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How The Drug War Unfairly Punishes Female Drug ‘Mules’

While it’s not exactly breaking news, we need to address it. The drug war abuses exploited women. But it’s not just the narcos who are at fault here.

Chris Roberts

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How The Drug War Abuses Exploited Women Twice

It should come as no surprise that the drug war abuses exploited women. And it’s not just the narcos who take advantage of their desperation for income. It’s also the law enforcement officers and court systems who prosecute them. It seems that the drug war, and by extension prohibition, is incredibly harmful to women. Here’s how.

The Food Chain

How The Drug War Abuses Exploited Women Twice

Exact rationales for entering the illegal drug-trafficking game may differ. But from the capo lounging in his villa down to the tout hustling on his corner, everyone shares one imperative in common. Economics. Absent the profits in cocaine, Chapo Guzman and the cartels would be slinging Keurig machines.

But there’s a caste system at play. The lower down you are on the food chain, the less likely you are to be motivated by the pursuit of fabulous riches than you are by pure survival. In 1991, during the worst of the crack epidemic, when gangs and the inner-city were portrayed as a dystopian wasteland full of stone-cold killers, the New York Times profiled a Harlem dealer, who injected white suburbia with a dose of hard, relatable reality. He was working to feed his family.

Involvement often implies desperation. Desperation makes you vulnerable to exploitation. You’re more likely to assume most of the common and absolutely dangerous risk involved.

Like most everywhere else in society, the risk only increases if you’re a woman. And women have it doubly bad. And if you’re one of the vulnerable women exploited into working for the cartels as a human smuggling machine—a drug mule—you’re also more likely than the capo to receive punishment from the justice system, studies show.

Thanks in part to portrayals in the media, you may associate women drug mules with the South and Central American cocaine trade. That would be a mistake. Women from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia are also coerced into using their bodies as cargo compartments. Whatever language they sing, it’s a variation of the same song.

Law and Disorder

How The Drug War Abuses Exploited Women Twice

Law-enforcement crackdowns on men compelled traffickers to turn to women. And in women, who earn less and have less opportunity to earn it, and are often motivated by family or health emergencies are prime victims.

“We don’t do it because we’re going to become millionaires but because we’re desperate,” as Nelsy, one of the women profiled in the 2011 documentary Cocaine Unwrapped, told her interviewers. Nelsy is a single mother of four children from Ecuador. Nelsy swallowed dozens of “pepas,” capsules containing cocaine, heroin, or other drugs.

Another woman, Lucy, stuffed her vagina full of “aguacantes,” avocado-shaped drug canisters, after seeing a neighbor make what she thought was easy money. Within months, authorities caught her. The courts sentenced her to 15 years in a Mexican prison.

More and more women in the drug trade are meeting the same fate. And because the drug war abuses exploited women, they are more likely to be jailed than men. According to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), the number of women serving time in prison for drug-related crimes in Argentina surged by 271 percent through the 1990s and 2000s. It’s almost three times the rate of increase for men.

Can There Be Justice?

How The Drug War Abuses Exploited Women Twice

In Chile, according to NACLA, 68 percent of women in prison are there for drugs compared to 26 percent of men, and “almost without exception these women represent the lowest rung of labor in the drug trade.” Some researchers also dispute the “mafia myth” of big shots controlling everything and point to a vast network of low-level, independent contractors ferrying the world’s drugs from country to country. It ranges from taking orders from a narcotrafficante with a pet tiger to accepting a package from the dude down the way. All over the world, an over-representation of women committing drug crimes exists in prison. Despite clear recognition that low-level traffickers are there out of pure necessity. They didn’t necessarily make any “choice” to commit a crime.

So why hasn’t the justice system figured out this obvious example of rank gender inequality—with the additional irony of unfair and biased punishment from the very people whose jobs it is to administer justice— and adjusted appropriately?

Nayeli Urquiza Haas, a researcher at the University of Kent in England, has a theory. Some courts do grant arrested women “victim status,” and they receive lighter punishment as a result, according to a summation of Haas’s work. That’s better than incarcerating them for decades, but it still misses the point. That system still punishes the victims. Essentially, the drug war abuses exploited women.

Final Hit: How The Drug War Abuses Exploited Women Twice

Let’s try an imperfect but workable analogy. Victims of physical violence, rape, or other situations not of their own making aren’t always recognized as victims. As Haas argues in a paper published earlier this year in the Howard Journal of Crime and Justice, prosecuting women less lightly for participating in the drug war—and without any making any movement towards addressing the conditions that are putting them in that position in the first place—ensures that the rotten system and its disproportionate victims will remain intact, unchanged.

As long as there’s money to be made, people will deal drugs. This is the most basic key fact about the drug war. And as long as women earn less and are more vulnerable, there will always be more women working as mules. And women going to jail.

It’s the same conveyor belt of incarceration, with an extra dose of blithe inhumanity for our mothers, sisters, and daughters. The drug war abuses exploited women. Think about this the next time you sniff a bump of cocaine—particularly if you’re a lawmaker perpetuating this abuse.

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