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US Military Aid Destroys Lives of Women in Latin America

By Sara Velimirovic

In Latin America, between 2006 and 2011, the female prison population increased from 40,000 to more than 74,000, according to a new report. This staggering statistic is a direct result of US foreign policy, which has become an instrument of injustice in Latin America.

On July 17th, the Washington Office on Latin America organized a congressional briefing about the impact of mass incarceration on women in the Americas to discuss opportunities for sentencing reform. One of the speakers, Luciana Boiteux, a Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology at the Faculty of Law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, discussed the staggering statistics about incarceration of women in Brazil.

According to Boiteux, Brazil has the fourth largest prison population in the world, which increased seven times since late 1970s – right around the time when the US started exporting the tough-on-crime approach to drugs to Latin America. Professor Boiteux indicated that drug trafficking is the second most common felony for which prisoners are locked up in Brazil.

While it is not news that Brazil’s mass incarceration problem is a direct result of the US-championed War on Drugs, we keep revealing it’s new devastating effects on populations in Latin America. A new report by the Open Society Foundation looks closely at the impact of drug policy on women in particular, by outlining issues specific to this portion of the population.

“A large proportion of [women are] imprisoned for committing offenses related to drug trafficking, in particular for transporting drugs (mules) at the request of their partners,” according to the report.

Further, Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice as Healing pointed out during the panel to a phenomenon termed “the girlfriend problem” – a case when a woman simply affiliated with a drug dealer ends up serving more time than him. In this case, while the women is indicted because she drove a car of her partner or was present during the planning of large-scale deals, the man is able to reduce his sentence in negotiating with the police because of having valuable information about the drug deal. As UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo, noted in 2013: “Women who commit relatively low-level drug crimes find themselves serving prison time while more serious offenders often escape imprisonment by entering into plea-bargaining deals.”

Combined with the fact that many incarcerated women are principal caregivers of children, unemployed, and of low socioeconomic status, the prison punishment ends up being “not a matter of criminal reasons, but of social exclusion,” indicated Boiteux. The War on Drugs, she concludes, “is a war on black and poor women,” illustrating how the law has come to be an instrument of injustice.

How is US involved in this injustice?

While it is well-known that US helped Latin American countries institute War on Drugs policies in the 1970s and 1980s, many people remain unaware that the US continues this ‘help’ today. For instance, U.S. counternarcotics aid to Brazil “amounted to $2 million in FY2011, $3.5 million in FY2012, and $1.9 million in FY2013.” This included trainings of Brazilian police as part of the foreign activities of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

While the main budget of the DEA comes from the Department of Justice, their foreign intervention programs are funded by another branch – the US State Department. The liaison between these two offices is the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL). This office helps train and educate enforcement agencies in countries such as Brazil, whose detrimental criminal justice policy is ruining the lives of many of its women.

While the data shows that US foreign policy has become an instrument of injustice, there is hope on the horizon. Criminal justice reform has recently occupied the US public eye and the issue is increasingly linked with the detrimental results of the War on Drugs. President Obama’s recent commutation of sentences for 46 drug offenders in US shows how important this moment is to change unjust laws not only in the US, but in Latin America, too.

Finally, in the face of devastating effects that drug war policies have had on women in Latin America, it is the right time to cry out for change and stop the use of US military aid for unjust causes.


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