Cocaine removed from the stomach of a drug 'mule'

Recent reforms to Ecuador's Criminal Code could allow for arrested drug "mules" to be considered victims rather than criminals, a pioneering step towards recognition that people are often forced into smuggling drugs, but one that could create a tricky legal gray area.

Ecuador's new Criminal Code (pdf) -- which was approved in January 2014 and is expected to come into force sometime in 2015 -- will penalize drug trafficking according to the quantities carried, reported El Comercio. The amount of drugs that constitute the "minor," "medium," "large" and "extra-large" amounts stipulated by the new law still needs to be defined by the Narcotics Control Council (Consep).

Ecuador's repealed Law 108 on Narcotic and Psychoactive Substances made no distinction between large-scale traffickers and small-scale transporters, while 40 percent of the law's articles were focused on criminal punishment rather than prevention and rehabilitation.

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According to El Comercio, the aim of the new Code is also to open up the possibility of the subject being included in the victims and witness protection program, on the condition that information is provided leading to the arrest of those responsible.

"For the first time, this law defines the 'mule' as being a potential victim," said National Public Defender Ernesto Pazmiño.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although smuggling drugs internationally can yield extremely high profits, many people throughout Latin America are forced into the task by criminal groups who are threatening them or their loved ones, or to resolve a debt.

The issue has at times been recognized by other countries in the region, as was the case with a Mexican architect coerced into smuggling cocaine into the United States, who was given a lenient sentence of six months in prison by a US court.

Ecuador's new legislation appears to take an extra step in this direction, overthrowing a previous Code that had been heavily criticized by current President Rafael Correa and other politicians for its disproportionate sentences.

However, the reforms may create new legal difficulties in distinguishing between willing and unwilling mules. As it is dependent on cooperation as a witness, people who carry drugs purely for personal gain may claim victim status for their own benefit, while those forced into it may stay silent for fear of repercussions for them or their families.