Women Taking On More Roles Within Colombia’s Drug Trade

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A new investigation has revealed the range of roles women play in drug trafficking organizations in Colombia and the vulnerable situations that they face within these jobs.

The report, written by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in collaboration with Colombia’s Ministry of Justice and published on October 3, analyzes 2,500 cases of women charged with crimes related to drug trafficking in Colombia. 

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The report indicates that women generally work preparing food for laborers, as poppy flower and coca leaf pickers (known as raspachines), as “chemists” using chemical substances for the extraction of cocaine or the transformation of heroine, or as mules for the trafficking and distribution of illicit substances. 

Of the testimonies collected, around 86 percent of the women stated that they were unaware of the gravity of the crime committed and 96 percent say that they would not have committed the crime if they had known the punishment. 

InSight Crime Analysis

According to the UNODC, there are multiple factors leading women to participate in criminal economies such as drug trafficking, including a lack of legitimate economic opportunities, being single parents, a desire for financial independence, or facing pressures from their families.

The risks they face as a consequence are twofold – divided between the general risks inherent to drug trafficking and those specific to the particular role the women play. 

For example, women who work in the planting or picking of illegal crops are particularly at risk of falling into substance abuse. The UNODC report stated that these women and their families saw higher instances of drug and alcohol addiction as well as greater incidences of domestic violence.

Women and girls being exploited for sexual abuse and human trafficking happens more frequently in Colombian regions with high levels of coca cultivation and the processing of coca paste, the report found. According to a separate UNODC report in September, more cocaine is being produced in Colombia than ever before, especially in the departments of Nariño, Guaviare, Norte de Santander and Antioquia.

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One striking fact in this part of the chain, is that according to the report, the women that work picking and processing the coca leaf earn less than men, despite them performing the same work. In other words, they are affected by the same gender equality gaps that exist within legal industries. 

But, of all the links in the drug trafficking chain, transportation of drugs carries the greatest risk. This is due to the severe prison sentences women receive for committing crimes associated with transporting and selling drugs, according to the UNODC. The view that women can be “expendable” drug mules is not seen in Colombia alone. This situation has been seen in neighboring countries, including in Bolivia where poorer women are hired to carry drugs into Chile and left to fend for themselves if they caught.

These long sentences also carry a range of risks as women are exposed to the threat of violence and sexual abuse behind bars while their families often remain vulnerable to the influence of the very criminal networks the women worked for.

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