Mirna Cartagena, who did 8 years in jail for drug trafficking, during a 2012 interview with the author

Latin America's female prison population is growing faster than the number of men in jail, according to a recent report. InSight Crime's Senior Investigator Deborah Bonello looks back at an interview with a former drug mule to see how typical her story is of women caught up in this trend.

As Mirna drove north from her home city of Culiacan, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, nerves and excitement had her barely able to sit still in the driver's seat. She knew that the panels of her car were packed with small amounts of marijuana that she was moving through the northern state of Sonora to get to the US border with Mexico. The agreement was that her small stash would get pulled over at a military checkpoint by colluding agents and distract the bulk of them from a much bigger shipment coming from behind.

"I was told that I'd be transporting drugs in the car, that nothing would go wrong. They said it would be 35 kilos of marijuana. But I wasn't transporting marijuana. It was cocaine and methamphetamine," she explained years later, after doing more than eight years in a Culiacán jail as a result of being pulled over that day in 2004.

"So I got to a big [military] check-point, and they stopped me and said, 'We know about you.' I thought, 'Sweet! I can go home, and they will take it from here.' But then they started to tell me I was under arrest, and I just cried and cried and cried, and I didn't stop in the three months it took for me to end up in prison."

Video Credit: Deborah Bonello for Univision / 2012 from Deborah Bonello on Vimeo.

Mirna Cartagena’s story is typical of the thousands of women drawn into the low-level echelons of the drug trafficking business, an increasing number of whom end up in jail. A recent policy report by a group of working experts, published by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Dejusticia and the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States, says that although there are currently more men in jail across the region, the number of women in prison is growing at a faster rate regionally.

SEE MORE: Coverage of Prisons

In Argentina, Brazil, and Costa Rica and Peru, more than 60 percent of the female prison population was behind bars for drug-related offenses, according to data that dates back to between 2011 and 2015. (See graphic) In Mexico, that percentage is just over 44 percent, although a report on Animal Politico suggests that the number of women in jail on drug offenses has grown by more than 100 percent in the last two years.

Women incarcerated for drug crimesSource: Report Women, Drug Policies and Incarceration -- A Guide for Policy Reform in Latin America and the Caribbean

The population of women prisoners in Latin America climbed 51.6 percent between 2000 and 2015, compared to 20 percent for men, according to figures from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) used in the report.

Mules and Dealers

Female drug trafficking bosses such as Mexico’s Sandra Ávila Beltrán, also know as "the Queen of the Pacific," and Colombia’s Griselda Blanco, alias "the Queen of Cocaine," are the kind of women in the drug trade that tend to make the headlines and sometimes inspire films and soap operas. But the vast majority of females who end up in jail for drug trafficking are low level drug mules or small-scale dealers, pulled in by factors such as poverty and sexism, says the report.

"They are minor actors in drug trafficking and are easily replaced," the report says.

Even worse: these arrests are meaningless to the fight against these criminal groups. "Their arrest has no impact on drug trafficking or improving citizen security, tackling violence, or reducing the corruption generated by the illegal business," the report adds.

That was the case for Mirna, who went to prison for her first offense and claims to have been misled about her understanding of which drugs and how much she would be carrying. She was a single mother at the time, as are the majority of female inmates around the region, according to the report.

The incarceration of the primary caregiver in households has a powerful impact on the family. It increases the likelihood of their dependents becoming more of a burden on the state. More youth drop out of school, get into crime; more elderly or disabled need government assistance.

Mirna chose to get involved in the drug trade, but many women can be dragged in, coerced by their male partners or other actors. After she had done her jail time, Mirna began working in a state prevention program in 2012 in Culiacán. The program raised awareness among young people in secondary schools about the risks of a life of crime. Culiacán, the capital of the state that is home to Mexico’s legendary Sinaloa Cartel, is the heartland of Mexican drug trafficking and the glamorous narcoculture that has developed around it.

"Right now we have girls in prison who got into guys' cars and were arrested. There are three 18-year-old girls in prison here right now. Why? Because they got together with these young guys and were driving around and were stopped and searched, and there were guns and drugs in the car," said Mirna one morning in early 2012, addressing a bunch of young teenagers in a small, brick-lined classroom.

"So what are these young boys up to? They drive around the school where young, pretty girls like you are. And what happens? You girls start to notice them. But they're the sons of whom? Drug traffickers -- exactly. Sons of drug lords who come to find young girls to be their girlfriends."

What Works?

The document suggests a range of alternative approaches to the imprisonment of women for non-violent drug offenses, including decriminalization, gender-based approaches to sentencing, and amnesties and pardons.

It also provides a number of case studies that serve as examples of approaches that have succeeded in bringing down the imprisonment of women around the region.

In Costa Rica, for example, drug legislation reform reduced the length of incarceration for vulnerable women accused of bringing drugs into prison, resulting in the immediate release of 150 females.

Uruguay’s drug policy, according to the report, is focused on the principles of human rights, public health, and gender, and includes the use of an asset forfeiture fund to support gender-sensitive programs focused on drug prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and social inclusion. These initiatives have reduced recidivism rates, drug dependence, and unemployment rates among formerly incarcerated women, according to the authors.

In 2014, Ecuador adopted a new criminal code that ensured more proportionate penalties for drug offenses, establishing different thresholds for levels of drug trafficking, which drastically reduced the sentence lengths for low-level drug offenses, and led to the release of more than 446 women. But a year later Ecuador took a step backward by significantly reducing the thresholds for what qualified as low, medium, and large-scale drug trafficking.

Women like Mirna are also setting the right example, the report says. Their participation in both education, as well as developing alternative crime prevention and drug policy programs, is fundamental to changing the largely repressive and punitive approaches to drug trafficking and organized crime in the region that so victimize women, according to the report’s authors.

Life after Jail

Stigma surrounding jail time, as well as a criminal record, can make it hard for women to find jobs and make a new start outside criminality when they get out of prison, the report points out.

Mirna was lucky to get diverted into the state crime prevention program, which put her negative experience to positive use.

"It's not too late to save these youngsters from a life of crime and drug trafficking," she said during an interview. "I do it through my own experience and testimony. I'm here to show them my example, so they don't get into trouble."

Investigations

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