Women in prison for drug crimes in Latin America: An invisible population

During the last decades, especially since the nineties, the number of women in prison has increased. This phenomenon has been documented worldwide, and Latin America has not been the exception. While women remain a minority within the penitentiary system (representing between 2 and 10% of the total population in confinement in the majority of countries), in some countries the number of women in prison has increased at a higher pace than the male population.

The report by Open Society Justice Initiative Women and Preventive Detention: Alleged innocents suffering anticipated punishments and abuses, notes that from 2006 until 2011, women in prison in Latin America almost doubled, rising from 40.000 to over 74.000 interns.

But, what accounts for this increase? For what crimes are they being accused? What are the characteristics of these women?

Let’s see:

On the one hand, women are actually participating more in drug offenses. On the other, current drug policies lead to further criminalize this group. Since the ninties, drug policies in Latin America have harshened by multiplying the offenses and increasing the penalties. In addition,  prosecution of these crimes by security forces has also increased.

The group of the so-called “secondary subjects” is conformed primarily by women. What does this means? It means they are dedicated to activities such as small dealing, international or national transportation of small amounts (from a few grams up to some kilograms), introducing drugs to prisons, and some activities related to drug production, such as growing and cultivation.

However, trafficking networks are predominantly lead by men with strong macho values. Therefore, even if there are cases of some “capo” women or with management roles, the majority of women are confined in the lower links.

What implications does this have?

In the first place, this turns women into object-people of the trafficking networks, easily disposable and replaceable by criminal organizations.

Secondly, the secondary subjects are numericaly more than the leaders and thrive in areas of contact woth security forces (airports, prisons, customs, etc.) and are thus detected and detained with more facility.

Therefore, prison population in Latin America accused for drug offenses is primarily conformed by minor pieces in the drug chain.

In the life stories of women in prison there appears to be two main motivations to get involved in drug trafficking:

Firstly, financial need. It is important to take into account that these women, like her other companions at prison, mostly share the following characteristics:

- Come from a background of poverty, extreme poverty and social exclusion.
- They are mothers and are often solely responsible for their children.
- From childhood, they have been victims of various forms of violence, including sexual abuse and rape by relatives.
- They are often induced to commit a crime by their partners.
- They have a low level of education and employments in the informal economy.
- Some have mental health problems and a problematic drug use.
- They are responsible of non-violent crimes and have no criminal records.

Often, these women get involved in drug offenses from their family, and many times, from their emotional relations. Usually, they are recruited by their husband, their boyfriend or a friend. These stories rarely have a happy ending: it is sometimes their partners who betrays them or, when detained, they are simply abandoned.

In other cases, small trafficking or introducing drugs to prisons, for example, become their only way to survive and, at the same time, not neglecting their traditional roles in society as mothers: caring for the children and many times other people too, household cleaning and cooking.

We must bear in mind that Latin America is the region with the highest levels of inequality in the world, and women remain at the lower socioeconomic levels. Many of them are single mothers, having both to provide the money and take care of the family. This makes them vulnerable against the trafficking networks.

What is the State’s response? Are drug policies and penitentiary systems taking into account this situations while determining a punishment? Are the rights and security of the children of these women being protected?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not only these women are an easy prey of trafficking networks, but are also re-victimized by the State.

In the first place, it must be noted that along Latin American countries –with important differences among them- sanctions for drug offenses are generally disproportionated. That is, are very high, with little access to alternative sanctions to prison and, many times, impose mandatory precautionary detention. This applies equally to men and women.

But women in prison face direct or indirect discrimination derived from what is known as “gender blindness”. What is that? It means that women and their special needs are not seen nor taken into account. For example, there are not enough exclusive prisons for women, thus implying they are at mixed prisons or away from home. The special health needs for women are not adequately addressed, there are no proper spaces for their children or intimate visits are even arbitrarily prohibited based on moral arguments. These are only some acts of discrimination women in prison are suffering.

The NGO Penal Reform International has elaborated several documents on this topic, to visibilize the particular situations that women are living. They even have an on-line course on the Rules of Bangkok, an international text of the United Nations aimed at visibilizing the needs of women in contact with the justice system (women on remand, sentenced, under “protective” custody and non-custodial sanctions) from arrest to post-incarceration and reintegration.

The report Women, drug offenses and penitentiary systems in Latin America from the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) presents certain proposals on prevention, drug policies, the penitentiary system and post-prison treatment.