WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas


19 Nov 2020 | Publication

Women Behind Bars for Drug Offenses in Latin America: What the Numbers Make Clear

By Coletta A. Youngers, Teresa García Castro, and Maria (Kiki) Manzur

Women’s incarceration in Latin America has increased dramatically over the last two decades. Not only have the sheer numbers increased, but the percentage of females in the overall prison population has also risen, and the rate of the ongoing increase in the size of the female prison population is alarming. Moreover, the number of women being put behind bars is growing much faster than the number of men.

These trends cannot be explained by growth of the overall female population, or simply by the increase in the total number of prisoners. Rather, the driving force behind the data is the adoption of punitive drug laws that disproportionately affect women. In the majority of Latin American countries, drug-related crimes are the main cause of female incarceration. For instance, available data shows that in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela, drug-related offenses are the most common offense for female prisoners. In sheer numbers, more men than women are incarcerated for drug-related offenses in Latin American countries. But the percentage of women imprisoned for that offense is almost always higher than the percentage of men. Data compiled by WOLA shows that in Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru, the proportion of women prisoners who are incarcerated for drug offenses is at least 30 percent higher than in the case of men imprisoned in those countries. The excessive use of pretrial detention is a primary factor contributing to the over-incarceration of women for drug offenses in Latin America. Research shows that more women than men are in pretrial detention for drug offenses in almost all of the countries studied.

The incarceration of these women does nothing to disrupt drug markets or thwart the drug trade, as they are primarily engaged in high-risk but low-ranking jobs and are easily replaced, while those running criminal enterprises rarely end up behind bars. Yet the consequences of incarceration for these women, their families and their communities can be devastating. The COVID-19 pandemic—and its disproportionate impact on people in prison—gives even greater urgency to implementing reforms to dramatically reduce the number of women behind bars. The report concludes with a plea to adopt recommendations for developing and implementing gender-sensitive drug and prison-related policies rooted in human rights and public health—policies that also take into account the intersectionalities and multiple vulnerabilities of women in situations of poverty or extreme poverty; those who are LGBTI+, Afro-descendent, foreign women, or indigenous; and women who are pregnant and/or have children.