Ask any female inmate in Latin America how they ended up in prison and there’s a good chance they will reply “drugs”.
That’s what most women at Colombia’s largest women's jail in Bogota, known as the Good Shepherd prison, told me when I visited the jail in 2011 and 2013 to see the prison’s annual beauty pageant and interview women who live with their children behind bars.
“Drug dealing seemed the only way out of my money problems at the time,” Sandra Martinez, told me last September, as a toddler chasing a balloon ran across the prison courtyard.
“It's one of those mistakes in life that I’m paying a very high price for," the 23 year old said.
Women imprisoned for drug-related offenses, like Martinez, are behind the surge in the numbers of women in Latin America's overcrowded jails.
Between 2006 and 2011, the region’s female prison population almost doubled – rising from 40,000 to more than 74,000 inmates - according to figures cited by the Open Society Global Drug Policy Programme.
While rights groups say more research is needed, it’s a trend that began in the 1990s following the introduction across most of Latin America of stiffer laws for drug offenses, which have affected women more than men.
“Both the adoption and aggressive implementation of excessively harsh drug laws is a key factor behind the high incarceration rates of women in Latin America,” said Coletta Youngers, an expert on international drug policy and senior fellow at the rights group, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“In the eight prisons in Latin America we studied in 2011, the male population in prison on drug trafficking charges is generally around 30 to 40 percent. But we found that around 60, 70, and even 80 percent of women are there on drug trafficking charges,” Youngers told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview in Washington.
Women often work on the lowest rungs of the drug business as street dealers and drug courier mules. When arrested, they face harsh drug laws, the United Nations says.
“Many new minimum sentencing regulations have resulted in harsher sentences for drug-related offences than for crimes such as rape and murder. Such sentencing regulations result in gendered disparity as regards incarceration,” said a report last year by the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women.
Ecuador, in particular, is known to have some of the harshest drug laws in Latin America.
“A petty drug trafficker in Ecuador can be in jail for more time than a murderer,” Youngers said. “It makes no dent in the drug trade at all. We’ve found few high-level and medium-level drug traffickers in prison. The laws so often end up targeting those easiest to target, the petty dealers, the weakest link in the chain.”
Many women get involved in the drug business out of desperation - to pay for medical treatment for a relative, pay off a debt or to feed their children.
“The growing number of women in prison for drug trafficking is directly linked to pervasive inequality and poverty, which particularly affects women in Latin America,” Youngers said. “When you interview women in prisons they often say - it came down to should I be a prostitute or do I sell drugs on the street corner.”
Most women in jails in Latin America are poor, single mothers who often also support parents or grandparents, rights groups say. So when women go to jails, it has a major impact on the lives of people who depend on them.
Such was the case with Martinez, a single mother of two young children, who decided to leave her children with her mother and not take them to prison with her.
A history of abusive relationships and violence in the home are all too common among female inmates.
“A strong link exists between violence against women and their detention, whether prior to, during or post-incarceration,” said the report from the U.N. special rapporteur on violence.
The report cites the example of Mexico, where the number of women in prison has skyrocketed by 400 percent since 2007. There, it’s estimated that at least 40 percent of women convicted of drug offenses, such as transporting drugs between cities or smuggling drugs into prisons, were coerced to do so by their boyfriends or husbands, the U.N. report says.
Rising numbers of women in Latin America’s jails also stem from women being increasingly involved in the drug business. In Central America, for example, gangs are using women more often to transport drugs or guns because they are less likely to raise suspicion among police and customs authorities, according to a 2012 report by peacebuilding groups.
DRUG POLICY REFORM
Rising female prison populations is a problem not just in Latin America but around the world.
While women are still a minority in prisons - making up between 2 and 9 percent of the world’s total prison population - “many countries are witnessing a significantly disproportionate rate of increase of women being incarcerated, compared to their male counterparts,” the U.N. report said.
So what can be done to stem the rise of women behind bars?
“The starting points to reduce the number of women in prisons would be reforming drug laws… and to provide alternatives to incarceration for low-level and non-violent offenders,” Youngers said.