Small-time Dealers Hit Hardest by Colombian, Mexican Policy

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The penalties for drug offenses in Colombia and Mexico do not successfully target large-scale traffickers, says a report released Thursday.

Prisons in Colombia and Mexico are overcrowded with small-time offenders while high-level drug traffickers are rarely penalized, says a study by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI). Repressive drug policies have overcrowded prisons and exacerbated the social conditions that promote crime, the reports concludes, without significantly affecting those who truly control the drug-distribution networks.

The study compares eight countries in Latin America and finds that regional drug policy adopts many of the same repressive measures promoted in the United States. This includes heavy penalties for drug possession and lower-rung dealers. “In general the legislation does not distinguish between levels of involvement in the business – treating street sellers and transporters on par with large-scale drug traffickers, and failing to distinguish between violent and non-violent offenses,” the report observes.

In Colombia, about 17 percent of the country’s prison population is incarcerated due to drug-related offenses. 98 percent of these detainees can be considered low-level offenders, according to the WOLA study, which uses data compiled by Colombia’s National Prison Authority, INPEC. 

Mexican law does allow small quantities of narcotics for personal use, thanks to legislation passed in August 2009. Nevertheless, the most prosecuted offense is still possession, while charges against the production, transport or trafficking of drugs is much less common. In 2009 in Mexico’s Federal District, for example, 50 percent of prisoners incarcerated for selling drugs were arrested for possessing less than $100 worth of narcotics, the report states.

Mexico has also seen its prison population swell by thousands over the past decades, and about half of the detainees are being held without a sentence.

The report concludes with twelve recommendations, including the need to ensure proportionality in sentencing. “Although there is absolute repression of the growing, manufacture, and trafficking of drugs, the real and symbolic effectiveness of this policy is very limited,” the study notes. 

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