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Is Latin America punishing nonviolent drug offenders too harshly?

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Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

(Read caption) Inmates walk inside the state prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, last month. Punishments in Latin America for drug-related crimes – cultivation, use, or trafficking – have become as severe as those for violent offenses, a new report reveals.

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If Latin American justice systems struggle with terribly high impunity rates, if penal systems are so often plagued with problems of severe overcrowding, why do countries in the region frequently punish nonviolent drug possession and trafficking harsher than even rape or murder?

A new report reveals that punishments in Latin America for drug-related crimes – cultivation, use, or trafficking – have become as severe as those for violent offenses. Sometimes even more so.

The maximum sentence for drug trafficking in Bolivia is 25 years, compared with 20 years for homicide. Colombia’s maximum sentence for drug trafficking is 30 years, while the maximum punishment for rape stands at 20 years. And minimum sentences for drug-related crimes in Peru climbed from 2 years in 1970 to 25 years today.

The report, “A Punitive Addiction: The Disproportionality of Drug Laws in Latin America,” produced by the Bogotá-based Center for Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia), tracks the path of seven Latin American countries in creating anti-drug legislation.

The number of laws and the severity of penalties attributed to drug production, consumption, trafficking, or sale, have risen steadily since the 1950s. That’s left the region with a penal system that disproportionately attacks nonviolent drug-related crimes, the Dejusticia researchers say.

“This greater severity with which drug-related crimes are repressed ... doesn’t meet any criteria of proportionality,” meaning the punishment matches the infraction, according to the report.

'Sentencing family'

Minimum and maximum sentences for drug crimes in Latin America have climbed sharply since the 1980s – around the same time the United States launched the so-called “war on drugs” and pressured the region, especially producer nations, to join the fight.

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