Drug charges have been dropped against a woman in Argentina who smuggled three kilograms of cocaine to pay for her son's lifesaving surgery – a rare case of prosecutors considering the circumstances that drive women to serve as drug mules.
A judge acquitted the unidentified 63-year-old woman of aggravated attempted narcotics smuggling charges after Prosecutor Miguel Ángel Palazzani told the court that the Attorney General's Office no longer wished to prosecute her, according to a recent news release.
The woman from Salta was arrested in February 2019 at the Cardenal Antonio Samoré International Pass, a border road that links Argentina and Chile. Authorities found her on a bus with 2.7 kilograms of cocaine taped to her body.
About three weeks before her arrest, the woman went to the Bolivian border city of Yacuíba to pick up the cocaine, according to the prosecutor, who said phone records show she was in communication with a Bolivian national, or someone with a phone from that country, while in transit.
During the hearing, Palazzani said that the Attorney General's Office had decided to drop the charges against the woman because she was at a "social disadvantage" and in "desperate need" of funds due to her son's medical needs.
Her son had suffered a punctured liver while playing soccer, according to Argentine news outlet elDiarioAR. After various surgeries to repair the damage failed, he required an additional operation that was not available in public hospitals, forcing the woman to turn to surgeons at expensive private hospitals that she couldn't afford.
Before the woman agreed to be a drug mule, she had sold everything of value and taken every path possible to raise funds for the operation, according to Palazzani, who said she was also "the principal economic and emotional supporter of her family," which allowed others to prey on her desperation and vulnerability.
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The woman's acquittal is a small victory for judicial reform advocates who have long said prosecutors should look at family and financial circumstances when prosecuting women on drug-related crimes.
As Argentina has cracked down on drug trafficking, the number of women behind bars has grown. From 1990 to 2012, the number of female prisoners in Argentina nearly doubled. Over half the women in prison in 2012 had been charged with drug crimes.
Of these women, nearly 90 percent said they had committed the crime out of economic necessity due to being a single mother or the prime breadwinner, according to a report by Cornell University and the Argentina Attorney General's Office.
Despite this information, "judges do not usually consider the family situation of women, particularly their sons and daughters, at the time of ruling on preventative detention, as well as during the judicial process," according to a report by Argentina's prison ombudsman (Procuración Penitenciaria de la Nación – PPN).
Mexican women experience similar fates. According to a report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), more than half of imprisoned women remained in pre-trial detention for long periods of time before going to trial. With 62 percent of them being first-time offenders on drug charges and 24 percent being single parents, the judicial system failed to consider the factors that led them to drug trafficking, leaving families to suffer the consequences of long-time imprisonment.
It remains to be seen whether the case of the Salta women is part of a broader effort by Argentina's Attorney General's Office to take gender into account when choosing to prosecute.
Palazzani was unequivocal in the hearing that he believes the criminal justice system should consider it, telling the judge that "a judicial decision that lacks a gender perspective is inadmissible in light of the obligations assumed by the State in relation to the protection of women." He then spoke about how women employed as drug mules are not only desperate but turned into criminals by simply being the weakest link in the trafficking chain.
"The man is involved but frequently remains unpunished, benefiting from the illegal work of the woman,” he said.
The Salta woman, though, provided a stark narrative for the prosecutor. She became a drug mule to save her son. Most cases won't be so cut and dried.