Victims of the Latin American war on drugs make the case for reform
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.
The study, Systems Overload,found disturbing trends concerning who is in jail for drug offenses,the types of drug crimes they’ve committed, and the relationship betweendrug laws and prison overcrowding. Across eight Latin Americancountries, those incarcerated are not the kingpins or even mid-leveltraffickers. They’re individuals caught with small amounts of drugs,often users, as well as non-violent, small-scale dealers and drug mules(those transporting drugs). These minor offenders are given excessivelylong prison sentences, amounting to human rights violations.
Statistics alone cannot convey the severity of the injustices caused by current drug laws. In the videos, victims themselves tell of the irrevocable damage inflicted on the most vulnerable sectors of society. Each video tells a person’s story, and they fit together like pieces in a puzzle to portray a larger picture.
These videos show what it really means to be at the lowest level of the trafficking chain. They break the stereotypes associated with those in jail—consumers, drug-mules, small-scale dealers, and illicit crop growers. Many drug offenders enter the ‘business’ out of economic desperation. Their low-level participation in the drug economy does not get them out of poverty; it just represents a steady income. Many single and poor mothers enter the trade to provide for their families. If they are imprisoned, their children have to either accompany their parents to jail or end up in the streets, selling or consuming drugs. Ex-offenders are branded with a criminal record, limiting their opportunities even further. These counter-productive policies push people into a cycle of criminality and poverty.
I particularly recommend the Ecuador and Uruguay videos. The women featured are incredibly compelling, and furthermore, these two countries are currently reforming their drug laws. Ecuador is debating whether to reduce the sentences for non-violent drug offenders. The Uruguayan Parliament will soon vote on whether to create legal, regulated markets for marijuana. Both themes are covered in our clips.
We choose individuals whose stories were representative of the study. I then coached the researchers on video-interviewing techniques, paired them with professional videographers, and created shooting guidelines. Every interviewee signed a consent-release form. We created seven videos in total; each one between five and seven minutes long. The entire process—shooting, editing, translating, and subtitling—took six months approximately.
Our main goal was to give a human face to the statistics compiled in Systems Overload, with both advocacy and news audiences in mind. We hoped that collegial organizations would use the videos for their own advocacy. We also wanted the press to feature these under-represented voices, adding dimension to articles about Latin America’s drug war. News organizations often have a policy against using testimonials done by third parties, which they perceive to lack neutrality. To address this, the videos are simple and have no added commentary; we wanted the press to see them as a resource, instead of as an advocacy tool.
What happened after the launch completely surprised us. Major news organizations across the continent reported on or embedded the videos—from El Universal in Mexico, to El Comercio in Ecuador, to Semana in Colombia. El Tiempo in Colombia kept the Mexico video on their home page for two days, long enough for superstar Juanes to see it and tweet about it. A key contact in the U.S. Congress discovered the video after clicking on the Juanes link.
Since 2010, the videos have been loaded close to 200,000 times; we’re pretty pleased. But a video’s impact cannot be measured by the number of views. Leading drug policy organizations around the world—the ones encouraging national debates—are using our videos for their own advocacy efforts.WOLA and TNI continue to use the series at key moments. The Ecuador video, which focuses on a single mother, screened on national TV the same week that the government introduced a bill to reform its draconian drug law. Our Uruguay video shows the absurdity of imprisoning a 66-year-old woman for cultivating marijuana for her own consumption. It was embedded on Uruguay’s leading papers soon after the government announced its intention to propose legislation of marijuana.
The Next Steps
Next week WOLA staff will be traveling to Uruguay in support of the government’s groundbreaking proposal to create a legal, regulated marijuana market. We will once again use our video series during public events and private meetings to show how misguided current drug laws are and to call for better policies.
Peoples’ stories have power. WOLA’s mission has always been to bring those stories to policymakers and others who can make a difference. Today, the accessibility of video makes it easier than ever before to bring those stories to light and for the promotion of human rights, democracy, and socio-economic justice.
Kristel Muciño is WOLA’s Communications Director. She gives direction to WOLA’s institutional and programmatic communications to maximize WOLA’s advocacy efforts. She oversees WOLA’s online presence, multimedia projects, and social media accounts. She led WOLA to incorporate video as a tool for change.
Saturday, November 10, 2012