Menus Subscribe Search
drug-trafficking-jail

(PHOTO: BORTN66/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Is Drug Trafficking Worse Than Murder?

• May 13, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: BORTN66/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Data from the war on low-level drug offenders.

In Ecuador, an impoverished woman plans to sell 335 grams of a drug she cannot even identify. She’s caught. Her sentence? Eight years in prison. In Mexico, a woman finds heroin planted in her suitcase. Her punishment? Twenty-two years behind bars. In Bolivia, a man stomps coca, the first step in the process to make cocaine. His penalty? Ten years.

Mexico, Bolivia, and Ecuador are nations where the minimum and maximum penalties for drug traffickers are longer than those given to murderers.

For years, Latin American governments have been dishing out increasingly harsh punishments to people convicted of drug-related crimes, including those convicted of low-level offenses—possession of, say, 50 grams of marijuana. While anecdotal evidence has often pointed toward this pattern, a new study conducted by Dejusticia, a Colombian research and advocacy group, documents this trend and comes to a harsh conclusion: “In three of the seven countries surveyed, drug trafficking garnered longer maximum and minimum penalties than murder.” In all countries studied, “the maximum penalty for drug trafficking is nearly equal to or, in most cases, greater than the maximum for rape.”

“That, for me, was the most shocking data that we found,” explains Rodrigo Uprimny, the director of Dejusticia and one of the study’s authors. Uprimny and his two co-authors found that many countries make no distinction between “very, very small drug traffickers” and those selling “hundreds of kilos of cocaine.” From the report: “In a few cases, a small-scale marihuana [sic] dealer is punished as if he were Pablo Escobar.”

The study analyzes drug crime laws in seven places—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico—and highlights two trends.

First: Researchers document a sizable increase in the number of drug-related conducts criminalized. Fifty years ago, governments in these seven countries used just 67 descriptive verbs to describe a drug-related crime. Today, that number is 344.

Second: The study shows a dramatic increase in the length of mandated minimum and maximum prison terms for drug-related conducts. In all seven countries, the average maximum sentence for a drug offense increased from 34 years in prison in 1950 to 141 years today. Peru is the country with the most marked upward trend; in less than 60 years, the highest minimum (yes, minimum) penalty for a drug crime increased from two to 25 years.

Mexico, Bolivia, and Ecuador are the nations where the minimum and maximum penalties for drug traffickers are longer than those given to murderers.

(GRAPH: THE WASHINGTON OFFICE ON LATIN AMERICA)

(GRAPH: THE WASHINGTON OFFICE ON LATIN AMERICA)

The study does not address whether these policies had any benefits in curtailing drug crime. But the report’s authors conclude with an urgent call for reform.

Governments “should favor harm-reduction policies over punitive policies,” they write. “The weak links in the drug chain must receive government protection rather than excessive punishment, and the possible harm associated with psychoactive substances should be minimized through an approach based on public health and alternative development, not criminal punishment and the use of force.”

This tough-on-drug-crime approach, says Uprimny, originated in the north. Latin American countries, he says, have a tradition of shorter, lighter sentences. But as punishments for drug crime in the United States became harsher, so too, did those in Latin America. “It’s politically very useful for politicians,” says Uprimny. “You can win votes saying that you’re going to get tough on drugs. You are seen by the population as a person that is really interested in protecting kids and teenagers, even if the concrete effect might be the opposite one.”

What does he mean?

Analia Silva is the Ecuadorian woman imprisoned in 2003 after authorities caught her with an unidentified drug she had planned to sell. She is a single mother. “Eight years of being without your children,” she says, speaking in a video produced by the Transnational Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America, “and eight years for them without me. Because when they sentenced me—and it’s the same for every woman they sentence—they do not only sentence the person who committed the crime, they also sentence their family, they also sentence their children.”

“They want to get rid of crime,” Silva continues, “but they are the ones promoting it. If my children are left alone, what can they do? Go and steal. My daughter becomes a prostitute, my son a drug addict, a drug dealer.”

There are small signs of movement away from a punitive approach to drug crime, both in the United States and in Latin America. In 2006, while Silva was in prison, Ecuador reviewed its drug policies, declared them unjust, then pardoned about 2,000 people convicted of offenses, including Silva.

In end the end, she served about five years.

Other countries, like Argentina and Colombia, have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs. (The amount and the type of drug varies from place to place.) Still others are working to do so. (Often, though, the amount decriminalized is so nominal that users and low-level sellers are still arrested for possessing a substance.)

“These are not dramatic changes, but are important changes,” says Uprimny. “In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the very punitive U.S.A. approach had terrible consequences on establishing, in Latin America, a very punitive approach. Maybe now we could have the contrary story. That some reforms in the United States might support some reforms in Latin America. And visa versa.”

“But that’s a hope,” he continued, “more than an academic analysis.”

Julie Turkewitz
Julie is a journalist with a deep commitment to exploring the roots of social injustice. She is a contributor to The New York Times and The Atlantic. Previously, she wrote about AIDS and homelessness for the non-profit Housing Works.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.


August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.


August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.


August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?



Follow us


Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.