The Real Meaning of Thousands Arrested on Drug Charges

Monday, October 4, 2010

carcelOn September 29, 2010 the Associated Press (AP) published an article entitled Ecuador: Almost 3,000 Detained for Narco-Trafficking in Eight Months.   The article, which states how many were arrested for possession and how many for international trafficking, insinuates that such large numbers of people detained on drug charges indicates that Ecuador is playing a key role in decreasing the amount of illicit drugs that are trafficked in the Andean region.   However, the key questions to ask after reading the article are: who are these 3000 people and has their detention led to an actual decrease in the movement of drugs through Ecuador?

First, it must be noted that while Ecuador has become an important transit country for illicit drugs, it has never been known as a significant producer or trafficker of illicit drugs nor does it have a dynamic domestic drug market. However, for nearly two decades, Ecuador has had one of the most draconian drug laws in Latin America.  The law is extremely punitive and results in sentences disproportionate to the offense, contradicts due process guarantees and violates the constitutional rights of the accused.  The law’s central focus is on enforcement.  The success of that enforcement, as clearly exemplified in the AP article, is often measured by the number of people arrested on drug charges - not on the diminishment of the amount of drugs transited through Ecuador.  Under Ecuador’s drug law, at several periods during its implementation, almost fifty percent of all prisoners in Ecuador were incarcerated on drug charges. However, during the same time periods, the highest percentage of legal complaints by Ecuadorian citizens originated from robbery and personal assaults.  Due to political realities and international pressures, Ecuador’s police and judicial system have often emphasized enforcing its drug law over those laws governing the security concerns of its citizens.

Who makes up this large percentage of persons imprisoned under Ecuador’s draconian drug law?  Prison statistics show that a majority of those imprisoned under drug charges are problematic drug users, the poor, and members of minority groups.  Women are also disproportionately represented.  Between 2002 and 2008, up to eighty percent of women imprisoned in Ecuador were there on drug charges.  A police force that suffers from a weak infrastructure and lack of resources tends to target those easiest to detain.  And, although the press in Ecuador has written ad infinitum about a major drug-trafficker recently arrested in the country, it is still rare to find those in charge of drug trafficking enterprises detained in Ecuador’s prisons.  

Many of those from marginalized sectors of society arrested under Ecuador’s drug law entered into what is called micro-trafficking for quick, easy money.  In 2004, fifty point five percent of all detainees had no determined occupation at the time of their arrest.  Forty nine percent stated that they had a defined occupation but were unemployed.  That same year, less than forty five percent of those imprisoned had completed elementary schooling and just fewer than forty four percent had completed high school.  Four years later, in 2008, the common profile of a detainee in any prison in Ecuador was basically still the same.  This is not the profile of someone who leads an internationally coordinated and profitable drug trafficking enterprise.  

The police can detain three micro-traffickers one day and the next day, highly placed drug traffickers will hire five more to ensure that the drugs arrive to their intended destinations.  Ecuadorian police can even detain three thousand persons on drug charges in eight months.  However, the arrest of thousands on drug charges in Ecuador tells us nothing about the control of illicit drugs transiting through the Andean region and beyond.