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OAS Holds Debate on “Women, Drug Policy and Incarceration in the Americas”

  March 31, 2014

The Organization of American States (OAS) today hosted a Policy Roundtable on the topic “Women, Drug Policy and Incarceration in the Americas,” at the headquarters of the hemispheric institution in Washington DC, in which the report of the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) titled “Women and drugs in the Americas: a policy working paper” was presented.

The Executive Secretary of the CIM of the OAS, Carmen Moreno, highlighted in her presentation, among other aspects, that the female prison population has grown at a greater rate than the male population in Latin America, that the majority are imprisoned for drug related crimes, and that 80 percent are in preventative prison. “This is a critical indicator of the overload our justice systems are facing, caused in large part by the hemispheric drug problem,” said Ambassador Moreno.

“The tendency to penalize in a special and often disproportionate way crimes related to drugs has contributed to the significant increase in the number of women imprisoned in the region,” said the Executive Secretary of the CIM, and expressed her hope that, with mechanisms like the Roundtable, “we can move forward in addressing this issue, from a focus on human rights, gender equality, and sustainable development, particularly heading toward the Special OAS General Assembly which will be held this September in Guatemala to continue the debate over drugs and their impact in the Americas.”

The keynote presentation of the Roundtable was delivered by Gabriela Olivera, from the National Secretariat for Drugs of Uruguay, who spoke of the experiences of her country on the issue, the importance of alliances with civil society, and the study on the relationship between Uruguayan women and microtrafficking networks carried out by her office. Olivera explained that in her country “there is in the National Secretariat for Drugs a Secretariat for Gender that has as its aim the transversalization of the aspects and foci of gender in drug policies, above all in the practice in programs of prevention, treatment and reintegration.”

Olivera said many times women imprisoned for drug crimes “have been transgressors, have committed a crime and have been punished disproportionately for this crime, much more so than men,” and that this dynamic owes a great deal to gender relationships in society. “If a man does not comply with an order, he is going to receive a punishment, or he may not go to prison. But the judge looks at a women with different eyes,” which often results in disproportionate sentences.

The Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the OAS, Milton Romani, emphasized the need to debate the problems caused by what he called “a repressive focus on the issue of drugs.” Ambassador Romani recalled that his country “is betting on regulation of the market for cannabis with different means of supervision,” conscious that “we must analyze the current model” which imprisons “the most vulnerable people.”

In the second part of the event, Coletta Youngers, Main Advisor of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Consultant to the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) moderated a discussion panel which featured Olivera; Corina Giacomello of the IDPC; Nischa Pieris of the CIM; and Rosa Julia Leyva, of the National Commission on Security of the Interior Ministry of Mexico.

Nischa Pieris presented some of the indicators in the CIM study “Women and drugs in the Americas: a policy working paper,” which resulted from the need to seek more and better data on the issue of women in the production, commercialization and consumption of illicit drugs and their social impact. “We hope that the recommendations in our report will hope to promote policy changes from a gender perspective” said Pieris, and added that “the idea is to translate the information into action.”

For her part, Corina Giacomello said “the prison is a social evil, and until we can rid ourselves of it, we must try to make it a little bit better.” Giacomello urged “reversing the logic of our approach, because the people who have wound up in jail for this war on drugs are the people who occupy the inferior positions and are treated like object by organized crime organizations, and by the judicial system as well.”

Rosa Julia Leyva, from the National Commission for Security of the Interior Ministry of Mexico, related her experiences first while being unfairly imprisoned for more than 12 years for drug crimes, and later as a participant in a reintegration program carried out by the Government of Mexico. Leyva, who now works in programs of art and theater with imprisoned people in her country said “I firmly believe that, instead of making prisons, we should prevent that people wind up there.”

The concluding remarks for the event were delivered by Paulina Duarte, Director of the Department of Public Security of the OAS, who agreed with the CIM report in that “the women who have low socioeconomic and educational levels are the group most likely to become drug producers, traffickers, or ‘mules’”. She warned “the growth in their participation is worrying, not only for their involvement in illicit chains of distribution, but also in the increase of their own consumption.” Director Duarte added that to break the vicious cycle of violence brought by criminal activities related to drugs “will depend on the reduction of their economic and social vulnerability, which requires special attention by states and civil society.”

A gallery of photos of the event is available here.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-123/14