A female prisoner in Mexico

Female drug convicts in Latin America are being failed by inadequate justice systems, according to a report from a leading drug policy NGO, which calls for international and local strategies to address both prison conditions and the root causes of women's participation in the drug trade.

The report, "Women, drug offenses and prison systems in Latin America" (pdf), published by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), outlines how ingrained attitudes towards gender and the continued marginalization of women have contributed to the significant growth of the female prison population -- particularly on drug charges -- since the 1980s.

As the report highlights, while women on average only represent five percent of the prison population in Central America and six percent in South America, their numbers have grown at a much faster rate than the male prison population over recent decades.

The proportion of women prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes is also striking. In Ecuador, 75 to 80 percent of female prisoners are imprisoned on drug charges, compared to 18.5 percent in 1983. Elsewhere in the region drug charges dominate, with 60 percent in Brazil, 70 percent in Argentina and Venezuela, and 89 percent in Nicaragua among the highest proportions of women imprisoned for drug offences. Notably, in Mexico 30 to 60 percent are imprisoned on drugs charges; a figure that rises to 75 to 80 percent in the US border region, a key drug smuggling zone.

According to the report, the evolution of Latin American women's social and familial role has contributed to their greater involvement within the drugs trade, but has not been met with drug policy and prison reforms to address these new conditions.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

With growing numbers of single parent families, women are increasingly adopting the role of sole provider, not just for their children, but often for elderly relatives too. As the report states, "many of them [female prisoners in Latin America] are single mothers who only enter the drug trade to feed their sons and daughters." 

Alongside this shift, the "feminization of poverty" has seen a significant increase in the number of desperately poor and homeless women throughout the region; conditions often closely related to personal drug abuse, which is another critical factor that pulls women into criminality. The general profile of female drug prisoners is characterized by a lack of education, and a history of poorly paid or inadequate employment, according to the report.

The report also underscores how personal -- often romantic -- relationships with men can draw women into the drug trade, where they generally occupy the lowest rungs of criminal networks; growing, carrying or selling drugs. Smuggling drugs is also a role frequently played by women, either as "mules" transporting drugs internationally, or so-called "aguacateras" (avocado carriers -- so named for the shape of drug capsules), who conceal drugs to carry them into prison, usually to be passed to male inmates.

The penalties for such activities can be severe, with long sentences regardless of whether the woman was coerced into carrying the drugs. In many Latin American countries, drug offenses are met with automatic preventative detention lasting months or years, and, as the report states, "the majority of these women come from the most marginalized and excluded social classes, without the financial means, legal understanding or social capital to provide themselves with an adequate legal defense."

While the report notes that reform efforts are underway in some countries, the process has been slow, and many countries still automatically exclude drug offenders from sentencing and detention considerations applied to women for other crimes.

Although changing social conditions have led to women's greater involvement in organized crime, gender inequality has persisted in a manner that has exacerbated their often dire situation both inside and outside prison. Not only does ingrained chauvinism result in women occupying the most menial and replaceable of roles within drug trafficking organizations, but it also contributes to unequal conditions and treatment in prison and the breakdown of family units.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

According to the report, while men generally enjoy support and numerous visits from family members and partners, women are often "abandoned to their fate," as innate gender bias sees them shift from being perceived as "mothers" to "delinquents," with the two characterizations frequently incompatible in the eyes of family members and wider society. Women are also often prevented from having conjugal visits, while the inadequate number of women's prisons means they are either housed far from their family, or in unsuitable, makeshift conditions in men's prisons. 

Inequality is also borne out in the employment opportunities available to women prisoners, who are often restricted to jobs "of little use for integration into the formal economy after leaving prison," such as embroidery, stuffing soft animals and domestic work, while men have more access to vocational training.

As well as inadequate facilities and opportunities for women, there is an even bleaker side to their unequal treatment, with rape by male prison guards a common occurrence in some prisons, and female prisoners forced to provide sexual services to male prisoners in others. As the report points out, sometimes women are faced with the choice between being incarcerated far from their families, or being imprisoned in close proximity to males convicts, where such abuses can take place. In either scenario the result can be severe psychological damage.


InSight Crime Analysis

The growth of the female prison population and rising proportion of female drug inmates in Latin America is a phenomenon which has received increasing attention in recent years and is closely linked to the growing role of women in organized crime. 

There have been some notable high level women drug lords, such as the notorious Colombian Griselda Blanco, or the so-called "Queen of the Pacific," Avila Beltran, and Mexican authorities have noted an increase in women operating as plaza bosses, leading hit squads and running kidnapping rings. However, most women remain on the bottom rung of organized crime, where their growing role with gangs is often restricted to activities such as carrying contraband, or providing intelligence, and their opportunities are often limited by their gender.

Reports of women increasingly getting drawn in to organized crime have coincided with the growth in the female prison population, which has been notable since the 1980s, but has been exponential in recent years -- a report from the Open Society Foundation (pdf) found it almost doubled between 2006 and 2010 alone -- from 40,000 to 74,000.

Given the relationship between organized crime and the drug trade, as well as growing drug consumption, it is to be expected so many imprisoned women are incarcerated on drugs charges. This also fits into a pattern seen elsewhere in the world, with Harm Reduction International noting a similar trend in Europe and Central Asia in its 2012 report "Cause for Alarm" (pdf).

This relationship between drugs and the growing female prison population prompted the IDPC to call for international cooperation to address the social conditions leading women into the drug trade and ultimately prison, as well as the need for reform of the penitentiary and justice systems throughout Latin America. The report lauds the inclusion of the roundtable discussion "Women, drugs, and human rights in the Americas" at the Organization of American States General Assembly in June 2013, and urges the adoption of drug policy which is designed and focused on gender, as appears in the "Declaration of Antigua" signed by regional leaders at that OAS session.

However, as the IDPC report also points out, the issue goes beyond crime and drugs. One of the main obstacles to the effective implementation of reform that responds to the root causes of these issues is the persistence of deep-seated chauvinism in Latin American society -- a problem that will require far more than new laws and regulations to address.


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