Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ecuador Cracks Down on Inhumane Drug Treatment

While troubling approaches to drug treatment remain the norm in many Latin American countries, the government of Ecuador has made important progress against unregulated rehabilitation clinics. So far in 2013, Ecuadorean officials have freed some 500 people from unlicensed facilities in the country, accusing their owners of sponsoring abuse and torture.

With public treatment facilities limited throughout the hemisphere, most individuals seeking drug rehabilitation in the region must turn to private clinics. Due to a lack of regulation and the deep stigma commonly associated with drug abuse, these centers frequently submit patients to deplorable conditions and questionable -- even inhumane -- treatment regimens.

In Mexico, for instance, largely unregulated treatment centers called “anexos” are known to beat and psychologically abuse their patients. In an illustration of the lack of state control over the practice, a number of anexos along the northern border have even been used as recruitment facilities by drug trafficking organizations.

In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, the problem of inhumane drug treatment is exacerbated by the fact that many inpatients are held involuntarily, as part of a court order. They are frequently given no say in the terms and extent of their detention. This is the case in Brazil, where the governments of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states have approved the forced treatment of crack cocaine addicts. Critics argue that these measures are thinly-veiled attempts to clear the streets of “undesirable” social elements, and ultimately subject individuals to cruel and degrading treatment. Although neighboring Uruguay has earned praise for its marijuana regulation initiative, lawmakers there are poised to pass a similarly controversial forced treatment bill.  

Ecuador, by contrast, is bucking the trend. El Universo reports that on Friday, the government announced that roughly 20 uncertified treatment facilities have been broken up this year, with authorities rescuing some 500 people. The centers’ operators have been charged with torture, kidnapping and human trafficking, among other crimes, according to Attorney General Galo Chiriboga. The announcement was made a day after police broke up an uncertified rehabilitation clinic in Quito, which made patients undergo a crude kind of electric shock therapy involving a wet floor and an electrical charge.  “These people were being held against their will, overcrowded, in degrading, unhealthy conditions. They were sleeping on the floor. They had no sewer system,” a justice official told the AFP.

While it may not seem like much, these operations are a major positive development. They are among the most active state interventions against inhumane drug treatment in the region, and further boost Ecuador’s reputation for adopting a relatively progressive approach towards drug policy. The country decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs earlier this year, and President Rafael Correa has said that he supports “partial” legalization of marijuana. Last month Ecuadorean drug officials signed an agreement with their Uruguayan counterparts to “deepen the debate” on drugs in the hemisphere, suggesting the Andean country may be next in line to challenge the dominant global drug paradigm.

News Briefs
  • The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has released a new report on citizen security in Latin America. The publication claims that insecurity is on the rise in the region, with one in every three Latin Americans reporting being a victim of a violent crime in 2012. The UNDP also found that crime is holding the region back economically, asserting that the region’s GDP would have been 0.5 percent higher last year were it not for its high homicide rate (See the Miami Herald). The UNDP authors also called for security policies to go beyond crime control and include social development, which for Spanish news agency EFE is an argument that “mano dura” policies have failed.
  • Following popular backlash, Cuban authorities have announced they will back away from plans to close private movie theaters and video game salons. In addition to a demonstration of political savvy on the government’s part, the AP notes that analysts see this as evidence of growing influence of private entrepreneurs on the island.
  • The Colombian government claims that it has uncovered a plot by FARC rebels to assassinate former President Alvaro Uribe. Yesterday, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told reporters that the alleged plot was to be carried out by the FARC's Teofilo Forero column, which operates in central Colombia. The Associated Press reports that it is unclear if the FARC leadership was aware of the plot. Semana magazine suggests that, if true, it would imply that the guerrilla group’s leaders are unable to control rank and file members.
  • Yesterday Ecuador’s National Court of Justice affirmed a lower court ruling which found that oil giant Chevron was liable for decades of environmental damage in the Lago Agrio region, although El Pais and the Wall Street Journal note the judges cut a $19 billion fine in half, tossing out punitive damages that were imposed in 2011.
  • After months of negotiations, Mexico’s main parties are nearing an agreement on political reforms aimed at increasing the power of Congress relative to the presidency, allowing them to serve consecutive terms. Jose Gonzalez Morfin told El Universal that the PAN, PRD and PRI are approaching a consensus on the issue, and could present a proposal later this week. Reuters notes that the political reforms are a “bargaining chip” for President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is hoping to receive support for his oil reform plan in exchange.
  • The L.A. Times reports on the plight of tomato farm workers in northern Mexico, many of whom are indigenous migrants from poorer southern states. Laborers are paid some $10 for a day’s work, and made to live in appalling conditions on fenced compounds owned by landholders.
  • Dino Bouterse, son of Surinamese President Desi Bouterse, has been charged by U.S. officials of accepting money to facilitate Hezbollah militants seeking weapons and a base of operations in South America. The BBC reports that U.S. officials say Bouterse met with undercover agents posing as Hezbollah fighters, meaning that the extent to which the Islamic militant group was actually involved in the plot is suspect.
  • As noted in yesterday’s post, Venezuela’s National Assembly appears poised to grant President Nicolas Maduro temporary decree powers. Yesterday the legislative branch voted to strip an opposition lawmaker of immunity and allow her to be prosecuted on embezzlement charges. She will likely be replaced by a congressman more in line with ruling PSUV, giving the party the 99 votes it needs to approve the measure expanding Maduro’s powers.