By Maisie Davies
The ‘war on drugs’ is an unwinnable war: it will neither reduce the consumption of narcotics, nor will it reduce the violent crime associated with drug trafficking. In fact, current prohibitionist policies, which focus on military solutions, serve only to destabilise producer and transporter countries, giving way to an increase in narcotraffick-related violence, often brutal and relentless in nature. The militarisation or remilitarisation of various regions, including Central America, has led to the considerably increased vulnerability of women.
In the last decade, the rate of femicide, that is to say, the killing of a woman because of her gender, has increased significantly in the Central American region. El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world, while Guatemala comes third and Honduras seventh globally; these countries are considered among the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. While there are a multitude of factors contributing to these worryingly high levels of violence, it is clear that the increased militarisation of the region, associated with the war on drugs, has directly correlated with a rise in violence against women.
The United States (US) has been the principal driver behind the war on drugs, focusing much of its efforts on the Latin American region; the country has spent over a trillion dollars fighting drug cartels there. The US spent $97 million dollars equipping and training soldiers in Central America between 2008 and 2011.
The US and other countries are right to address the issue of drug-related organised crime; globally, drugs account for half of all organised crime, which has a value of $870 billion. Drug cartels in Central America have been connected with the most horrific violence against women. Gang members are encouraged to rape and murder women to bolster their status internally, while women are marked as ‘territory’ between rival gangs. In addition, women are often tortured, murdered and their bodies used as a message to the enemy, whether it be rival gangs, the authorities or women themselves.
However, leaders are wrong to believe that a ‘war on drugs’ will adequately address the issue of drug-related organised crime. Militarisation has only led to an escalation of this violence and increased the vulnerability of ordinary citizens, particularly women. For example, soldiers, sent as part of this ‘war,’ not only fail to protect women; they, themselves, commit violence and cause instability. Private security firms assisting multi-national corporations are perpetrators of violence against women. The police forces in these countries also rape, abuse, torture and murder women. Militarisation has therefore acted as a barrier to protect women in these countries from violence.
It is also worth noting that this prohibitionist policy has correlated with an increase in the number of women in Latin American prisons for drug-related crimes. Women are often used by drug traffickers as drug mules. The high incidence of poverty and instability in the region results in many women being forced into drug smuggling. The drug trade is therefore directly connected with human trafficking involving women and girls forced into sex work or other labour. The focus on prohibition, coupled with the lack of protection for women’s legal rights, has led to an increase in human trafficking victims and drug mules (forced or otherwise) being prosecuted and incarcerated. Many women lack the knowledge or resources to access legal representation.
The abuse against women continues within the confines of prison, where women are abused and raped by prison offices and other inmates. Prison conditions are often unhygienic, crowded, violent and lack adequate rehabilitative facilities. Some women are separated from their children, while others may have to subject their children to these conditions.
Militarisation of the region has been justified by the fight to control criminal networks involved in drug trafficking. However, militarisation is also increasingly linked to multinational corporations seeking cheap labour and ‘land grabbing’. The removal of local communities from their land results in their increased vulnerability to organised crime and traffickers.
If prohibition and militarisation is not the solution, what is?
There has been a recent move to legalise marijuana in both the US and Latin America. Washington and Colorado recently legalised the drug, and other states are assessing the benefits of such a policy. In Latin America, various countries have legalised individual possession, while Uruguay’s government approved a bill to fully legalise cannabis, which came into force April 2014. Many government officials and other commentators in Latin America have also made clear the impact legalisation could make in the reduction of violence in the region.
It is the policies of the US that have impacted so heavily on the region. The policy of prohibition and with it, the militarisation of Central America and certain parts of South America, has been detrimental to these countries as a whole, and particularly to women. In light of the significant increase in violence against women in the region, the ‘war on drugs’ has been described as a ‘war on women’. It is only by stopping this war and withdrawing funding on military support in Central America that the security of women in Central America can begin to improve.