug-trafficking are far greater. The women couriers, however, “serve as expendable and easily replaced labour for transnational criminal networks”.
The “mules” carry drugs in their luggage, strapped to their bodies or swallowed in capsules. Usually several “mules” are put onto international flights so that even if some are caught, others will get through. Commented Youngers: “We have big machinery to fight drug-trafficking but we are filling up jails with people who have never had any opportunity at all. Their first contact with the state is usually when they end up in prison.”
Many of these women seemed unaware of the risks involved when drawn into the trade by their partners or families, who would tell them: “Just carry this. Nothing will happen; everything will be alright.” These words were repeated constantly by the women, say the researchers. Expected to stay at home and be breadwinners in a patriarchal society where going out to work is looked down upon, they are nevertheless frequently left to raise their children singlehandedly, under great pressure to feed, clothe and school them.
Gender issues, drug policy and prison
Corina Giacomello, panelist and author of the IDPC briefing paper, Women, drug offenses and penitentiary systems in Latin America, said analysing the plight of these women was an opportunity to confront three intersecting problems: gender issues, drug policy and prison policy. “We don’t usually see the connections between these issues, but these women are like a mirror, they’re an intersection of all these things.”
Once they are inside, the exploitation and abuse continues. Most of the women lack the knowledge or funds to access lawyers and may spend years awaiting trial.
According to a January 2014 report by the Organization of American States most of the women jailed on drug offences are awaiting trial as prisoners.
They are usually separated from their children - or housed together with them in terrible conditions. Latin America’s prisons are already infamous for overcrowding, inhumane conditions, violence and lack of any rehabilitation programmes. Added to this is the sexual exploitation of women who are repeatedly raped by prison warders and other inmates. “Prison is a masculine space built by men for men,” said Giacomello, adding that the penal system is ill-equipped to cope with the growing numbers of female prisoners, who may be pregnant, nursing, or mothers of small children.
Spotlight on Uruguay
Three top-level government officials from Uruguay spoke about the move to infuse human rights into the country’s drug policies. Already Uruguay has come under the spotlight for legalizing the trade and not simply the use of marijuana. Gonzalo Koncke, Uruguay’s permanent representative to the UN, said: “We need to apply the law sensibly to fight organized crime.”
But Gabriela Olivera, from Uruguay’s national drugs secretariat, told the panel that many of the changes being made to address the conditions in prisons were mainly being targeted at men. When women are sentenced, they tend to get stigmatized and cast out. “When they start their sentences they are often abandoned; they don’t get visited. They can spend months without seeing their children. This leads to health and mental health problems,” she said.
“In addition to the potential breakdown of their families, abandonment by their parents and loss of property, incarcerated women face disproportionate levels of social stigmatization,” says the OAS report.
Women in jail in Uruguay make up less than 10 percent of the prison population and around one third of the women are also drug addicts, Koncke said. Most are addicted to paco or coca paste, a cheap cocaine derivative that is wreaking havoc on communities in Uruguay. Many are hopeful that the legalization of marijuana will help steer people away from coca paste and may ease the withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping it. Others fear, however, that it will provide a gateway for coca paste. Still, there is hope that the legalization and government regulation of the marijuana trade will at least take away significant muscle from the drug traffickers.
Leonel Briozzo, vice minister of public health in Uruguay, told the panel that prisons were places where people could learn more about illegal activity rather than rehabilitate themselves. “We have to understand that jails are not the correct places for people to stop using drugs. Real transformation needs to take place,” he said. Among the recommendations are initiating more campaigns to make women more aware of the risks of trafficking drugs, as well as applying the UN Bankok Rules to cater more effectively for the needs of women in the prison system.
Giacomello said that for too long “drug policy has stayed in a kind of ivory tower” divorced from human rights or gender policy. “We need to make drug policy penetrable from a human rights perspective,” she said.