By Carla Álvarez Velasco, WOLA Consultant
On August 11, 2014 a sweeping new penal code went into effect in Ecuador, which includes significant revisions to the country’s previous drug law and could result in the release of as many as 2,000 people from prison as more lenient sentences are put in place and potentially applied retroactively. Ecuador has clearly taken a step forward in a more rational approach to penalties for drug-related crimes. Issues such as decriminalization of drug use, decriminalization of cultivation for personal use, proportionality of sentences in comparison to those for other crimes, and consideration of the role played in the division of labor in drug trafficking will unquestionably allow for more appropriate punishment, help to alleviate pressure on Ecuadorian prisons, and could lead to the release of thousands of people who have been unfairly convicted or have received unjust sentences.
Although a significant sector of the government has worked to solidify these advances, another sector within the state has gone in the opposite direction, trying to maintain the punitive status quo. And although there was no debate between society and the state, there also was no rigorous debate within the government. It could be said, therefore, that in Ecuador there has been no serious dialogue about drug law reforms and their implications. The lack of reflection, publicizing of positions and debate has led to many contradictions in the consolidation of the regulatory changes, especially in Ecuador’s criminal justice system.
In conclusion, meaningful dialogue about reforms to the drug law and/or their implications has not taken place in Ecuador, and the progress that has been made is due to the government having opened a window of political opportunity, which could close again. Civil society activism is therefore important as a protector and guarantor of the ground that has been gained.