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Children with Incarcerated Parents in Latin America and the Caribbean

Childhood that Matters: the impact of drug policy on children with incarcerated parents in Latin America and the Caribbean documents a two-year investigation carried out in eight countries: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic and Chile, under the leadership of Church World Service (Buenos Aires Regional Office) and the civil society organisation Gurises Unidos (Uruguay), both part of ‘Plataforma NNAPES’, a strategic alliance of organizations from Latin America and the Caribbean which work for and with children and youth with incarcerated parents and other significant adults.

NNAPES (niñas, niños y adolescentes con padres y madres encarcelados) is the acronym in Spanish for children with incarcerated parents and will be used in this article. Childhood that Matters reveals with rigor and commitment the impact of drug policy on children whose parents who have been imprisoned for non-violent, minor drug offences in Latin America. View the original report here.



>> Content warning: descriptions of violence against children.



“My family has been destroyed because of my dad's incarceration”.

—Chanel, 17 years old, lives in Dominican Republic.


Chanel got married when she was a teenager. She was not fleeing domestic violence, as so often happens with girls who get married in their adolescence. Nor was she forced to it. Chanel was trying to cope with an adversity that left her family on the verge of extreme poverty, exposure to stigma and sudden, radical changes in their daily life: the incarceration of her father.

Chanel is one of 69 children between seven and 17 years old and tens of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated adults, caregivers of imprisoned people and public officers, who contributed their generous, brave and informed testimony to the report.

The implementation of punitive drug policies which unsuccessfully rely on pre-trial and post-sentence incarceration as a means of deterrence and punishment, is the underlying cause of the prison crisis in the Latin American and Caribbean region, with unprecedented levels of overcrowding, violence and appalling living conditions, as many studies have reported.

Based on research from 25 countries in the region, there are at least 1,710,980 children with incarcerated parents in Latin America and the Caribbean. Of those, around 21% – at least 359,305 – are children with parents incarcerated for drug offences. The following testimonies from NNAPES highlight that the violence of punitive drug policy reaches beyond the direct impact on people who use drugs, violating the rights of children.


Testimonies of violence


NNAPES are exposed to multiple forms of violence, which do not necessarily appear in all cases simultaneously:

  • Domestic violence;
  • Violence in the neighbourhood, related to turf wars;
  • Violence from the State against alleged criminal organisations or people involved in the drug trade. This type of violence is usually targeted at specific zones and neighbourhood and is seldom accompanied by a positive presence of the state, thus leaving repression as the main state action in neighbourhoods which are usually marginalised and criminalised;
  • Violence in detention.


“I was thirteen or fourteen… I was getting ready for school when I heard "Operative", something like that. I went out and there were some young men there pointing guns at my head, and at my mom and everyone. A young man told me to sit down and I said no, I wanted to stand, and I was very calm. And one of them, I remember he pressed his gun into my forehead and told me to sit and sat me down, and I stood up and I don't know what rage took over me, and so he grabbed me and we started fighting, and he threw me against the couch and I told him I was choking, and choking, and he wouldn't let go until he saw me, like [makes suffocating noises] and he let me go…” 

—Felipe’s account of his mother’s detention, 16 years old, Costa Rica.


Violence in detention is recurrent in NNAPES’ accounts and particularly egregious when it is drug-related: child detention often happens in NNAPES’ homes and the display of state violence in terms of weaponry and psychological and physical aggression reverberates in NNAPES’ experiences.

"I had to curtail everything, I had to leave school to start working, in my personal life I left the girlfriend I had at the time, I had to make a lot of changes in my life."

—Pedro, 22 years old, caretaker and NNAPE, Mexico.


"I felt terrible. I would hear my mother mentioned and I would cry. But now I feel less sad because I've gotten used to living with my grandmother, and I'm ok here."

—Aura, 12 years old, Colombia.


In regard to the roles and arrangements of caring for children, the detention of NNAPES negatively impacts incarcerated parents and the people (usually women) who are left to care for the children left behind. The prison sentence is, ultimately, a sentence that punishes whole families and communities.


Prison visits and security searches


"Visiting my dad was a sacrifice for me, and I would only go because I wanted to see him and I looked forward to it. But it was very far, five hours to get to the town where he's detained, and then that disgusting inspection: they want us to lower our pants or lift our skirt. They don't search my little brothers like that, they treat them better, but for us teenagers, they want to touch even though the agent is a woman. It's humiliating and disgusting, I feel dirty and looked at."

—Chanel, 17 years old, Dominican Republic.


Children often have mixed feelings about prison visits. On the one hand, if NNAPES have a good relationship with their imprisoned parent, they may want to see and spend time with them. On the other hand, the time and costs that the visit entails, as well as the often abusive or unpleasant treatment of visitors—especially during searches—discourages children from wanting to visit.


Perceptions of drug-related offences


"My mom did it because she couldn't read and she didn't have a job. Who would hire her like that? I promised her I would teach her to read so that she could get out of that."

—Gabriela, 19 years old, caretaker and COIP, Panama.

Drug-offences are often considered a way to survive poverty in a context of social exclusion. As a result of the punitive drug policy environment in Latin America and the Caribbean, children and young people also perceive selling drugs as an activity that can damages others and negatively affects the children of people involved in the drug trade. NNAPES also mention the normalization of this activity in certain places, and how such activities can increase a person's status within the neighbourhood.


Perceptions of state authorities


"They don't even touch [the 'drug lords']. Why does that happen? At least before, when I lived in the settlement, the patrol cars would do their rounds in the morning, they would take their money and they hadn't seen anything. Every day. And a couple of days before they would do a raid, the person who sold would leave. So they would never find them."

And those they catch?

"They're the ones who sold for those people."

And you say they also arrest users. Why?

"So that the raid will look good."

—Bruno, 18 years old, Uruguay.


In regard to the authorities, NNAPES mostly refer to police and to police raids. They perceive the police as a source of violence and corruption, where police officers detain only the minor players in the drug trade or even "plant" drugs to frame their victims, while drug trafficking leaders can act with impunity through corruption.


Stigma versus support


"They sometimes shout it at me, from far away, that I'm a drug trafficker's daughter, because not only has my mom been a trafficker, but my whole family. And I feel rage when they say this, because it's nothing to do with me. I'm not the one who is a trafficker!"

—Luz, 14 years old, Chile.


A child’s feelings of loss, abandonment, sadness and rebellion are amplified by drug-related stigma but can be mitigated by support from their family, community and/or school.

The Childhood that Matters report includes concrete proposals that must be implemented at the international, regional and national levels. A child-centric approach requires listening to children’s voices and taking their experiences into account throughout the design and implementation of drug policies. This is not rhetorical: it is a requisite for the fulfilment of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and a prerequisite to eradicating the severe violations of human rights driven by the current paradigm of drugs prohibition.



*Dr. Corina Giacomello, Institute of Judicial Studies of the University of Chiapas, Mexico.

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