Ecuador has released some 500 jailed drug "mules" as part of a new policy that sees them as victims, not just criminals, a progressive shift away from many international strictures that target the lowest rungs in the trafficking chain, in a move that will free up space in the country's overcrowded prisons.
Under the country's new criminal law, which was approved in January and went into effect on August 10, a person caught with under 50 grams of drugs can receive up to six months in prison, and a person smuggling up to two kilos may receive up to three years. Only those moving more than five kilos will receive a heftier sentence of as many as 13 years in prison, reported GlobalPost.
This is a marked difference from previous legislation that placed a blanket penalty on anyone moving up to 20 kilos, no matter how small the amount: eight to 12 years in prison.
Jorge Paladines, the national coordinator of Ecuador's Public Defender's Office, told GlobalPost there is now "a policy of seeing mules as victims of the drug trade."
Another 2,000 drug couriers are expected to be released in addition to the 500 whose sentences have already been cut short.
In order to receive a sentence reduction under the new policy, prisoners must attend a court hearing.
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Ecuador's new policy stands in sharp contrast to the traditional heavy-handed treatment of low-level drug offenders seen in the US-led "war on drugs," and could represent a major step toward changing such perceptions. A shift in policy could also help address prison overcrowding, a problem throughout the region. Ecuador's prison population more than doubled between 2009 and 2013, an increase that coincided with rising cocaine seizures as the country has solidified as a drug transit point -- likely fueling a growth in drug "mules."
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy
These couriers -- who may swallow cocaine capsules, attach the drug to their bodies or attempt to carry it in luggage -- engage in one of the more high-risk jobs in the drug trade. They are generally socially and economically vulnerable populations, as noted by GlobalPost senior correspondent Simeon Tegel in a conversation with Huff Post Live. Many are women: the number of Latin American women in prison rose dramatically between 2006 and 2011, with more than two thirds jailed on drug charges.
Additionally, some people employed as mules by drug trafficking groups do not act of their own volition.
It does seem the policy tides are beginning to turn in recognition of these issues. Even the United States has begun moving towards a treatment-based regime for drug users -- who form part of the same gamut of low-level offenders as mules -- and officials have called for focusing on the violent, major traffickers that impact public safety. However, progressive rhetoric regarding non-violent drug offenses is not always matched by legislation.