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. 

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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.

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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

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