Insidious Ideology: The Drug War and Prison Systems in the Americas Prison Neglect and the Incoherent State in Venezuela – Patrick Pierson

This is the third in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written Spring Quarter 2017 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas, taught by Lynn Holland.



Venezuela’s penal system ranks among the worst in the world. According to a report by The Economist (2012), from 2004-2008, prison killings resulted in more than 400 inmate deaths annually, with figures on the rise in 2012 to nearly 600. “In other words, a Venezuelan is at least 20 times more likely to be murdered in jail than on the streets, despite a steep climb in the country’s overall murder rate over the past decade” (The Economist 2012). The report continues, “In Venezuela the only functions performed by prison guards are perimeter security, a daily headcount and the transfer of prisoners to court. Whereas relatives are submitted to humiliating strip searches at visiting time, it is no secret that the guns, drugs, mobile phones and other items that are available on the inside are trafficked by the national guard, which is responsible for perimeter security” (The Economist 2012).

The poor and inefficient management of prison systems does little to disrupt the activity of organized crime and illicit networks in Venezuela. Given the lack of oversight and relatively lax controls over inmates, organizational leaders are often able to continue managing their business operations from behind bars.

“The most obvious intersection of organized crime and the state can be seen in the penal system, Cedeno said. The study lays out how gang leaders, called pranes, run sophisticated business enterprises – which include communication networks, front companies, and hired assassins – from the jails. The phenomenon helps explain why Venezuela’s jails are so deadly, with some 500 inmate murders per year and thousands more hurt…” (Wyss 2015).


The unruly atmosphere which characterizes the Venezuelan prison system is clearly illuminated in a 2017 report released by Human Rights Watch. The organization tells the story of a recent uncovering of a mass grave located within a prison in Venezuela. While the facility was undergoing infrastructure updates, construction workers uncovered a grave with more than one dozen bodies, a number of which had been beheaded. The Venezuelan government had released no official documentation about the whereabouts of the massacred individuals, revealing the terrifyingly limited oversight exercised by the government with respect to protecting the rights of inmates (Human Rights Watch 2017). In such an environment, it is not surprising that the penal system would have limited impact on curtailing illicit activity or providing rehabilitative services for offenders, thereby largely precluding the possibility of inmates entering society with the tools and resources necessary for a successful reintegration.

What can account for the toleration of violence, abuse, and neglect in Venezuela’s prison system? Rather than attempting to answer this question outright, I seek clues in the following discussion of the political and social conditions of this country. These pertain particularly to the incoherence of the state, the spread of illicit market activity, and the existence of a range of armed groups in Venezuela.

Incoherence of the State


First, Venezuela is unique (unfortunately) with respect to its particularly high levels of violence, which pervade society including the prisons. For example, in 2012, the homicide rate in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, was more than twenty times higher than the global average. Furthermore, in the same year, five of Venezuela’s cities made the list of the world’s fifty most violent cities (Tremaria 2016). What explains such high levels of violence in Venezuela?

Tremaria (2016) notes a paradox at the heart of such high crime rates; namely, the fact that Bolivarianism – the mode of socialism practiced by the Chávez, and now Maduro, regime – is meant to decrease social inequality and thereby produce a more just, equitable, and peaceful society for all. Such efforts at more equitable economic distribution have come at the expense, however, of a disruption of social life and extremely heightened political polarization. In short, the Chavismo system has created clear pro and anti-Chavez groups, thereby generating evermore stark class conflict. “Today, Caracas is not only divided along the lines of socio-economic strata, but also along political allegiances, with zones of violent clashes between supporters and opponents” (Tremaria 2016: 70). While such political polarization has certainly affected social relations in Venezuela, the sweeping changes also affect public policy and security provision by the state.

In fact, the lack of cohesion among both the state and criminal organizations in Venezuela is another distinguishing aspect of illicit markets and criminal activity in the country. “Political polarization has led to an institutional fragmentation of long-standing political alliances, incompetence, and incapacity to establish a coordinated security policy addressing the problem of urban violence across different levels of governance and all Caracas municipalities” (Tremaria 2016: 71). Tremaria goes on to note that twelve ministers of the interior were appointed during Chávez’s fourteen-year rule, while twenty-two plans for citizen security were launched. Clearly, the country lacks a cohesive long-term strategy for realizing a more robust and effective criminal justice system. This lack of cohesion and coordinated policy action may be a result of diminished state capacity or incapable civil servants, but it may also be – at least partly – due to government reluctance to enact strict overhauls of the criminal justice and public security systems.

Government Corruption


Corruption within the Venezuelan civil service is an endemic problem (Coronel 1996), which likely plays a role in the dire failings of the prison system. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that nearly twenty percent of the active Venezuelan workforce is employed by the government as part of the socialist government’s agenda (162). Despite these challenges, neither the state bureaucracy nor the judiciary has taken sufficient steps to address high rates of corruption and malfeasance on the part of government employees. Coronel (1996) highlights the fact that only a handful of high profile corruption cases have resulted in jail time for offenders, despite the fact that all actors are aware of the pervasiveness of corruption among government employees. As noted by Naím (2012),

“Owing in part to such ties [between criminal organizations and government officials], the cocaine business has flourished in Venezuela in recent years, and the country now supplies more than half of all cocaine shipments to Europe…And the drug trade is not the only illicit activity that has flourished in Venezuela’s era of state-sanctioned crime: the country has also become a base of operations for human trafficking, money laundering, counterfeiting, weapons smuggling, and the trade in contraband oil.”


While the ubiquity of corruption clearly brings with it a number of economic and efficiency costs, it also results in a crisis of legitimacy between the state and its populace. A history of corruption, coupled with impunity for many offenders, erodes trust in political institutions and disrupts the government’s ability to win public support for broader reforms (Coronel 1996). The results are self-reinforcing in that a lack of legitimacy only leads to a greater degree of mistrust on behalf of citizens. Not surprisingly, widespread corruption and a severe lack of government accountability and legitimacy creates an environment in which illicit activity is allowed to flourish.

Furthermore, the judiciary in Venezuela serves largely as a tool of the ruling party and its President, Nicolas Maduro. The erosion of an institutionalized and objective rule of law dismantles norms which help to govern social and political life, thereby creating both opportunities and incentives for individuals and groups to pursue their desired objectives through extralegal means (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia 2016).

“The problem is compounded in the justice system. According to the Organization of American States, Venezuela has far fewer prosecutors – 2.47 per every 100,000 inhabitants – than a country of its size requires. It also has only 6.86 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, far fewer than it should have, and way below the norm on the continent. In comparison, Chile, a less violent country, has 50.41 judges per 100,000 inhabitants. And the few judges that the country does have faced enormous pressures to keep people out of jail, since Venezuela has one of the most overcrowded, and hence violent, prison systems in the world” (Nagel 2014: 83).


Armed Groups of Different Persuasions


The Venezuelan state often finds itself in direct confrontation with a number of armed groups of various orientations. The activities of these different groups produce a high rate of uncontrolled violence that may contribute to the capacity of gangs both within and outside of the prison system while simultaneously weakening of the role of the state.

One of the most long-standing groups is the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL), a leftist guerrilla organization which emerged in the early 1990s as a counterforce to the potential influence of right-wing Colombian paramilitaries (Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium). Given that Colombia and Venezuela share a border of over 2,000 kilometers, it is not surprising that Colombian paramilitary groups such as the FARC and ELN would make inroads in Venezuela, strategically using the territory as a safe haven outside the purview of the Colombian government (Insight Crime 2016). Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) maintained a complicated relationship with the FARC, cooperating with the group solely when it was to his own benefit. For the FARC, Venezuela provided strategic locations to develop and coordinate plans outside the watchful eye of the Colombian state, particularly when during periods of heightened pressure against FARC activities. For Chávez, the FARC provided a strategic ally against perceived external threats from alternative groups (BBC 2011).

Rebel and guerilla groups in Venezuela differ from other forms of organized violence in the country because they are predominantly located in rural areas and rarely engage directly in violent activity in larger urban areas. Furthermore, these groups are not directly targeted for disarmament and demobilization by the state given the government’s ability to manipulate them for its own purposes. Because guerrilla organizations do not directly challenge the authority of the state, their presence is tolerated and often exploited to the regime’s benefit.

Finally, Venezuela possesses a number of highly localized street gangs, particularly in urban centers such as Caracas. In contrast to large-scale cartel organizations in Mexico or Colombia, these groups are more similar to gang-based organizations such as MS-13 in El Salvador. They often consist of a just few dozen individuals seeking to assert control over a small geographical area, such as a few city blocks (Grillo and Benezra 2016). The groups, along with paramilitaries, often provide security services in the country’s poorly patrolled barrios, areas in which the country’s high levels of homicide are disproportionately located (Pardo 2016). Due to their control of local geographies, local gangs in Venezuela are often contracted by larger criminal organizations to facilitate smuggling or trafficking through their respective areas (InSight Crime 2016).

*    *    *    *    *

Today, as popular protests mount in the streets, the Maduro regime continues its efforts to retain control over the vast state apparatus. The social and economic strain placed on the country provides prime breeding ground for illicit activity among the country’s wide range of informal criminal actors and armed groups. Similarly, high levels of social unrest, economic insecurity, and increasingly violent police tactics generate more conducive conditions for the proliferation of localized armed gangs and criminal actors. Meanwhile, the country’s neglected prison system continues to operate under the control of prison gangs to the detriment of all who remain incarcerated.



“Bolivarian Liberation Forces.” Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium. Retrieved on May 25, 2017. Accessible at:


Camacho, Carlos. “Venezuela becoming the capital of organized crime, amid raging scarcity.” Fox News. October 12, 2015. Accessed on May 15, 2017. Retrievable at:


“Colombian Farc rebels’ links to Venezeuala detailed.” BBC. May 10, 2011. Accessed on May 16, 2017. Retrievable at:


Coronel, Gustavo. “Curbing Corruption in Venezuela.” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7:3 (July 1996): 156-165. (


“A journey into hell.” The Economist. September 22, 2012. Accessed on May 17, 2017. Retrievable at:


“GameChangers 2016: Criminality and Organized Crime Thrives in Venezuela.” InSight Crime. January 2, 2017. Accessed on May 15, 2017. Retrievable at:


Grillo, Ioan, and Jorge Benezra. “Inside the Hell of Venezuelan Police Prisons.” TIME. June 8, 2016. Accessed on May 20, 2017. Retrievable at:


Grillo, Ioan, and Jorge Benezra. “Venezuela’s Murder Epidemic Rages on Amid State of Emergency.” TIME. May 20, 2016. Accessed on May 22, 2017. Retrievable at:


“Mass Grave Found in Venezuelan Prison.” Human Rights Watch. March 21, 2017. Retrieved on May 15, 2017. Accessible at:


Nagel, Juan Cristóbal. “Venezuela: A Crisis Three Years in the Making.” Caribbean Journal of International Relations and Diplomacy, Vol. 2:1 (2014): 75-88. (


Naím, Moisés. “Mafia States: Organized Crime Takes Office.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012. Accessed on May 18, 2017. (accessible at


“2016: OVV estima 28.479 muertes violentas en Venezuela.” Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia. December 28, 2016. Accessed on May 17, 2017. Retrievable at:


Pardo, Daniel. “Catuche, el barrio de Venezuela donde las madres tomaron el poder y acabaron con la violencia.” BBC Mundo. June 9, 2016. Accessed on May 23, 2017. Retrievable at:


Tremaria, Stiven. “Violent Caracas: Understanding Violence and Homicide in Contemporary

Venezuela.” International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Vol. 10:1 (2016): 62-76.


“Venezuela.” Insight Crime. December 6, 2016. Accessed on May 13, 2017. Retrievable at:


Wallis, Daniel. “Venezuela violence puts focus on militant ‘colectivo’ groups.” Reuters. February 13, 2014. Accessed on May 17, 2017. Retrievable at:


Werlau, Maria C. “Venezuela’s Criminal Gangs: Warriors of Cultural Revolution.” World Affairs 2014: 90-96.


Wyss, Jim. “Study: Organized crime undermining Venezuelan institutions.” Miami Herald. April 27, 2015. Accessed on May 20, 2017. Retrievable at:


Getting “Tough on Crime”: How Mano Dura Strengthens Gangs in El Salvador – Chloe Fisher

In El Salvador, the use of mano dura and other punitive policies against suspected gang members has been prevalent for many years. These policies include the use of repressive police tactics and mass incarceration as a means of clamping down on criminal gangs that emerged after the end of the civil war in 1992. Rather than deterring crime and gang activity, however, crime including homicide rates have risen significantly and gangs are as strong as ever. The crowding of the prisons due to mass arrests has made Salvadoran prisons some of the most crowded and miserable in the hemisphere. At the same time, these prisons have become a kind of headquarters for Central America’s two largest street gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18.

Origins of Gang Activity

MS-13, a particularly dangerous gang, had its origins in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, California. During El Salvador’s prolonged civil war, some 700,000 Salvadorans immigrated to the U.S. as refugees, many of whom settled in southern California.  Many of these refugees attained legal status in the U.S but not necessarily citizenship. As outsiders, their children were frequently intimidated by existing gangs and responded by establishing their own, the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13.  As some of the youth had come armed with guns or machetes used during the war, it quickly became one of the most violent gangs in Los Angeles ( Flynn 2017).

After the civil war ended, the U.S. government revoked the Temporary Protected Status law, which had allowed Salvadorans to remain in the U.S. during the war. U.S. laws regarding the deportation of ex-convicts were also changed to enable the government to deport Salvadoran gang members thereby reducing pressure on the crowded California prison system. The result was a steady flow of deported former prisoners and other Salvadorans from the U.S. to El Salvador between 1998 and 2014. In total, over 81,000 ex-convicts were deported to El Salvador as well as Honduras and Guatemala (InSight Crime 2017).

In El Salvador, repatriated gang members were not welcomed back into society. They were heavily tattooed, had American tastes and habits, and in many cases did not even speak Spanish.  In addition, the post-war demobilization of thousands of soldiers and police resulted in high levels of unemployment and there were few jobs waiting for them. In light of this reception, many chose to remain active members of their gangs and so adapted the Los Angeles gang structure for the purpose of taking over local neighborhoods in El Salvador.

MS-13 and its rival Barrio 18, also originating on the streets of Los Angeles, soon emerged in the poorer neighborhoods of the Northern Triangle countries. In El Salvador, the two major gangs were bitter enemies and fighting was rampant. With violence peaking inside jails and juvenile detention centers, the public demanded action. In the year 2000, authorities responded by segregating the prisons according to gang membership choosing Centro de Internamiento de Menores de Tonacatepeque for the exclusive incarceration of MS 13 members and El Espino to house members of Barrio 18.

Mano Dura

The policy of Mano Dura, or the “iron fist”, followed in 2003. This policy stepped up police raids in gang dominated areas, increased sentences for suspected gang members, and expanded the presence of the military in neighborhoods throughout the country. In addition, the police were allowed to arrest suspected gang members based only on physical appearance – clothing, tattoos, and even gestures.

The following year, however, this early version of Mano Dura was annulled by the Constitutional Court and replaced with one known as Super Mano Dura. This second iteration gave extensive new powers to the police to stop, search, and detain suspected gang members for minor circumstances such as a tattoo or an alleged association and led to a tremendous increase in the prison population. In fact, where the prison population had been around 7,754 in 2000, by 2016, it had risen to 35,879 or more than four times the previous number.

While separation of the gangs did reduce violence between gang members, it also granted them unofficial control of the penitentiary system. Gang leaders, now safe from their enemies in prison, were restored to command and control as guards and other authoritative figures in the prison system came to play a more symbolic role in the order. In this way, Super Mano Dura actually “accelerated gang control on the inside, and made gang networks even stronger.” (InSight Crime 2017).

Prison Conditions

Prison conditions in El Salvador are notoriously deplorable. Prisoners sleep in overcrowded rooms with makeshift bedding on top of one another. Cells that are suitable for ten people, hold up to as many as 50 prisoners (World Prison Brief 2017). Serious problems with ventilation and light drive many inmates to psychotic breaks. Health care services are essentially non-existent, and gang members are not sent to the public hospitals until they are near death from dehydration, delirium, and anemia. Food services are provided by the community outside the prison and prisoners are not allowed to have eating utensils, causing the spread of disease. Most prison time is spent in communal recreation areas. There are usually small arts and crafts rooms that prisoners can use to make cards for their families but resources are slim. Jails lack job training programs and there is little contact with professionals outside of the prison such as doctors and psychologists. In a recent report, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) noted that adult prisons have the capacity to hold 8,110 beds yet house over 24,000 inmates or 300 percent over their capacity. Health, sanitation, and hygiene conditions were found unsuitable, and the overcrowded facilities were rampant with untreated respiratory illnesses and skin infections among inmates. In light of these conditions and the high rate of violence within the prisons, IACHR urged the construction of new prisons and renovation of existing ones (IAHCR 2013).

The IACHR also pointed out the degrading treatment of the relatives of prisoners, who are mainly women. As the army has seized control of the country’s major prison housing MS-13 inmates, misconduct and abuse by the armed forces was reported in this facility. This includes inappropriate and unhygienic vaginal and anal searches applied to all women visiting the prison including pregnant and elderly women. Refusing to submit to such a search results in the inability to visit family members.

Mass Incarceration and Gang Hierarchy

Through mano dura policies, the Salvadoran prison system has actually played a role in the organizational structure of the two major gangs. With the two separated from each other within the system and therefore protected from attack, gang leaders are able to carry on their criminal operations while inside the prison. In fact, gang structure benefits from the greater cohesion, efficiency, and elaborated hierarchy that is possible in the segregated prisons. Gang leaders are also able to take advantage of abysmal prison conditions by controlling incoming goods such as food, toiletries, medicines, and illegal substances in exchange for loyalty. As in the U.S., cellular phones are one of the most important items in the system, as they allow for communication to the outside world. (Dudley 2013)

*   *   *   *   *

Far from deterring criminal gangs, then, the current prison system in El Salvador has served to make them stronger. In segregated prisons, the shared misery of prison life creates a kind of bond among members within the same gang and has produced new efficiencies in the organizational structure of gangs. While prisons are home base for many criminal operations in El Salvador and across international lines, violent crime remains in this country. Unfortunately, as incarceration rates continue to rise, these trends are likely to continue along with the inevitable recruitment that takes place within the prisons. As in the U.S., the problem of mass incarceration and recidivism will go unchanged unless legal measures are implemented to reduce the size of prison populations and ways are found to allow more of the population to become productive members of society.



Dudley, Steven & Elyssa Pachico. (2013 June 11). A Look Inside El Salvador‘s Prison Nightmare. Video. InSight Crime. Available at:


Flynn, Sheila (2017). The History of MS-13 According to a Former Member, Daily Mail, March 14, 2017.


Insight Crime (2017). The Prison Dilemma in the Americas. InSight Crime. Accessed June 04, 2017.


Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). (2013 Mar 18). Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the Situation of Persons Deprived of their Liberty. IAHCR, 44. Available at


World Prison Brief. (2017). El Salvador. Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Accessed June 04, 2017.





Prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America.

This is the first in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written spring quarter 20l7 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas taught by Lynn Holland.

The U.S. Prison System and How It Hurts the Poor

Leonardo Godoy

Over the last several decades, the U.S. prison population has greatly expanded due in part to measures arising from government’s drug war. These measures, including the increased use of mandatory minimum sentencing, have disproportionately affected the poor and ethnic minority groups. Other problems that continue to harm the poor include the persistent use of bail, the lack of adequate reintegration programs, and the proliferation of prison-associated fees imposed on the families of prisoners.

The Drug War

The “drug war”, currently making a revival, has entailed a series of measures which have disproportionately affected the poor in this country. Soon after declaring the “war on drugs” in 1971, President Richard Nixon established the powerful Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to greatly expand the size and scope of federal drug control activities. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared illegal drugs to be a national security threat as First Lady Nancy Reagan launched a privately funded anti-drug campaign to encourage youth to “Just Say No” to drugs.[1]  The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 allocated $1.7 billion to the anti-drug crusade and included mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses specifically for the distribution of cocaine. The Act also imposed penalties for “crack” cocaine offenses which were far more severe than those for the more expensive powder cocaine offenses. The result was that the poor, who used the cheaper crack cocaine, suffered harsher penalties than those who used the more expensive cocaine powder. This in turn led to a dramatic increase in racial disparities in the prison population.[2]

Two years later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 included more severe mandatory minimum sentences (first time offenders would receive a five-year minimum sentence for simple possession of cocaine, even with no intent to sell), the elimination of federal benefits (such as student loans), and the use of the death penalty for serious drug-related convictions. The following year, Reagan established the Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate drug-related policies, security measures, diplomatic objectives, and government research, with the goal of eradicating illicit drug use, manufacturing, and distribution, and drug-related crime. Successive directors became known as “Drug Czars.”[3]

While the matter has been debated, it is widely held that the drug war contributed substantially to the rapid rise in the prison population after 1974. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. prison population at 2,239,751 in 2013, was the highest per capita rate in the world. By comparison, China with the next highest rate and four times the population of the U.S., had a prison population of only 1,640,000. [4] By 2012, inmates whose most serious offense was a drug offense constituted 52 percent of the federally sentenced population.[5]

In recent years, mandatory minimum sentencing has been somewhat curtailed and judges have been given greater discretion in certain cases at both the state and federal level. Unfortunately, the trend has not yet affected the thousands of people still stuck in prison for crimes that would have resulted shorter sentences if they had been committed just a few years later.

The Cost of Bail

Another practice that keeps the poor incarcerated longer is that of bail. A recent study of the New Jersey jail population found that nearly 40 percent of the prisoners were being held solely because they couldn’t meet the cost of their bail. Another study found that defendants at Rikers Island, New York City’s jail complex, were detained prior to being tried for a median of 68 days. This included some 400 who had waited for over two years for trial. Such individuals serve time without having been convicted of a crime simply because they are poor while their wealthier counterparts are able to walk free before their trials begin.

A working class person without the means to post bail not only loses time while in jail, that person may also lose his or her job for missing work and residence if he or she is unable to pay rent. The bail system also encourages suspects to simply plead guilty even when innocent, since the alternative is to be held in jail until trial. Pleading guilty, however, puts a permanent mark on the person’s record and criminal convictions make finding a job extremely difficult. Thus the current bail system results in high levels of pretrial and preventative detention, punishing the accused without guilt ever having been established.[6]

In Washington D.C., some measures are being taken to amend the bail system. Judges there can now set bail only if the defendants can afford it.[7] In addition, pretrial services provide specialists who can assess whether a defendant is dangerous or a flight risk, and provide alternatives to incarceration such as drug test monitoring, tracking ankle bracelets, or calling to remind the defendant of the trial.

Mass Incarceration and Criminal Organizations

With mass incarceration on the rise in the U.S., criminal networks have actually gained in membership and influence. Under conditions of crowding, the ranks of prison gangs swell and gang organization becomes more articulated. These conditions transform the prison setting into a kind of headquarters for organizing street level criminal activity, displacing state authority in communities, and coordinating mass violence.

The prison also becomes a kind of training ground for new recruits. In order to survive, younger and less violent inmates are typically forced to make alliances and become more hardened as they seek to survive within the prison system. Crowded prisons also mean closer and more continuous contact among inmates allowing for a greater dispersion of organizational knowledge.

After Release

The task of walking out of prison and returning to community life as a law abiding citizen can be daunting. Functioning programs that aim to rehabilitate former inmates and prepare them for jobs when they leave are few and far between. Having a criminal record makes it difficult to land that essential a job interview, much less the job itself. These tremendous challenges have contributed to a national recidivism rate of 50 percent. Two-thirds of parolees who return to prison do so because of parole violation. Scheduling conflicts with parole officers are common and some officers do little to help accommodate parolees. Depending on where one lives, the parolee may have to pay the parole program, a requirement that has actually caused some to return to selling drugs.

On top of that, many former inmates find themselves saddled with a whole new set of costs stemming from their period of incarceration. These can include medical co-pays, charges for phone calls and video visitation, fees related to booking, probation, DNA testing, and police transport, court costs and even the services of a public defender. These fees have grown immensely over the years as private enterprise has made its way into the prison industry. One report has shown that families pay an average cost of $13,607 for conviction-related costs including restitution and attorney’s fees. At the same time, nearly half of the families surveyed stated that they were unable to pay the fees. Ignoring the charges can lead to a warrant for arrest, refusal of access to public housing, or the denial of one’s driver’s license.[8]


*   *   *   *   *

Prison crowding and its self-reinforcing effect on gangs and crime along with the soaring public expense of mass incarceration have created new pressure for prison reform and crime prevention. While still in office, President Obama encouraged early intervention with young people, making certain, for instance, that young Black and Latino boys are not suspended at higher than average rates. We can also do more to invest in education and the development of job skills both within and outside of the prison system. We can encourage the replacement of bail with less discriminatory ways of keeping tabs on defendants. The multitude of fees imposed on the families of prisoners should be reexamined and eliminated where possible including those imposed for public defenders. Finally, we can continue to revise mandatory minimum sentencing.

In the end, those who have done time in our nation’s prisons and jails will not be the only beneficiaries of these reforms. Since most inmates in the U.S. will eventually be released and returned to the community, it is in all our interest to give them a better chance of success.

[1] “Clergy for a new drug policy.” Retrieved on May 25, 2017. Accessible at:


[2] American Civil Liberty Union, Fair Sentencing Act, ACLU Foundation 2017,

[3]Sacco, Lisa “Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends” Analyst in Illicit Drugs and Crime Policy, pg. 9 October 2, 2014. Accessed on June 3, 2017


[4] Walmsley, Roy “World Prison Population List (tenth edition)” International Centre for Prison Studies. Accessed on June 3, 2017. Accessible at:


[5] Sam Taxy, Julie Samuels, and William Adams, Drug Offenders in Federal Prison, U.S. Department of Justice Special Report, October 2015,

[6] Ingraham, Christopher “Why we spend billions to keep half a million-unconvicted people behind bars” The Washington Post June 11, 2015.


[7] Wiltz, Teresa “Locked Up: Is Cash Bail on the way out?” The PEW Charitable Trusts Accessed on June 3, 2017. Retrievable by:


[8] Tanzina Vega, Costly Prison Fees Are Putting Inmates Deep in Debt, CNN Money, September 18, 2015,

Message from Korbel Students Addressing Executive Order Regarding Refugees and Immigrants

February 22, 2017

To the Korbel Community:

We, students of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, are horrified by the President’s executive order issued on January 27, 2017. In the face of increasing state-sanctioned discrimination, we will stand by and with the international and undocumented members of our community, and anyone who feels threatened by the actions of this administration.

As students of a school that actively recruits internationally, we recognize our unique community make-up and the value that diversity of nationality, ethnicity, color, religion, language, perspective and experience brings to this academic institution. We are firmly committed to supporting all Korbel students, faculty, and community members who face any form of discrimination or feel unsafe, either on or off campus.

While Josef Korbel’s personal story reminds us that our country has a long history of accepting immigrants and refugees—and is stronger for it— we recognize that this offers little comfort to the many members of our community who are directly affected by this executive order. Students, professors and staff may be afraid to board international or even domestic flights, for fear that they may not be able to return, or will be detained for an unknown period of time. Family members will not be able to attend students’ graduation ceremonies. Graduating students may have fewer options to pursue professional opportunities domestically (depending on Federal OPT decisions) and abroad. Additionally, restrictions on who can enter the United States will limit our ability to host visiting scholars, professors and lecturers, ultimately undermining the quality of research and education at Korbel.

Our outrage over the implications of this executive order extends beyond its direct effects on our personal community. As Korbel students, we are committed to building global networks, strengthening international exchange and engaging with the world around us. Actions such as this ban run directly counter to our values as an international school and a diverse, multicultural student body.

We hope to open a conversation among students, faculty and the administration about how best to respond to these alarming executive actions and prepare for others that will come. In the meantime, we are here, and more than ready to dig deep and do what is right.

In solidarity and resistance,


**Add your name to the letter in the google form here:


Trump’s Proposed Tariff on Mexican Exports Will Backfire

By George DeMartino

The new Trump proposal (now under consideration by his administration) to get Mexico to pay for the proposed wall along the Mexican border through a 20% tax on Mexican exports to the US violates a range of international trade laws, and is apt to generate retaliation by Mexico. Mexico’s right to retaliate is assured by the WTO, and so would survive any attempt by the Trump Administration to cancel NAFTA. That retaliation could hurt important sectors of the US economy given that Mexico now absorbs about 15% of total US exports. But in addition to the harms from retaliation (and from the wall itself), the funding proposal is likely to backfire in at least five ways.

  1. The incidence of the tax will fall heavily on and American firms at home that import from Mexico, American consumers, and American firms in Mexico that export to the US. US retailers will look to offset higher import costs by reducing other expenses, such as by shedding employees. So will firms that import inputs from Mexico for final assembly in the US. Here, too, pressure will mount to cut costs in ways that harm American workers. And for goods without immediate substitutes, like some agricultural goods, US consumers will be on the hook for a greater share of the tax. Despite appearances and Trump’s claims to the contrary, then, Americans will pay a substantial share of the costs for Trump’s wall. But don’t expect Trump to trouble himself with the basic math.
  1. For Mexican exports for which there are ready substitutes, Mexican and US firms producing in Mexico will bear a greater share of the tax in the form of reduced revenues as they struggle to maintain their exports to the US. But very soon Mexican exports to the US will decline as US importers look to buy from other countries. The decline would of course reduce the expected revenues from the tax, and trigger other unintended effects (see #5, below).
  1. President Trump will say that the tax will induce US companies producing in Mexico to relocate production and jobs back to the US. It is unlikely most will do so. If corporations in Mexico think the tax is likely to persist, they are more likely to move production to other low-waged countries than back to the US.
  1. In fact, if the tax persists for even a year or two, it is much more likely to accelerate a trend already under way—the substitution of Chinese for Mexican goods in US markets. China has posed a serious threat to Mexican exports of high-skilled and medium-skilled manufactured products for at least a decade. The Trump tax will only accelerate the trend. And so Chinese leaders are apt to be even happier about the tax (and, also, about the Trump wall) than are Trump supporters in the US. It’s not at all far-fetched to argue that the primary beneficiary of the tax on Mexican exports to the US will be China,followed by a small number of other low-waged countries that will rush to exploit the opportunity created by increased Mexican prices in the US market.
  1. The social impact in Mexico could be severe. Like most economic shocks, the tariff will hurt the most vulnerable communities rather than the administration of Mexican President Peña Nieto, who could very well begin to reverse his abysmal level of domestic support by standing up to Trump. To the degree that the Trump tax reduces Mexican exports, it can be expected to increase the number of financially desperate Mexican workers trying to enter the US—legally and illegally—and even push some displaced workers into illicit market activity. And so the Trump tax will undermine the very purpose for which it is intended—to reduce illegal border crossings—while harming working people on both sides of the wall.

George DeMartino is a Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Occupying High School in Brazil


Bottom-up Democracy in Brazil

Brazilian students have been occupying their schools now in the thousands in order to defend the continuation of much-needed public investments in the educational system. While the conservative new government of the country is yet to find a peaceful and more constructive way to respond to this new form of grass-roots mobilization, students are resolute in their fight.

More can be found in the recent piece by our LACS affiliated faculty, Rafael R. Ioris:

Now the Sioux Must Battle Big Oil

Photo credit to Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

Residents of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota say they were never consulted about an oil pipeline. Now they’re fighting back.

By Alan Gilbert for The Daily Beast

Co-published at LAC Perspectivas 

“This demolition is devastating. These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings cannot be replaced. In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground.”

—Dave Archambault II, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, Sept. 4, 2016

  1. What land-protection means

On April 1, some 70 men and women from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota, erected an encampment on private land owned by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard off the reservation. They were there, on what they hold to be sacred land, to protest the poisoning of their water, water that they hold to be equally sacred. Without consulting the Sioux tribes, a conglomerate oil company in Texas—Energy Transfer Partners—had gotten permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP), an oil pipeline that would run near the reservation and beneath the Missouri River, the reservation’s sole source of water.

The Dakota and Lakota tribes have long lived in this territory. Here, led by Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, they fought off the U.S. Army and were defeated after long battles. Here, on Sept. 3, 1863, the army committed the Whitestone Massacre of 300 men, women, and children. The tribes still hold treaty rights to this land. Their ancestors are buried here.

But the Lakota were consulted by the Army Corps of Engineers neither about grave sites nor the waters.

The oil pipeline was originally supposed to go above Bismarck, in territory mainly inhabited by whites. But the company shifted it to go south through Standing Rock, crossing under Lake Oahu (part of the Missouri River) and the Missouri twice.

The Sacred Land encampment is a vibrant, spiritual place. It had grown into a second camp of some 2,000 people on nearby public land by the time I arrived on Aug. 30 with photographer Paula Bard. Over the weekend, the numbers swelled, and now, according to news reports, some 3,000-4,000 protesters have encamped.

Since April, word about protecting the waters has spread, and many indigenous peoples have sent support. As you enter Red Warrior camp, the flags of 154 tribes flutter along both sides of the road. People come locally and from Manitoba, Sasketchwan, California, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

Paula and I entered the Standing Rock reservation where it divides the bright waters of Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. Water does not just give life here. Water is an extension of the people. Mni Wiconi is the Lakota phrase: “Water is life.”

We spent five days with the land protectors (they do not call themselves protesters, but protectors or defenders). We listened to drumming and prayer songs, sometimes late into the night. We met three Cheyenne and Arapaho women who had just driven 15 hours from Oklahoma, and a man from Minnesota who had been at Standing Rock for a week, gone away, and had just returned.

We heard a Minnesota woman who lived near Lake Superior speak about how when she was growing up, you could catch and eat a fish every day. One day, her grandfather warned that there would be a fight over the purity of the water. This had seemed unimaginable to her, the water blue or gray, shifting with sun or clouds.

Now, the waters are murkier, and a pregnant woman may eat only one fish caught in the lake in nine months.

The Lakota is also a women’s culture, so there were two large circle prayer meetings of women while we were there. One went down to the river. The other lifted its voice to the pure waters in the sky. Women sought the maintenance of the Missouri and Lake Oahe for children, grandchildren, and seven generations to come.

In April, young Lakotas said they would not acquiesce to oil pipes under the water. Some 15 organized the Oceti Sakownin (7 Council Fires, the original name of the Sioux) run to Washington. At one evening gathering, a Pawnee counselor who had worked for 12 years to prevent teenage suicides told of the vibrancy and initiative of the runners who spoke to Congress about the DAP.

When the Lakota people pray and sing, they speak naturally of the earth, the mother. The water and the land are given by grandfather spirit—tunkashila in Lakota—to make the life of all tribes, animals, and humans good. Tim Mentz, an elder, spoke of the understandings and instructions, passed through the grandmothers, of 19 generations. And Dave Archambault, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, said that the prayers which began in April had yielded guidance, as the elders conjured a vision of a nonviolent resistance movement to protect the water.

Despite dispossession from the lands, the ethnic cleansing, the treaties broken by the U.S. government, and the associated transgenerational trauma, the people at the encampment display an immediate, rich sense of the continuity of their ancestors and the sacredness of the earth.

As 13-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer put it in a petition: “Oil companies keep telling us that this is perfectly safe, but we’ve learned that that’s a lie: from 2012-2013 alone, there were 300 oil pipeline breaks in the state of North Dakota. With such a high chance that this pipeline will leak, I can only guess that the oil industry keeps pushing for it because they don’t care about our health and safety. It’s like they think our lives are more expendable than others.

A substantial leak would poison the waters all the way down to where the Missouri flows into the Mississippi, all the way down to Mexico.

We camped next to a Navajo family from Arizona. They told us how last year, tailing ponds from Colorado mines leaked radioactive waste into the Las Animas River near Durango and Pagosa Springs. Las Animas flows into the Colorado River and Lake Powell. Downstream in Arizona, they could no longer give their horses water.

Many of us drink the Missouri’s water, and most of the country eats the crops grown in the region. This pipeline threatens every American.

  1. Wounded Knee

Standing Rock was the reservation of Sitting Bull, who led the defense of the Black Hills against Custer’s invading army. In 1876, at the battle of the Little Big Horn, which Native Americans call the Battle of Greasy Grass, a coalition of indigenous people led by Sitting Bull defeated the invaders. Sitting Bull then led his people to Canada, but eventually returned and settled at Standing Rock, where he was murdered by the U.S. Army during the suppression of the “ghost dance” at Wounded Knee in 1890. The ghost dance was an indigenous/Christian dance for the resurrection of the indigenous community and the repulsing of the invaders.

Starting on Feb. 27, 1973, the American Indian Movement led a great movement to revive the spirit of Wounded Knee, when 200 Oglala Sioux occupied the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days. They demanded the U.S. government honor or renegotiate treaties and opposed the violent and corrupt official leadership of the tribe. People were electrified. Indigenous activists and other supporters joined from all over the country. An armed standoff ensued. Dennis Banks and Russell Means, two leaders of AIM, were indicted. Because of “prosecutorial misconduct,” however, the charges were dropped.

A man holds a sign: I was not at Wounded Knee but I am at Standing Rock.

This is a battle for water, for the generations, for the country.

  1. A Company Attack with Dogs and Mace

Last Saturday, Sept. 3, Energy Transfer Associates organized a hasty new plowing of grave sites. A large nonviolent demonstration took place. Demonstrators were attacked by company dogs and maced.

Before any investigation, Kyle Kirchmeier, the sheriff of Morton County, echoed the Energy Transfer Company’s report about the alleged “violence” of protesters. So did the lead column (front page, top right) of the Bismarck Tribune for Sunday. April 5, written by Leann Eckroth.

“Protestors Get Into Worksite,” the headline read. “Security Officers, Dogs Injured.”

In civil disobedience actions over the last week, protesters have chained themselves to machines. They were eventually cut loose and arrested. No dogs were present. But while the company siccing 10 dogs on demonstrators was unusual, it does conjure the ghost of Bull Connor, the police chief of Birmingham who infamously unleashed dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on high school students in 1963. Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe from Minnesota, responded: “I feel like telling the governor is that, you know, you are not George Wallace, and this is not Alabama. You know? This is 2016, and you don’t get to treat Indians like you have for those last hundred years. We’re done. You know? It’ll be interesting times.”

The Bismarck Tribune alleges injuries to security—one security official was bitten by his own dog—and to the dogs themselves: “Three private security officers at the site were injured by protestors, said Donnell Preskey, spokeswoman for the Morton County Sheriff’s Office. One of them required hospitalization. Two security K-9s were also taken to a veterinarian to be treated for injuries … The security officers were hit and jabbed with fence posts and flag poles.”

The dogs were not trained. Dog expert Jonni Joyce exclaimed that they “looked like alligators on leashes.” They bit some 30 people, including a pregnant woman and a child.

Marcus Frejo, who is of Pawnee and Seminole ancestry and came from Oklahoma City, said, “We made it to the top of the hill and saw several bulldozers and trucks, and we walked up to the fence. There’s sacred sites up there, so one woman stepped through the fence, just feet in, telling them with her son at her side that this is sacred land. She yelled at them to stop.

“Bulldozers were less than 10 feet from her, and I was thinking, ‘Why can’t this bulldozer that is so close to her stop?’ So I ran in front of the bulldozer to stop, and security came up from behind and just grabbed me and flipped me over. All of a sudden I’m on the ground, and then more people started coming through the fence and got him off me.”

Ursula Young Bear, an Oglala Lakota, reported“The women joined arms, and we started saying, ‘Water is life!’ A dog came up and bit my leg, and right after that a man came up to us and maced the whole front line.”

The Bismarck Tribune reports protesters with fence posts, but no protesters had fence posts. The Tribune says, “According to several reports from security officers, knives were pulled on them or they witnessed protestors with large knives.” No defender had a knife. The camp forbids them, and the people are protesting nonviolently. Only the guards used dogs and mace.

Leann Eckroth did not speak to any of the hundreds of protesters. She did not go to the campsite, a mile down the road from the construction site.

“Reporting” on Native American protest in the North Dakota press does not include both sides. It does not pretend to the “objectivity” of ordinary journalism.

Neither the sheriff nor the Bismarck Tribune were on the scene. They did not speak with the tribes. The governor has now called out the National Guard.

Due to the numbers of protesters, the tractors retreated over the hill. Construction stopped.

  1. The Desecration of Graves

Demonstrators only learned later of the company’s premeditated grave desecration.

Tim Mentz, a Lakota elder, had recently explored this land with three of his cousins. He spoke last Saturday night to an assembly at the camp, where he reported discovering 27 graves of ancestors and 82 rare sites on the land bulldozed that day. He found the coup stick—Wagamuha—of the Strong Heart Society. He found the half rings or handles of the dipper which the Nachas of the Straight Lance People had made. These would have been the only ones in the North Dakota State Data Base.

Company archaeologists show no familiarity with Sioux practices. They walked right over this.

Mentz said that archaeologists call graves “burial mounds” to justify stealing the skeletons, and stressed the importance of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. One result of that legislation is that 20,000 indigenous skulls in the possession of the Smithsonian Institute are slowly being returned for burial.

On the destroyed site, Mentz’s team also found a sacred buffalo effigy.

David Meyers, who owns the land where the pipeline is to run, encouraged Mentz to look for the sites. Meyers is learning Lakota and wants to know why the land is important to the people. But he could not interfere, he said, where the land had been taken by the company through eminent domain. He says Energy Transfer Associates had threatened to sue him.

In district court in Washington, archaeological consultants for the company testified there were no grave sites on the land. On Friday, Jan Hasselman, attorney for the Sioux, introduced Mentz’s discoveries in hope that these sites would be protected. But on Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, bulldozers destroyed the very sites Mentz identified.

*On September 9th,  a U.S. District Court judge denied a temporary restraining order to halt construction of the DAP. But later in the day, the Obama administration blocked the pipeline at Lake Oahe pending review and consultation with the Lakota.

Prepared for the long haul, the tribe will appeal. Protectors will engage in resistance and civil disobedience into the winter.

Alan Gilbert is a John Evans Professor at the University of Denver.