WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
13 Jul 2010

New Website Documents Human Toll of the “War on Drugs”

Drug policies in Latin America have made no dent in the drug trade and instead have resulted in severe collateral damage to societies. Across the region, drug laws have led to overwhelmed criminal justice systems, overcrowded prisons with petty offenders, and long prison sentences that are disproportionate to the crimes committed. The Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), two organizations with decades of experience in the field, are launching a new website to provide up-to-date analysis of trends in drug policy reform and videos that show the human face of drug laws' collateral damage.

"When you look at all this evidence, you see that current drug control policies in Latin America and in the U.S. are not only ineffective, they also come with severe collateral damage to the most vulnerable sectors of society," said Joy Olson, WOLA's Executive Director.

"Instead of focusing on the large-scale drug traffickers responsible for the violence and corruption that is undermining nations, current strategies end up pursuing easy targets — people who use drugs or those who play a minimal role in the drug trade," said Pien Metaal, TNI's Drug Law Reform Project Coordinator.

The human toll of unjust drug policies often goes unseen and unacknowledged. In addition to examining current trends in drug policies, TNI and WOLA will give statistics a human face with a series of videos to be made public over the following months. Today WOLA and TNI are proud to present two videos in their new joint website: www.druglawreform.info. These videos are made available to press for linking and embedding, and are part of an ongoing investigation on drug laws and prisons in eight key countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. The full study will be made public this fall.

A summary of the two just-released videos follows:

Drugs and Prison in Mexico: Watch the video

Over the years, the Mexican government has adopted increasingly heavy prison sentences and militarized drug policies to confront drug trafficking. The result has been an increase of vulnerable populations in Mexico's prisons, but no impact on the drug trade or violence.

In this video, Rosa Julia Leyva Martinez tells the story of how one day in 1993, she decided to travel from her home state of Guerrero to Mexico City.  According to her testimony, a few people she knew from her town convinced her to travel with them, and without her knowledge, had her carry a bag with heroine inside through airport security. She says that she was tortured into signing a confession and as a result spent close to 11 years in prison. In this video Rosa Leyva comes to the following conclusion: "I think I finally accepted what that judge and that criminologist said ‘I don't care if they tricked you, if you were a victim of a thousand and one things, what matters to me is that you were carrying it, and this is what matters for my sentence.' And I thought to myself, what brought Rosa Julia Leyva to jail? I was brought because of ignorance, social-cultural isolation, hunger, a thousand and one reasons."

Drugs and Prisons in Ecuador: Watch the video

Ecuador has one of the harshest drug laws in the hemisphere. A non-violent drug offender can receive the same sentence, sometimes even stiffer, than a murderer.

In this video, Analia Silva says she started dealing drugs out of poverty. She explains that she did not even know the type of drugs she was selling, that she only knew that being the sole provider of her two children, and she needed to make ends meet. She was caught in 2003 and sentenced to 8 years in jail. In the video she comes to the following conclusion:

"When they sentenced me, and it's the same for every woman they sentence, they not only sentence the person who committed the crime, they also sentence their family, they also sentence their children. […] [Authorities] don't realize that they want to get rid of crime, but they are the ones promoting it because if they [the children] are left alone… what can they do? Go and steal… my daughter would become a prostitute, my son would become a drug addict, deal drugs, sell drugs."

Currently, Ecuador is in the process of reforming its drug policies to put more emphasis on public health and improved prison conditions.  The Correa administration is also considering a new drug law, which if presented to and approved by the Ecuadorian Congress could provide a model for other countries seeking more effective and humane drug policies.

The videos are also available in Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/channels/119175

For more information contact:
Kristel Mucino, TNI/WOLA Drug Law Reform Project Communications Coordinator
Tel: 202-797-2171; Cell: 617-584-1713; [email protected]