Recent reports on drug laws in Latin America point towards a harsh cycle of ever increasing punishment that fails to achieve security objectives and fills prisons.

A report (pdf) by the Wilson Center entitled “Tough on the Weak, Weak on the Tough,” and a new study by the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (CEDD), outline how drugs laws have warped policing in Latin America. For a variety of reasons citizen security has taken a backseat to boosting key crime statistics, while inadvertently shielding high-level criminals and disproportionately punishing society’s most vulnerable.

According to Wilson Center author Juan Carlos Garzon Vergara, many under-funded and under-trained security forces in Latin America already suffer from a perception of corruption and inefficiency. The “war on drugs” has made this worse by incentivizing police and governments towards progressively increasing arrest and seizure statistics, which they hold up as evidence of doing their job. This creates a host of problems, such as police overstating the importance of captured criminals, inflating drug seizure statistics, and arresting as many people as possible. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

In pursuing these arrests, Latin American police often go after drug users and people from the lowest ranks of the drug trade. These two groups are generally the easiest to arrest as they are more numerous and less protected than high-level criminals, and are frequently caught in flagrant violations such as possessing or selling drugs on the street. This type of arrest requires little or no investigation, compared to the sophisticated police work needed to take down high-level criminals, Garzon explained. 

Making matters worse, this approach is often accompanied by the use of militarized police units or actual soldiers, and has been linked to instances of excessive force and human rights abuses, Garzon added. 

In Brazil, this has coincided with a 37 percent yearly rise in police killings, according to local NGO Brazilian Forum on Public Security. Meanwhile, in El Salvador, police officials encourage their officers to use their weapons with “complete confidence,” and describe the country’s security situation as a “war.” 

These arrests and abuses disproportionately fall on homeless populations, marginalized youth, migrants, women, and in some countries, black populations, according to the reports. Officers are generally afforded a large amount of discretion in how to deal with individual law breakers, creating opportunity for prejudiced policing. Meanwhile, populations are often more accepting of harsh police actions when they are meted out to groups who have been stereotyped as criminals, Garzon said. 

One of CEDD’s studies specifically focusing on women found the majority of female drug incarcerations were for low-level dealing or transportation. Additionally, the common profile of these women was young single mothers with little education, and often of an ethnic minority. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

In another example, a report by Brazil’s National Youth Secretariat (pdf) found local prison populations had increased by more than 200,000 inmates between 2005 and 2012, with more than 60 percent of those inmates being black youths. 

Moreover, this blanket repression has failed to bring down high-level criminals. Police in many Latin American nations have proven vulnerable to threats and corruption from organized crime, and in some cases have even participated in drug trafficking, Garzon said. 

The UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has been cited as saying 90 percent of all Guatemalan police have taken a bribe from organized crime at least once. Meanwhile, an entire police force resigned in Mexico’s Guerrero state in 2013 due to threats from criminal groups. 

Threats and corruption, combined with police focus on drug users and low-level criminals, has granted organized crime a layer of protection, Garzon said. Reflecting this, only one out of every 3,000 people imprisoned in the region for drug-related offenses is serving time for money laundering, according to a United Nation’s Human Development Report (pdf).

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While many experts, and even some government officials in Latin America, have acknowledged the warping effects of current drug laws on policing in the region, real change has been slow in coming. 

Some countries have taken steps to reduce incarceration of drug users by decriminalizing or finding alternatives to prison for personal possession of drugs. However, police continue to confiscate drugs to help boost seizure statistics, and frequently choose to continue arresting drug users in nation’s where personal possession thresholds have not been set, Garzon said. The results is that drug offenders continue to be the fastest growing segment of prison populations in Latin America, even in nation’s which have decriminalized drug possession, CEDD’s study found.

Truly shifting Latin America’s focus away from drug users and low-level criminals will require systemic change instead of piecemeal legislative measures. Unfortunately many politicians have come to rely on heavy-handed strategies in dealing with drugs, which often play well with voters. The go-to solution is always stronger enforcement and stricter penalties. And when those fail to produce results, political leaders simple increase the “dosage” creating what both Garzon and the CEDD termed “an addiction to punishment.” 

Unfortunately attempting to cure this addiction may be politically unpalatable, as evidenced by Ecuador’s recent reversal on progressive drug laws. The situation is complicated even further by the region’s major security ally the United States, which according to Garzon, has spent around $12.5 billion in Latin America since 2000 on security programs that reinforce these skewed enforcement priorities. 

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