Latin American drug policies have made no dent in the drug trade; instead they have taken a tremendous toll on human lives. In 2009, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) embarked on an ambitious project to document the real impact of Latin America’s “war on drugs” and to show its human cost through the video testimonies of the victims themselves.
Ecuador was never a significant center of production or traffic of illicit drugs; nor has it ever experienced the social convulsions that can result from the existence of a dynamic domestic drug market. While Ecuador has become an important transit country for illicit drugs and precursor chemicals and for money laundering, the illicit drug trade has not been perceived as a major threat to the country’s national security. However, for nearly two decades, Ecuador has had one of the most draconian drug laws in Latin America.
Ecuador has one of the most severe and unfair drug laws of all the countries included in Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America, a comparative research study published today by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). From when it came into force in 1991, drug Law 108 has created an ongoing situation of disproportionate sentences that violate both human and civil rights. Although the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights is in the process of developing a proposal to reform the drug law – after recognising the injustices it causes – the reform process advances at a slow pace and it is not yet known whether the process will continue. Therefore Law 108 is still in force.
In Brazil, possession of drugs for personal consumption is punished with educational measures and community service, not prison. In this video, a young man tells of the disparity in sentencing between the wealthy and the poor.
Martha Ines Miravete was a stage actress in Buenos Aires. She recalls how, in 1994, a man changed her life by inviting her to participate in a video project in Brazil. She was excited at the opportunity for new work and the chance to travel for the first time. But, she was stopped at the airport, the luggage was searched, and cocaine was found.
When she was 66 years old, Alicia Castilla was put in jail for three months for cultivating marijuana, which she used to help her sleep better. In this video testimony, she talks about the suffering caused by her imprisonment in Canelones (an Uruguayan prison) and her experience with the justice system in Uruguay.
An unprecedented one-year comparative study on the impact of the drug laws and prison systems in 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 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.
Peru is a major world producer of coca leaf and its derivatives. Since the year 2000, successive Peruvian administrations have followed a drug policy focused on supply reduction through interdiction and eradication strategies. The law on drugs does not punish drug use or drug possession for personal use by imprisonment. Nonetheless, the Peruvian authorities treat drug use as if it were criminal conduct. As a result, the police are overwhelmed, trials are delayed, and the prisons are filled.
The story of the Mexican drug war has generally focused on the violence perpetrated by drug cartels and the apparent inability to bring so many criminals to justice. Unfortunately—while it’s true many have evaded justice—there remain many more people who use drugs and those with very low levels of involvement in the drug trade, who have been swept up in recent crackdowns.
Within the international drugs market, Argentina is a “trans-shipment” country for cocaine. Recent decades have seen an increase in the consumption of narcotic and psychotropic substances in the country, and in recent years laboratories for the production of cocaine hydrochloride, though not on the scale of those in Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia, have begun to appear. The laws designed to prosecute drug crimes have failed to reduce the scale of trafficking and have resulted instead in the imprisonment of people in vulnerable situations.
Mexico is currently undergoing one of the worst crises in its history in terms of violence and insecurity. This crisis is directly related to the strengthening of organized crime in Mexico associated with drug trafficking, the divisions within the leading drug trafficking cartels, and their diversification. All this has resulted in a bloody struggle to control the key markets for the trafficking routes. The response of the Calderón administration has been a “war on organized crime” with two key elements: the growing use of the armed forces in public security tasks, and legal reforms aimed at more effectively fighting organized crime and, in particular, those involved in the trafficking, commerce, and supply of drugs.
The number of people imprisoned for drug offenses in Brazil has increased over the last 20 years, but this has not affected the availability or consumption of drugs. The study also shows that those who are locked up for drug offenses are mainly small-scale dealers who represent the lowest links in drug distribution operations, and not the large-scale wholesale traffickers who dominate the country’s illicit drug trafficking trade.
Argentina is a “transit” country within the international drug market. The laws designed to prosecute drug crimes have failed to reduce the scale of trafficking and have resulted instead in the imprisonment of people in vulnerable situations.
Mexico’s security crisis’ most evident toll is the unacceptable level of violence linked to drug trafficking. However, a report published today by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reveals that there are other damaging consequences, such as increased number of prisoners and the fact that the majority of the prisoners are small-scale offenders or users, and are from the most vulnerable sectors of society.
During the 20th century, drug policies in Colombia were increasingly repressive, largely ineffective, and heavily influenced by the international legal framework that was put in place. In effect, in just a few years Colombia went from having a scattered set of regulations, with an emphasis on prevention and medical-administrative treatment, to having legislation abundant in definitions of criminal conduct and sanctions that included the full drug cycle, from production through marketing and trafficking to consumption.
Uruguay has one of the most advanced drug policies on the continent. In Uruguay, the law does not criminalize drug use or possession of drugs for personal use. In addition, in recent years its national drug policies have prioritized the prosecution of medium and large-scale traffickers rather than focusing resources and energy on small-time dealers who are easily replaced. This country study examines the scope of the legislation, the policies developed and how the normative and policy frameworks find expression in Uruguay’s prison system, with a special focus on the population incarcerated for drug-related offenses.
Bolivia’s participation in the international drug-trafficking circuit was determined by a series of factors, ranging from the ancestral tradition of growing and consuming coca leaf, to the endemic poverty of the population (per capita GDP is less than US$ 1,000) and the structural weakness of state institutions.
A 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 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 study Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America, published today 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.
In Peru, the law on drugs does not punish drug use or drug possession for personal use by imprisonment. Nonetheless, as the Peru chapter of the study Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America concludes, the Peruvian authorities treat drug use as if it were criminal conduct. As a result, the police are overwhelmed, trials are delayed, and the prisons are filled.