Drug Laws and Prisons in Colombia

Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America

During the 20th century, drug policies in Colombia were increasingly repressive, largely ineffective, and heavily influenced by the international legal framework that was put in place. In effect, in just a few years Colombia went from having a scattered set of regulations, with an emphasis on prevention and medical-administrative treatment, to having legislation abundant in definitions of criminal conduct and sanctions that included the full drug cycle, from production through marketing and trafficking to consumption.

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Moreover, the growing repression reflects the major influence of international legislation that evolved over the same period, generally promoted by the United States. Especially over the last decades of the 20th century, as drug trafficking became increasingly important in Colombian economy and society, Colombia began to follow the agenda developed by the United States to fight trafficking, resulting in an internalization of the “war on drugs.”

The increasingly harsh policies, including zero tolerance measures, have not put an end to the organized criminal networks. Supply-reduction drug policies have not only proven ineffective, but have had a major impact on the prison system as a result of the considerable increase in repressive measures and measures entailing deprivation of liberty. At present, Colombia’s prison population includes a large number of persons incarcerated for drug-related offenses who, for the most part, are among the least important links in the chain of growing, production, and trafficking of drugs.

This document is intended to show some of the ways in which drug policies impact the country’s prison system. To that end, we focus our analysis on what appears to be the sector hardest hit by these policies: persons only minimally involved in the drug business, playing small or marginal roles, and not benefitting from the truly substantial profits. This is the situation in a prison context, characterized by major restrictions on human rights stemming from the precarious conditions of incarceration.

In Colombia, most of the people incarcerated for drug-related crime are merely small-scale participants in the drug trafficking networks. “The figures show that most cases of imprisonment for drug related crime are drug mules, small-scale dealers, couriers – and not the medium or large-scale drug traffickers who profit so much from the trade”, states Rodrigo Uprimny, co-author of the Colombia chapter and director of the research center DeJuSticia. “In general, these prisoners come from precarious social situations and became involved in these activities in order to meet their basic needs: food, housing and school fees.”

The study reveals that 98 percent of people deprived of freedom for drug-related crime between 2007 and 2009 did not play, or at least were not found guilty of playing, a major role in the drug trafficking networks:

According to statistics obtained from the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC), drug crimes account for the third most common reason for imprisonment. At the end of 2009, 12,616 people were behind bars for drug related crime, representing 17 percent of the country’s entire prison population. In order to analyze the level of participation in drug trafficking of the people imprisoned, the researchers developed a proxy indicator. This indicator is based on the idea that a person tried for simple possession of drugs, where there are no major links with trafficking networks, is not tried for “joinder of crimes,” in other words for various different crimes. Equally, any person who is largely involved in a criminal drug organization would be tried for an array of related offenses, as well as for “conspiracy to commit crime” or for agreeing with a third party to commit crimes or to be part of a criminal organization. However, between 2007 and 2009, of the total number of people imprisoned for drug-related crime (18,403 people), only 1,348 were tried for several different crimes. Of those 1,348 only 428 were tried for multiple offenses and “conspiracy to commit crime,” leading the researchers to conclude that in only 2 percent of cases were they able to prove existing links with organized crime groups.

Additionally, the study finds that there exists a kind of feminization of drug crime. While most people detained for drug offenses in Colombia are men, drug crimes are the leading reason for which women are imprisoned. The study shows that between 42 and 48 percent of the country’s female prison population are behind bars having been accused of drug offenses. The researchers interviewed around 30 women in order to better understand this phenomenon. “For the women interviewed, losing their freedom was a very low price to pay compared to the necessity of feeding their families,” says Diana Esther Guzmán, co-author of the Colombia chapter.

Imprisonment can result in families being torn apart and life projects shattered. “The vicious circle here is that imprisonment does not improve the conditions or work prospects of those who get into the ‘trade’ because of having little or no income,” says Guzmán.

“The drug policies do not take into account the huge impact a criminal record has on a person’s life,” says Uprinmy. “It’s as if once the judge hands down his sentence the problem is resolved, while the fact that the conditions which led the person to sell or smuggle drugs in the first place remain unchanged is totally ignored.”

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Systems OverloadAn unprecedented one-year comparative study of the drug laws and prison systems in eight Latin American countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.