The Americas: drug trafficking routes and pathways to prison

By Eliane Martinez.

The history of prisons in the Americas is one of traffic from South to North and North to South: trade of goods, humans and knowledge.

Trade of goods: for 30 years, the drug trade has been ravaging the most vulnerable communities on the American continent. The "war on drugs" policy implemented by the United States and imitated by Latin American governments, has focused mainly on the weakest links in the trafficking chain: people in extremely vulnerable situations, single mothers or inexperienced young people.

The severities of the sentences imposed far outweigh the severity of the offenses: someone arrested with a few grams of cannabis can be sentenced to several years in prison, whereas other countries have decriminalized such violations.

Trade of humans: concerns, first and foremost, offenders imprisoned in a foreign country for drug trafficking. But, since the 1990's, it also involves deportation of young Salvadorans and Hondurans back to their country of origin. These youths were members of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs born in the outskirts of Los Angeles.

The policy of massive incarceration, implemented by governments, only hardened these youths to recommence their criminal operations once back in their country of origin. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have seen sharp rises in homicide rates as a result.

Trade in knowledge: in the past ten years, there has been a third form of trade in the region: that of incarceration techniques. The U.S.-style prison, and especially that of "supermax" prisons, has been gradually introduced in Mexico, Honduras, Panama and Colombia.

These prisons ensue from a public-private partnership which is often opaque. They establish a U.S.-style form of isolation, solitary confinement, and extreme desocialization of individuals who are deprived of their freedom.

Venezuela and Guatemala are the only Latin American countries featured on our website which do not follow the policies of the U.S. corrections system. Their penitentiaries, controlled by armed gangs, are also riddled with arbitrariness and the rule of might makes right.

Neither the absence of the public sector in the operation of prisons, nor massive and dehumanizing incarceration, will bring a lasting solution to the constant violence which characterizes Latin America.

Within the context of the drug trade from South to North, an exchange of knowledge can provide answers to the problem of traffic in goods and humans. However, the aim is not to better incarcerate, but to better liberate.

Published on 23 March 2017.
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