Side Event: Drug Policy in Context: Poverty, Criminalization and Discrimination Against Women

Organized by ‘Equis: Justicia para Las Mujeres’ and co-sponsored by WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America).

Wednesday, March 16th, 2022

Speakers:

Nancy Carmona, Coordinator of Public Policy, EQUIS Justicia para Las Mujeres

Mónica Rebollo, Senior Public Policy Officer, EQUIS Justicia para Las Mujeres

Amaranta Valgañón, Senior Attorney – Strategic Litigation, EQUIS Justicia para Las Mujeres

Link to full event video: https://fb.watch/cbOZb_u6MB/

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Nancy Carmona, Coordinator of Public Policy, EQUIS Justicia para Las MujeresHello, a great morning to you all. EQUIS Justice for Women kindly welcomes you to this  space we have named “Drug Policy in Context: Poverty, Criminalization and Discrimination  Against Women”. Equis is a Mexican organization of the civil society with a decade’s worth of work to  improve public policy, the law, and the institutions so that women, especially those who  have historically been made invisible, may exercise their human rights free from violence  and discrimination. 

We do it, on one hand, with the conviction that the repressive focus, a tendency of the  State to use the penal system, is not effective in solving public issues since it avoids  addressing the structural causes that originate them and which, on the contrary, increases  the imprisoned population as well as the vulnerability of women, towns, and indigenous communities. We also do it because we look to raise their voices, because we want them to be heard. 

To start our program, I invite you to listen to the testimonies of three women growers of  poppy. Opium gum is derived from this plant, and it is used to make heroin and is also the base  ingredient to make other products used in the care of terminally ill patients. In Mexico, this is considered an illegal activity which is why the government has opted for  the destruction of the crops by fumigation.  The growth of poppy takes place in Guerrero and in the golden triangle, as it is called,  which is made up of the states of Durango, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa. For security reasons we will not mention the place where the women who shared their  experiences live, but it is important to mention that we are talking about hard-to-access  communities with dirt roads, and who, in general, live in poverty, have no coverage of  basic services like health, education, a sewer system, electricity nor water.  

In the testimonies you will find powerful references advantages and risks of this activity, what the effects of eradication policy are for women, their families and their communities, how they lived through the COVID-19 sanitary emergency and the call they make to the  authorities to consider their necessities and specific characteristics as well as those related  with their family responsibilities, marital status, household chores or the ownership of land, either through the design of alternative projects, community safety or the  improvement of their welfare conditions. 

Testimony 1: Well, we cultivate poppy because that’s what our parents taught us. They did it, they do it. And that work, well, they taught us how to do it. And that’s why we sow poppy, because we see it as a way of life. It’s something normal here. Well, the advantage it has, as we see it, sowing poppy it’s a source of income, to provide for our families. For us, that’s our job. 

Well, yes, the risks we have always had is that the government soldiers arrive sometimes and cut off the plants or fumigate and, well, previously if they find you in your field, well,  the soldiers take you away, they arrest you. It’s one of the risks we have or also if they cut off the plant or fumigate, may spoil your  harvest. We don’t get the product anymore and then we lose our investment. And yes, I would suggest to the government that if they don’t want us to sow poppy they  should support us with projects that are really worth it, to implement projects over here in  the sierra, for us, mainly for women because I feel that we are the ones suffering the most  in this case because there are a lot of single mothers who honestly, with great effort and  however they can, they provide for their children and I see that the men, there are more  opportunities for men, because to tell the truth, if a lot of them see they’re not making it, they go to the US, or whatever. 

But us as women it’s more complicated with children to leave our communities like to go  somewhere else, because we have to carry with everything, it’s not that easy, because, we need money to do that too.

Testimony 2: Well, we plant poppy because it’s the only inheritance in our families for more than fifty  years. To provide food and shelter for our families. We don’t have any more options and especially us as women, since there aren’t any  other work alternatives. The only way we have to earn a little money is, well, the maid  work and, well, here there aren’t many places where many people may want to hire you. Difficulties are greater every time. First is the plant destruction done by the soldiers. Then, well the helicopters fumigating and now to deal with the groups that arrived, that  set the buying and selling price of the product. Also, well the price of opium gum  nowadays is really low and we only have enough money to barely get by. 

I think that the way to eradicate the sowing it’s not the right one, because instead of the  government spending so much in helicopters, in liquids or sending the soldiers, they could  use the money for productive projects like for growing tomatoes, growing avocado, for  growing peaches, that could really help us earn money favoring the wealth we have here in the sierra. Us women wouldn’t have to take risks sowing poppy. 

Well, yes, honestly the pandemic affected us because we weren’t allowed to leave in  groups larger than four. Here, the people who are in charge here told us to stay in our  houses and therefore, no farming, we didn’t farm well the way we know how, leaving  behind great losses and as the severity of the pandemic passes, well, more work is being  done, putting up with the destruction of the plants by the government. That never,  despite the pandemic, never, ever stopped they never stopped destroying our little plants. 

Well, we must have the will and there must also be the willingness on behalf of the government to use money mainly for materials with the support of men and women as I was telling you, about the productive projects, that really benefit us and give welfare  to us and our families considering that they currently only support the men who own  plots with documents of land ownership. Something that as women we don’t have access to since here in our sierra there are many  of us mothers who are single or widows I well, I say that here in the sierra there needs to  be investment. A big investment on education, in schools, on health, and so more tan anything on those things, because, well, they have forgotten about us for more than forty  years that the government hasn’t turned to look over here, at us, to see how we are living.

And let’s not forget that for a long time we have been asking for their support to bring  peace to our community and welfare, because, well, we are very afraid and mostly because we have children. 

Testimony 3: Well, nobody, no one came out. I mean, we felt terrified. For example, the thing with the  pandemic and the sanitary restrictions that were given to us, they told us that we were  going to pay a fine if we, well, if we didn’t comply with the restrictions, with those sanitary  measures and then, well, there was no one able to work. Honestly, few people went to their lands. There wasn’t, there was not much movement  and, well, we got by with only the things we had at home, for example, well, we we raise  chickens, some of us have a couple of little goats and, well, from that, we keep going. 

Well yeah, it changed a lot because the people is now back planting with the hope that  resulting from the shortage, the price was going to rise. And, well, honestly, they took a risk. And now many have, at least a little. – No, no, I don’t say that what they harvest is a lot, some people, have like half kilo. – One kilo, well, it varies, right? a little more. 

Maybe they have more merchandise, but but, well now we realize that the price is very  low and besides well, they can’t take the merchandise out the town, because as we all  know, there are community members, there are armed people who are the ones who that  don’t allow the product to be sold somewhere else even when we know that in another  place, for example, in other towns farther away, might be someone who could buy, but,  well, we can’t take it out of the town. 

Nancy Carmona, Coordinator of Public Policy, EQUIS Justicia para Las MujeresI will now leave you with Monica Rebollo so that you can know more about the context of  indigenous women deprived of liberty for drug transportation.

Mónica Rebollo, Senior Public Policy Officer, EQUIS Justicia para Las MujeresGood morning. The research work of Equis with women formerly deprived of their  freedom, has, likewise, allowed for the documentation of how the punishment of  incarceration extends to the families, not only in terms of rejection or exclusion, but also puts them economically at risk and how the poverty that affected them before  incarceration can worsen their time in prison and hinders their opportunities for  reinsertion. 

We have highlighted the need for institutions to offer women options to continue their  educational path both in prison and after getting out, because it exists an offer for job  training, but only activities that are merely occupational. That facilitate getting their identification documents to have access to Jobs or benefit from  social programs, and finally to work on reverting the biases and stereotypes that prevail in  society, the media and among the authorities themselves. 

– Now we present you the testimony of an indigenous woman who was deprived of her  liberty for transporting drugs. You will learn from her own words what she did to obtain  resources for the sustenance of her family, what pushed her to participate in a crime and,  as time passed, what difficulties she has faced to attain family, community, and work  reinsertion.  

Testimony 4: Hello, I, before being deprived of my liberty I worked doing housework, house cleaning sometimes, making tortillas to sell cleaning houses, washing clothes I used to go babysit. Well, I did what was available each day, right? But that wasn’t enough to cover my  expenses, and especially in my case when you have a sick child. And the reason I was deprived of my freedom was for committing crimes against health by  transporting for which, I was condemned to ten years in prison. 

I gained my freedom after seven years for good behavior. Thanks to the help of other institutions was that I got an early release. I agreed to participate in a crime because unfortunately we are in a town where there are  no opportunities, where we are seen badly for being single mothers.I had two kids then, one of my kids was seriously ill, I had no other option. I didn’t have  any support, I didn’t have anyone to turn to, I was discriminated against for being a single  mother, also, if I asked a relative for help, I couldn’t get it. 

Why? 

Because of being a single mother and there weren’t any other opportunities. And fell in  the ignorance of not knowing to what extent committing a crime can affect you. Being free again well, was very hard and still is because of the discrimination and because  being out in parole. I haven’t done the entire sentence that I was given, so I don’t have political rights, in this case, like having an official ID which I really need for paperwork or to get a job. That’s the hard part, because when I had just got out from jail, well, I realized that we had lost everything, even the bed, the table, the dishes, absolutely everything. 

So, reconnecting with the family well, it was quite difficult to have to buy everything, having to look for a place to live. I couldn’t find a place to live, I struggled quite a lot because of the discrimination from people; first, for being a single mother. They are afraid that I rent their house and that they don’t know what could happen. And the other is because I’m, well, fresh out of jail. They were afraid that I could use their house as a drug warehouse,  like, well, what do I know, so many things. So, we really suffer a lot. We were about to sleep under a bridge because we couldn’t find  any place to rent. 

For me, the hardest part was getting ourselves together again. Children’s behavior as well in that regard it also affects you when they say: Why weren’t  you with me?, “I needed you”. Well, they are so many things, it’s a pretty difficult process, but little by little we are  assimilating it, and overcoming it. In my case, as a mother, my children go to school, I need my ID to apply to scholarships for  the children, I can’t get a scholarship because I don’t have an ID.I can’t get a well-paid job because I don’t have an ID. I can’t do paperwork because I don’t  have an ID, so that’s what I suggest to the authorities, to support us in that way, by not  continuing to limit us, not prohibiting our political rights additionally. 

In my case, as well as in the case of many women, we already paid for a crime, we spent  some time in jail and we still come out and continue in a process where we can’t have  access to our political rights, to get our voting card. That support doesn’t exist, they deny us, they discriminate us. So, that’s what I suggest, well, basically, like in that regard and to have counseling as well, for there to be something that can give us support. I don’t know, like, to at least get a loan to start a business. 

Mónica Rebollo, Senior Public Policy Officer, EQUIS Justicia para Las MujeresNext, I yield the floor to my colleague Amaranta Valgañón, who will emphasize the  importance of amnesties for women for indigenous women deprived of liberty for drug  offenses. Will mention the factors that determined their involvement and the obstacles to  benefiting from amnesties. Then, it will be followed by the the presentation of Araceli and Domitila’s videos. 

Amaranta Valgañón, Senior Attorney – Strategic Litigation, EQUIS Justicia para Las Mujeres: Thanks a lot, Mónica. Since its beginning, the war against drugs has had grave consequences for the population  in Mexico. Until this day, this strategy, which has been mostly mostly military centered,  has, so far, proved to have had no effect on curtailing the production, trafficking, and drug use. In addition to the repeated human rights violations, one of the biggest impacts of the war  on drugs has been the implementation of a punitive policy which has led to the unfair  imprisonment of people accused of crimes against health.

Women are among the main victims. In fact, crimes against health are one of the main causes of women imprisonment in Latin America considering that in Argentina, Brazil,  Costa Rica, and Peru, more than 60% of the imprisoned female population population is  deprived of their freedom because of crimes related with drugs. The team at EQUIS Justice for Women has registered an important increase of women who have entered the penitentiary system in Mexico, reaching an increase of 103.3% for  crimes against health. Likewise, we have identified that women play lower roles in the criminal echelons, which  means that they do not have a position of power within drug trafficking, nor do they  commit violent crimes or with firearms, and are frequently detained and imprisoned for  transporting or possession of small quantities of drugs. Similarly, the data shows us that women who are in prison for drug related crimes share a  profile, being mostly women in precarious situations, racialized, indigenous, with little or  no access to education, and, frequently, the ones who are solely responsible for their  households, including the care of their sons and daughters, and even the elderly. We also know that the reasons women become involved in drug trafficking are diverse,  finding among them, economic precariousness, lack of working opportunities, as well as the unequal power relations. A significant number of women deprived of liberty become involved in criminal activities  because they are forced by their couples or relatives to incur in such activities. 

Even though there is existing legislation in Mexico which allows people who are deprived  of their freedom to access a reduction of their time in prison, the reality is that the design  of the law does not take into account the particular context of women in prison, which is  why the implementation of alterative measures to imprisonment or the access to  mechanisms of early release, in cases where women accused of or sentenced for drug  related crimes in Mexico, finds constant barriers and, to date, said alternatives have failed  to reach the cases of these women who have been unfairly imprisoned. Because of this, since 2019 at EQUIS Justice for Women, we have forged alliances and  strategies to demand a legal mechanism from the State which allows the release of  women who have been victims of a war on drugs policy and which has also greatly  damaged our country, women, their families, and communities. We pose the need for comprehensive strategies of social reinsertion which use gender  perspective and recognize the importance of assessing the context of vulnerability wherein these women find themselves. 

Since its approval in 2020, the law of Amnesty was conceived as an act of justice, an  acknowledgement of alienated populations whose rights have been violated and who  have been historically marginalized. After 2 years of its approval, the enforcement of this law is of vital importance because in  doing so, a message of a new form of justice is sent, recognizing that the penal and jail  systems unfairly punish poverty and perpetuate discrimination against groups whose  rights have been historically violated. It is in this way that the law of Amnesty must not be understood as another mechanism of  excarceration but rather as the admission of failed militarization policies of Public Safety in  Mexico. 

Two years after its approval, the cases of Araceli and Domitila, two indigenous women  who are in prison today for transporting cannabis, who were forced by poverty, discrimination, the lack of job opportunities, and a context of violence and alienation in  Mexico, not only show the face of the “casualties of the war on drugs” but are a call to  social justice for all women in Mexico. Today, Araceli and Domitila remain in prison, in both cases, due to the fact that the law of  Amnesty in Mexico has been slow, lacking transparency and has not taken gender, the  context of marginalization nor the ethnic origin of these women into account in its  application. We make a call of attention to this law because it represents a breaking off from the policy  of persecution and criminalization in drug related crimes, but most of all because it  represents an act of justice for women battered by organized crime and the state’s public  policies. 

These are the stories of Araceli and Domitila. 

A SONG FOR JUSTICE:

“[Ariceli, accused of transporting 30kg of cannabis, is an indigenous Zapotec, originally from Miahuatlán, Oaxaca. Domitila, threatened into accepting to transport a suitcase of cannabis, is an indigenous Mazahua. They are both seamstresses. They both unjustly remain in prison.]

Domitila: I fell for this lie they told me. Innocent people, many do it out of necessity and others out of fear. In my case, I did it out of fear because they said, ‘I’m going to kill one of your children if you don’t do as I say’. Well they were after me for over a month and I finally said no: ‘Look, okay, nobody threatens me. Tell me how I can help you’. I thought that they were going to ask for money, but no, they didn’t want money, they talked specifically about transporting drugs.

Araceli: I was just fine in my home, but the need for damn money is what makes us do stupid things, and sometimes without realizing it, it leads us to other things. They offer me to deliver some suitcases to Mexico City. They would give me a thousand pesos (46 dollars) here (in Oaxaca) and a thousand pesos (46 dollars) once I deliver them to Mexico City. I just wanted to have that money for my mom’s hospital, you know?

[The Amnesty Law was passed on April 20th, 2020. This law considers women who have committed drug-related crimes as a result of necessity or threat. Araceli and Domitila, along with over 3 thousand other women who have been investigated, prosecuted, or sentenced for these types of crimes, may benefit from this law.]

Domitila: How long has it been since the amnesty was requested?

Viridiana (litigant): We submitted it on September 3rd last year, so it has been eight months.

Domitila: Eight months?! And how is it possible that they have not replied?

Viridiana (litigant): They haven’t said yes, but they haven’t said no either.

Domitila: Not positive or negative.

Viridiana (litigant): The law states that, if they don’t give you an answer, you will have to understand that the amnesty has been declined, but, we also know that the Amnesty Commission hasn’t met to resolve the cases. So, how should a person know (the amnesty) has been declined?

Domitila: It causes us a lot of anguish because you say: since the term of four months has passed, and another four months, and they still haven’t replied yes or no, you are still hopeful for a yes, or you are already expecting a no, you know?

Araceli’s Son: Yes, here she had her sewing workshop. We opened the curtain so she could work. She used to make ecologic bags, she repaired all kinds of clothing.

Domitila’s Sister: Well, we hope it won’t take her long to come back, so I can still be with her. Whenever she’s released, we will be waiting for her here.

Araceli’s Son: The support I received from her when she was out, was significant. I mean, she is my mother. We all did more together as a team. It’s not the same now. I have to care and provide for the whole family and it is a big load, more so because she (mama Paca) is ill. I would like for her to come back now.

Amaranta Valgañón, Senior Attorney – Strategic Litigation, EQUIS Justicia para Las MujeresBearing in mind all the above, spaces like this one represent a great opportunity to talk  about the impact punitive drug policies have had on Mexico and on the region, and to  discuss new perspectives to deal with a reality that is present in the territory today, among the youth, which has an impact on women’s lives and, most of all, in terms of  security and militarization. 

That is why we bring Araceli and Domitila’s stories to this space, two indigenous women  who unfairly remain in prison as a flagship that calls to justice for indigenous women, for  women and for the youth beaten and pierced by the war on drugs. Without a doubt, this is an additional place where at EQUIS Justice for Women, we want  to clearly position the cry #AmnestyNow. 

Thank you very much for your attention and participation in this event.

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