This is the fifth 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 and El Salvador are examples of the dangers of mass incarceration promoted in both policy and practice and reliance on the prison system as a form of social control for both drug and gang activity. Although historically seen as a public health problem, shifting rhetoric and increased funding for policing turned drug use into a criminal problem in the United States. Soon after the inauguration of the “war on drugs” under President Nixon, the prison population began to rise. Rather than address root causes or disrupt self-reinforcing processes, many Latin American countries, under pressure from the United States, have adopted the strategy of mass incarceration. Most of these countries now face prison overcrowding along with intensified organized crime, and discriminatory policing and justice systems. In Venezuela and El Salvador, the prisons have become closed systems with internal rules and danger so extreme that guards patrol only the exterior. The following paper will outline some of the challenges faced by these two countries as well as some alternative approaches being implemented in Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Uruguay, all less punitive than the drug war.
Venezuela’s prison system is in large part a reflection of its judicial system which “was ranked one of the worst in the world…in 2013” (Insight Crime 2017). Corruption and an inadequate supply of judges and prosecutors have stymied due process while violence, poor conditions, and further corruption permeate the prisons themselves. As in El Salvador, the prison system perpetuates gang activity and illicit markets. Inmates rule, “justice” is meted out in violence and death, illicit businesses are managed from behind bars, and the national guard traffics everything from weapons to food into the prison economy (Wyss 2015 & The Economist 2012). Over 70 percent of those incarcerated still await trial and human rights abuses abound. “A slow judicial system, the lack of prison facilities, and excessive prison sentences [are] reasons for the poor condition of Venezuelan jails” (Panam 2015).
Venezuelan law has mechanisms for prosecuting prison officials and others who commit torture and engage in corruption, yet the judicial system holds little credibility. In 2012, Venezuela inaugurated “Operation Cambote” to coordinate restoration and improvement of facilities with inmates, engineers and minatory officials in each of the country’s 34 prisons (Robertson 2012). A lack of any news or analysis after it began, however, suggests a lack of meaningful and lasting reform. Nor has police reform been forthcoming – President Maduro’s “Safe Homeland Plan” of 2013 dispatched the military in a show-of-force crime prevention strategy that did little to curb violence and much to perpetuate impunity (US State Department 2013). Unfortunately, as the economic situation in the country worsens and the country struggles to secure the basic needs of the population and quell rebellion, penal reform remains low on the list of priorities.
In El Salvador, Mano dura (iron hand) initiated in 2003, has focused on reactive tough-on-crime policies. This hardline approach, with its strong public backing, is designed to “incriminate and incarcerate gang members, using (the) military to make up for the deficiencies in the police” (Ellis 2016, 32). The result has been an increasing reliance on the military, which receives strong backing from the U.S. through financial aid and training. As Wolf (2012) points out, the use of military repression exacerbates existing crime levels and breeds further insecurity, as well as leading to human rights abuses and impunity. Some place impunity near 90 percent and note that the accused can spend years behind bars before being sentenced (Insight Crime 2017).
Mano dura policies were supposed to be implemented in tandem with Mano extendida (open hand) policies whose aim was the social and economic integration for gang members. Yet of the 14,000 gang members who have been incarcerated, only 45 had been rehabilitated by 2005 (Ellis 2016, 32). In the meantime, overcrowded gang-controlled prisons have served as the perfect recruiting ground for new members and bases of operation for coordinating illicit activities and violence across the country. In 2015, the Salvadoran legislature proposed a Gang Reinsertion Law to give immunity to gang members who haven’t committed serious crimes and enable them to enter a government rehabilitation program, but the program has suffered from a lack of funding (Lohmuller). Since 2011, a poorly-funded prison rehabilitation program, “Yo Cambio” (I Change) has been slowly expanding to teach prisoners new skills, give them increasing responsibilities, improve public perception of prisoners, and allow participants to be separated from the rest of the prison population in the hopes of averting gang membership (Flores 2011). Unfortunately, U.S. aid comes earmarked largely for military training, leaving a shortage of funds that undermines the efficacy of these and other social reform programs.
While the President of El Salvador continues to press for hardline policies and militarized policing, the mayor of San Salvador is taking a different tack. Seeing gangs as a social problem, he has started a violence reduction program by investing in infrastructure and social programs, embracing youth, taking back public spaces, and “recruiting the kids to good things” (Grillo 2017). In his first year in office, the murder rate in San Salvador dropped by 16 percent, although “it is hard to know if this was caused by the mayor’s social work or the president’s policing” (Grillo 2017).
The following table using data from the World Prison Brief (2014) provides a comparison of imprisonment rates, pre-trial detention rates, and the murder rate in Venezuela, El Salvador, and several other countries in Latin America. In particular, we can see that the murder rate in Costa, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Uruguay have remained relatively low by comparison. Of these, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Uruguay have relatively low rates of occupancy while Bolivia and Nicaragua have the two lowest rates of imprisonment (though Venezuela is comparable here). It is worth our while then to consider some of the crime fighting alternatives that have been put forward in these four countries.
|Prison population total (including pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners)||Prison population rate (per 100,000 national population)||Pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners (percent of prison population)||Occupancy (based on official capacity)||Murder Rate (per 100,000 population)*|
|United States||2145100||666||20.3% (2015)||103.9% (2014)||4.9 (2015)**|
|Venezuela||54738||173||71.3% (2016)||153.9% (2016)||59|
|El Salvador||38237||588||33.8% (2017)||348.2% (2016)||81.2|
|Costa Rica||17440||352||17.2% (2014)||139.4% (2013)||11.8|
|Bolivia||14598||130||69% (2016)||253.9% (2016)||10.8|
|Nicaragua||10569||171||12.3% (2012)||128% (2010)||7|
*data from Gagne 2017
**data from Friedman 2017
While El Salvador has relied on Mano dura and Venezuela has made heavy use of pre-trial detention, Nicaragua has created the Office of Juvenile Issues as a means of addressing gangs and violence. Here the police “treat gang members as objects of social rehabilitation” rather than criminals (Ellis 2016, 32). The country has also separated the police and military, refused to allow military action in gang prevention, and formed a corps of 20,000 volunteers in local Committees for Social Prevention of Crime (Ellis 2016, 32). In 2016, Nicaragua released about 80 percent of its prison inmates “serving sentences of less than five years.” These releases were part of a “humanitarian policy of reconciliation and unity for Nicaraguan families” (Bargent 2016). The effects of the release are yet to be seen however. In Venezuela, a similar move “where over 13,000 prisoners were released onto the streets” was accompanied by “a near complete absence of oversight and control.” With a lack of government transparency that typifies this government, it has been “difficult to assess whether the release was a carefully considered response to minimize the impact of a genuine crisis, or a badly planned, knee-jerk reaction to that crisis” (Bargent 2016). The combination of improved policing and greater community involvement in policing in Nicaragua, however, may well result in a better outcome in this country.
Costa Rica has also shied away from harsh policing tactics, opting instead
to implement a series of modest reforms to its prisons and measures to strengthen its reintegration initiatives. These measures included the creation of an external oversight body to protect the rights of individuals in custody, enhanced training of penitentiary system police and staff, and…a plan to expand the country’s reinsertion programs in the prison system in coordination with local businesses.
In addition, the Narcotics Law was amended to minimize the imprisonment of “women in vulnerable situations.” Interestingly, these and other initiatives in Costa Rica have been promoted chiefly by reformers within the Ministry of Justice and Peace and the penitentiary system (Beltran & Davis 2014).
At the same time, Costa Rica’s prisons, like those in much of Central America, have large numbers of pretrial or preventative detainees that put prisons over capacity (Krumholtz 2016). The closing of San Sebastián preventative prison in Costa Rica and legal efforts by public defenders to promote alternatives to incarceration such as ankle bracelets for flight risks, mandatory work for petty theft, and rehabilitation for drug addicts, show promise yet still face immense political and financial obstacles (Krumholtz 2016).
In Bolivia, the failure of the drug war has led not to lasting prison reform, but to drug policy reform. While the government attempted to reduce detention through legal reforms in 2014 and 2016, public support for “iron fist” policing strategies and greater use of detention has remained strong. Taking a different tack then, the Bolivian government legalized coca production for domestic consumption in 2004, expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from the country four years later and, as of this year, has doubled the area of legal coca production (Tegel 2016). The coca production system is highly regulated and policed by local growers’ associations and, as abuses against growers have decreased and economic prospects for poor farmers have improved, trust in the police has increased (Grisaffi 2014). At the same time, Bolivia continues to be a transit nation for illicit drugs and about 20 percent of prisoners are incarcerated on drug-related charges. Furthermore, the prison system is among the top five of those now over capacity in Latin America (Yagoub 2016 and King 2016).
In Uruguay, the government never subscribed to the harsh “war on drugs” that criminalized both trafficking and use. In 1974, it passed Decree Law 14294 which kept strict sentences for sellers of illicit drugs while decriminalizing personal possession (Walsh 2016). The country also has low levels of crime (6 homicides per 100,000 people) and a highly transparent government with low levels of corruption (Walsh 2016). By the mid-2000s, the country
began to embrace other harm reduction approaches to drug policy. In 2004, the government approved measures designed to provide injectable drug users with easier access to clean needles, and over the next decade made increasingly explicit references to harm reduction in national policy documents. (Walsh 2016).
In addition to harm reduction measures, the prison system is, at least in part, focused on reform rather than retribution. Punta de Rieles is an “open” prison with free movement, activities, entrepreneurship training, and thriving businesses, the proceeds of which are deposited into a savings account available upon inmate release (Bernas 2017). Uruguay’s strong governance may well be its most positive feature, but its approach also sets an example for humane and effective drug policy and prison reform.
Each country in the Americas has faced a combination of successes and drawbacks in its attempts to address drug trafficking and organized crime within its borders and internationally. As Grisaffi (2014) points out, “Historically, the USA has dictated the terms of the ‘war on drugs,’ and has used its political and economic might to crush any debate on alternatives…[but] Latin American leaders have argued for more effective and humane alternatives.” While Venezuela and El Salvador struggle to implement meaningful reform in the face of corruption, violence and pressure, they have the opportunity to look to their neighbors for guidance and support. Whether it is bottom-up policing change, top-down prison overhaul or national drug policy reform, countries such as Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Uruguay are making inroads into crime reduction and prison reform in a challenge to the U.S.’ disastrous drug war.
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Bernas, Frederick & Rayan Hindi. (2017 Apr 9). The Uruguayan prison where inmates set up shop. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-39145551
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Tegel, Simeon. (2016 Sept 21). Bolivia ended its drug war by kicking out the DEA and legalizing coca. Vice News. Retrieved from https://news.vice.com/article/bolivia-ended-its-drug-war-by-kicking-out-the-dea-and-legalizing-coca
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Walsh, John and Geoff Ramsey. (2016). Uruguay’s Drug Policy: Major Innovations, Major Challenges. Brookings Institute: Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Latin America Initiative.
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Wyss, Jim. (2015 Apr 27). Study: Organized crime undermining Venezuelan institutions. Miami Herald. Retrieved from http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article19759443.html
Yagoub, Mimi. (2016 Nov 17). Report Highlights Overcrowding, Other Problems in Bolivian Prisons. InSight Crime. Retrieved from http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/report-highlights-overcrowding-other-problems-in-bolivia-prisons
 “Harsher sentencing of drug offences was a key development, in the context of the US government’s ‘war on drugs’ as declared by President Nixon in 1971 – with the consequence that admissions for drug offences accounted for almost one-third of all admissions to state and federal prisons over the period 1993 to 2009 (Rothwell, 2015)” (Jacobson, Heard & Fair 2017, 11)