“What did you come to buy? Love or fear?” That’s what Carmela Rodríguez Reyes used to ask people who approached her on the street she worked on.
When asked what she means by “love,” she answers: a friend with whom to hang out, chat, grab a bite. But most people came for the “fear,” miedo, she says. That’s slang for crack cocaine – that’s what she was selling. “It’s called that because you constantly feel afraid of running out. Afraid of not knowing how to keep scoring.Yeah. That’s the fear.”
The fear had a hold on her, too. Today, the 32-year-old single mother is serving time – two years and eight months in Women’s Prison Tepozanes – not far from the Mexico City streets she knows so well.
Rodríguez remembers the day of her arrest. She was selling crack at her usual post. The authorities came looking for her boyfriend. She says he directed them to her. “He told them it was me, that I was selling. Yeah, he threw me under the bus.” Rodríguez says the officers beat her and detained her. Her now ex-boyfriend, she says, wasn’t arrested that day. Rodriguez doesn’t know if he’s still dealing drugs.
In Mexico, where a deadly, two decades-long war on drugs is under way, the rate of women being locked up for drug-related crimes is on the rise: A recent study by the feminist organization, Equis, found a 103.3 per cent increase in women in prison just between 2014 and 2016. This reflects a larger trend throughout Latin America.
The number of women in prison climbed 51.6% between 2000 and 2015 – compared with 20% for men.
There is a growing domestic market for illegal drugs – while the popular adage used to be that Mexico simply produced what America demanded, addiction is largely on the rise here. And in a country where nearly half the population remains under the poverty line, many see this business as a worthwhile risk.
Women are attractive as foot soldiers for drug sales – single mothers, in particular. “Drug traffickers like reliable people,” explains Professor Raul Benítez Manaut, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who studies drug trafficking and policy.
He says the elderly are also sought after because they are less likely to be harassed by police or sent to jail. But the foot soldiers are also among the first to be targeted in crackdowns.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has promised to end violence against civilians. His administration has given carte blanche to the armed forces. Last year was the country’s most violent on record, with more than 25,000 people murdered, many of those killings drug-related. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have stated that they are deeply concerned about the use of torture and beatings to extract confessions – including sexual torture against women.
Human rights groups also raised the alarm over arbitrary and unusually long arrests without sentencing.
The vast majority of women going to prison in Latin America are single mothers like Rodríguez. Often, women are forced, either by life circumstances or by an abusive partner, to enter the drug trade. And when a woman gets sent to prison, the impact can be especially devastating, since she’s usually the head of the household.
“We’re talking about people who are at the very beginning of the drug-trafficking chain,” says Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America’s drug policy reform project.
“They are engaging in selling drugs or transporting a small amount of drugs because it’s an easy way to combine their child care responsibilities with an income, and they are looking for a way to put food on the table for their kids.”
Youngers says higher-stakes players, like Rodríguez’s boyfriend, stay out of prison by giving up information. “These women who are on the lowest rungs of the drug trade, they don’t know who is running the operation. Which means they can’t plea-bargain.” The arrests make for great statistics, but Youngers says, “it makes absolutely no dent on the drug trade. Somebody selling drugs on the corner is arrested, and the next day, somebody is going to be at that corner.”
In response, she and other women’s advocates say that Mexican courts need to adopt more gender-oriented sentencing policies and practices that take into consideration the challenges for women and indigenous people, who continue to face considerable obstacles in this society.
But some people are less sympathetic about the growing female population in Mexico prisons. Many Mexico prisons are filled with women who had a boyfriend, a father or a friend whom they say got them into the drug trade.
“If you interview a female inmate, she will tell you she’s innocent; that she shouldn’t be there,” says Professor Raul Benítez Manaut. “The majority of them are guilty. They just won’t recognise it.”
Rodríguez herself says prison is exactly where she needs to be. “I’m thankful to God for bringing me here.” It forced her to quit drugs, and rethink her life.
Rodríguez has one month left of her sentence. Then she’ll go back out there to her children. When asked if she’s worried about getting sucked back into the drug trade, she says no – “Now, I only have love to give.” This time, she has no fear.
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