Drug Laws and Prisons in Mexico

Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America

sistemas-smallMexico is currently undergoing one of the worst crises in its history in terms of violence and insecurity. This crisis is directly related to the strengthening of organized crime in Mexico associated with drug trafficking, the divisions within the leading drug trafficking cartels, and their diversification. All this has resulted in a bloody struggle to control the key markets for the trafficking routes. The response of the Calderón administration has been a “war on organized crime” with two key elements: the growing use of the armed forces in public security tasks, and legal reforms aimed at more effectively fighting organized crime and, in particular, those involved in the trafficking, commerce, and supply of drugs.

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The most visible cost of this war is seen in the unacceptable levels of violence in the country. Yet there are other costs too, such as the number and profile of people incarcerated as a result of drug legislation. The fact that fighting drugs is considered a national security issue has led to enhanced penalties, has modified the procedures so as to give greater discretion to the police, prosecutors, and judges, and has allowed for setbacks in the recognition of fundamental due process rights. Nonetheless, a large number of persons imprisoned for drug-related offenses do not fit within the category of large-scale trafficker, and have not even committed offenses related to the commerce, production, supply, or trafficking of drugs; many of them are in prison for simple possession of minor amounts of some drug, mainly marijuana, followed by cocaine.

The Mexico chapter of the research study Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America, analyzes the relationship between drug legislation and the prison situation in Mexico. The research shows that harsher penalties for drug related crime and the use of preventive detention in recent years are two key factors that have contributed to the increase of Mexico’s prison population. According to official figures the total number of prisoners in Mexican jails nearly doubled between 1998 and 2008, rising from 128,902 prisoners to 219,752.

The chapter statistics illustrate two key points:

- Most detentions for drug-related crime do not result in conviction. Even though the number of detained people has been used as an indicator to show that the fight against organized crime is indeed working, the statistics demonstrate that in thousands of cases these detentions do not result in convictions. During the first three years of President Felipe Calderón’s government (2006-2009) the total numbers of detentions for drug-related crime reached 226,667, but only 51,282 of them faced trial, of whom 33,500 were convicted. “These figures suggest that a large number of innocent people are being detained. Also, there’s a lack of professional investigations to produce the necessary evidence to allow judges to reach a guilty conviction,” says Ana Paula Hernández, author of the chapter.

- The majority of those in jail for drug-related crimes are small-scale dealers and people imprisoned for simple possession. The statistics in the report suggest that the majority of people who do end up in prison are those who represent little danger to society and who play a minor role in drug trafficking. “The statistics obtained suggest that usually the prisoners are not large-scale drug traffickers but small time dealers and people imprisoned for simple possession of drugs,” says Hernández. The research study reached this conclusion because of the type of crime committed by those imprisoned and the length of their sentences. In most of the cases studied, people were given the minimum sentence, which leads one to conclude that the cases involved the possession of drugs for consumption or low-level dealing.

In order to expand on these observations, the Mexico report focuses on three emblematic Mexican states: Chihuahua, one of the states most affected by drug trafficking; Jalisco, because it is the state with the highest number of detainees for drug-related crimes; and the Federal District since it has the largest population in the country. One of the major obstacles for this study was the lack of information and the inconsistency of several of the statistics supplied. However, the data gathered does paint a picture of how drug-related crimes were sentenced up until the passage of the Narcomenudeo Law (small-scale drug dealing) in August of 2009, and suggest areas that need to be investigated in much greater depth.

The state of Jalisco presents the most alarming statistics: out of the 43,153 people detained for drug-related crimes since the start of President Calderón’s Administration, only 3,500 have been brought to trial and 2,173 have been convicted. Based on the information supplied by local courts, it appears that possession of marihuana is responsible for the majority of sentences in this state. This is followed by possession of cocaine, possession of cocaine with intent to sell, and possession of marihuana with intent to sell.

In addition to this, in 2009, 50 percent of those imprisoned for selling drugs in the Federal District and Mexico State were detained for possessing amounts worth US $100 or less, and 25 percent were for amounts worth US$ 18 or less. “The harm done by imprisonment – leaving the prisoner’s family without an income, leaving the prisoners themselves with a prison record, and the very cost of keeping them in prison – could end up causing more harm to society than the $100 worth of drugs they were trying to sell,” said Hernández.

On a national level, there has been a significant change in the female prison population. Previously, most women in prison were charged with theft, yet in the last decade, the main reason why women are imprisoned is drug related crime. The majority of prisoners are young, poor, illiterate or with only basic education, and are nearly always single mothers. Many of them are in prison for transporting or smuggling drugs into the country, representing the last link in the trafficking chain. “Many of these women get into dealing or transporting small quantities of drugs in order to support their children, and for the most part, this does not get them out of poverty,” says Hernández. Many others are also tricked into transporting drugs. This is the case of Rosa Julia Leyva who tells her story in a 5-minute video produced by WOLA and TNI. The press has permission to use this video.

The Mexico chapter also analyzes the possible repercussions of the implementation of the Narcomenudeo law. This law will likely contribute to prison overcrowding – already a critical situation – by detaining and imprisoning more small-scale dealers and consumers.

For more information:

– About Mexico: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., in the United States: + (203) 931-5695.

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Telephone in United States + (617) 584-1713.

– See our video series.

Systems OverloadAn unprecedented one-year comparative study of the drug laws and prison systems in eight Latin American countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.