One of the most effective ways the War on Drugs justifies violence is by stereotyping its enemies: the various players in the drug trade. These ‘drug lords,’ ‘kingpins’ and ‘cocaine queens’ threaten the stability of middle-class neighbourhoods, terrorise nameless villages, and corrupt innocent children. In this way, the drug trade is made a black and white issue and the drug war a moral crusade. Yet, larger-than-life labels like these fail to account for the complex stories and specific circumstances that explain the presence of most women in the drug trade.
While stereotypes of the War on Drugs rely on simplicity and moral clarity, women in Latin America have an inherently complex relationship with illicit drugs—characterised by the interwoven threads of punitive policies, socio-economic vulnerability, and gender inequality. Since the 1980s, women in Latin America have become more involved in drug markets, typically playing low-level, non-violent roles as the last link in the system. In many cases, these women act as ‘micro-traffickers’, selling small quantities of drugs, or are engaged in transporting illicit substances within and across state boundaries at the bidding of more powerful players.
Across the world, particularly in the Global North, we devour and demand the ‘drug lord’ narrative—as visitors flock to Pablo Escobar tours and Griselda Blanco gets a new Netflix miniseries. Yet, the reality of the women in the drug trade tells an entirely different, more human story, one marked by both agency and disadvantage, situated within a context of patriarchy.
Dr Corina Giacomello, a researcher with the Autonomous University of Chiapas in Mexico, describes the nature of women’s involvement in the drug trade: “Without wanting to dismiss the agency of women in the perpetration of crimes—which is often framed in contexts of gender victimisation and adverse socio-economic situations— it is predominantly patriarchal structures and gender-based violence that condition women’s participation in criminal activities.”
While our knowledge of women’s relationship with drugs and the drug trade has evolved tremendously over the past few years, their backgrounds are still considerably varied. Women’s experiences are often marked by a number of vulnerabilities—economic and social marginalisation, racism, and xenophobia—but may also include moments of what appears to be agency or opportunism. However, they typically experience relationships and forms of social exclusion that influence their participation in the drug trade. For many, male partners are their gateway to low-level crime—where women assist them in the trade, seeking to be ‘good’ wives or girlfriends. Gender-based violence, from both sentimental relationships and childhood trauma, can also be a trigger for criminality. Women who commit low-level drug offences are a complex population that escape straightforward explanations—made infinitely more difficult by their lack of visibility within society.
However, by and large, women in the drug trade come from backgrounds of social disadvantage, performing high-risk jobs at low levels of the ladder of organised crime, in an unregulated economy that is predominantly controlled by men. And of course, women in these vulnerable occupations—such as small-scale couriers, low-level sellers or transporters—are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, where they are subjected to the full weight of punitive drug policy.
Drug couriers and micro-traffickers are natural targets for law enforcement; they’re easy to intercept, simple to prosecute, and frequently subject to extortion. These cases are quickly filling up prisons in Latin America. Although the number of men in prison for drug offences (and in general) outnumbers women, the number of women being incarcerated for drug offences in most Latin American countries is increasing at a greater rate. Once inside the criminal justice system, women continue to have a uniquely gendered experience, as they are disproportionately subject to pre-trial detention and lengthy sentences—wreaking havoc on their families and those that depend on them.
According to Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA): “Behind the statistics of the rapidly increasing number of women incarcerated for drug offences in Latin America are tragic stories of women, often single mothers, who end up selling small amounts of drugs or transporting drugs in order to put food on the table for their children. They aren’t the ones making big profits, but they are the easiest to detain and can spend years behind bars, with devastating consequences for their children and families.”
Giacomello adds that: “Seeing these women as ‘traffickers’ will not only continue to worsen prison conditions and separate families—particularly daughters and sons from their mothers deprived of liberty—but will also perpetuate violence against women and its reproduction by state structures.”
Harsh drug policies have proven to be particularly detrimental for women. In many countries, sentences for ‘trafficking’ drugs are harsher than those for rape or murder, and women accused of drug offences are far more likely to be held in pre-trial detention than men, languishing behind bars for months or even years before their guilt is even proven. Caught in an aggressive system of criminalisation, these women and their individuality are erased, making it incredibly easy to ignore unique circumstances that make incarceration particularly severe for this population. On average, women in Latin American prisons are more likely to be parents, have more than three children, have become parents as an adolescent, and around 39% have incarcerated partners. Incarcerated women—particularly mothers—suffer severe emotional and psychological consequences, and their children often face educational challenges and social stigma.
As Youngers recalls: “The stories of women’s involvement in the drug trade reveal similar circumstances. For example, Gaby, who comes from an indigenous community in Mexico, transported cannabis within the country as a way to pay for her son’s very high medical expenses, due to cerebral palsy. She was caught, sentenced to 10 years in prison, and released after seven. Her son eventually had to go into an institution, while her other child was with relatives. That family lost 7 years together. Gaby has had to face tremendous odds to rebuild her life, now with a criminal record, which has made it very hard for her to find employment. Her incarceration made absolutely no difference in the drug trade, but had devastating consequences for Gaby and her children.”
Studies estimate that, depending on the country, anywhere from 35% to 70% of incarcerated women are there for drug offences, despite the fact that this strategy does nothing to disrupt drug markets.
So, what will break the cycle?
Giacomello believes that “to address this problem, we need to tackle gender-based violence and support the care economy, as well as decriminalise minor drug-related crimes and strengthen the application of alternative measures to incarceration with a gender perspective.”
In other words, justice for women in the drug trade means decriminalisation and a total divergence from the broad-sweeping harshness that punitive drug policies have created for women in Latin America. The experiences of these women demonstrate that the War on Drugs is increasingly a war on women. Addressing the relationship between women and the drug trade will require careful systemic change, including legal consideration for low-level dealers and smugglers—not just consumers—through non-custodial sentences and increased social support. It will require a change in policy and perspective.
In popular media, we are shown that the players in the drug trade are villians of mythic proportions. But what if they were mothers, caretakers, survivors? What then?