Around 70% of female inmates in Latin America are incarcerated due to drug offences

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Around 70% of female inmates in Latin America are incarcerated due to drug offences

17 January 2014

Between 2006 and 2011, the female inmates in Latin America almost duplicated, increasing from 40,000 to more than 74,000 prisoners. The most of the incarcerated women are imprisoned on minor drug charges – 75%-80% in Ecuador, 30 y 60% in Mexico, 64% in Costa Rica, 60% in Brazil, or 70% in Argentina.

This worrying trend is reflected in the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) report “Women, drug offences and penitentiary systems in Latin America”, conducted by Corina Giacomello with the participation of experts in drug policy and women topics: Diana Guzmán (DeJusticia, Colombia); Nischa Pieris (Inter American Commission on Women); Carlos Zamudio (CUPIHD, Mexico) y Alejandro Corda (Intercambios A.C. y University of Buenos Aires, Argentina).

In addition to address the context in which the most of the women in the region are involved in the drug trafficking organisations, the report proposes a set of policies to increase the alternatives to incarceration, the reduction of sentences or the effective implementation of the so-called as ‘Rules of Bangkok’. The report also recommends to the governments the systematisation of disaggregated quantitative and qualitative data that allow to enforce a drug policy with gender approach, based on prevention, decriminalisation, depenalisation and social inclusion.

Precariousness and economic vulnerability

“The decision of becoming an object container of drugs and of exposing to the danger of being arrested is not a first option, but a desperate and necessary path due to the extreme economic scarcity”, Giacomello explains.

Also, women who play the role of drug couriers (“mulas”), usually are placed in the most low, precarious and exchangeable scale in the drug trafficking organisations. Their detention and incarceration does not disrupt the operation of the illicit markets. However, these women carry on being the main target of the punitive systems in Latin America.

Proportionality of the sentences and access to the justice

The disproportionality of sentences in drug offences and the policies of mandatory preventive prison also make difficult an equitative access to the justice and engage the defence processes of women in vulnerable situations. So, in Bolivia, women represent more than 13% of prison population, and 80% of female inmates are waiting for their sentence.

In some countries of the region, as Paraguay, Venezuela, Peru or Argentina, a suspension of preventive prison is considered for pregnant women or women who are in the first months of lactation. However, these benefits are restricted for drug offenders.

In a context in which several Latin American governments are undertaking steps towards a drug policy reform, it is high important to integrate a gender approach that able them to surmount the current discrimination and criminalisation exerted on women by the criminal justice systems, and warranty the prompt access to justice and the respect of human rights inside the prisons.

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  • Corina Giacomello
  • International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC)