The number of women prisoners in Brazil is skyrocketing, exemplifying how punitive drug policies have heavily impacted women, at the expense of targeting more powerful leaders of organized crime networks. 

The number of female prisoners in Brazil rose by 567 percent between 2000 and 2014, for a total female inmate population of 37,380, according to a report by the country's Ministry of Justice. Men still make up the majority of inmates in Brazil, with over 540,000 prisoners, but the male inmate population is growing at half the rate of the female inmate population.

Notably, the ministry report found that 68 percent of Brazil's incarcerated women are behind bars for low-level drug trafficking crimes, such as transporting or storing drugs. 

SEE MOREBrazil News and Profiles

The numbers in the ministry report are more recent than those published by Mexican non-governmental organization (NGO) the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho - CEDD) in another study released November 3. That study only includes numbers up to 2013, but shows many of the same trends: out of 10 Latin American countries, Brazil has experienced the largest increase of women who've been incarcerated for drug crimes. 

According to a 2015 report by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), Brazil has the fifth largest female prison population in world, while the United States is first in the rankings.

InSight Crime Analysis

Punitive drug policies have been strongly criticized for resulting in the imprisonment of scores of small-time drug dealers, while more high-profile drug traffickers repeatedly evade, or escape, jail time. As previously highlighted by NGO the Washington Office on Latin America, this is disproportionately affecting women: the Americas have the highest female prison population rate in the world at 12.15 per 100,000 of population, according to the ICPR.

SEE MORE: Coverage of Prisons

Women have become increasingly valuable to drug traffickers in many Latin American countries, as they are easy recruits due to a lack of opportunities and education. As traffickers may believe authorities are less likely to suspect women of committing a crime, women are often used as drug mules. 

The number of incarcerated low-level drug dealers is partly a reflection of how weak judiciaries remain in many Latin American countries. Prosecutors and police are often only able to successfully build cases if they have caught someone in the act of committing a crime. With few exceptions, investigators have had less success in building more complex cases involving drug trafficking and organized crime. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Former Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla -- a decorated war hero and a longtime US ally -- finds himself treading water amidst a flurry of accusations about corruption and his connections to drug traffickers. López Bonilla is not the most well-known suspect in the cases against...

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...