Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why So Many Drug Arrests in Ecuador?

One year after Ecuador took a step towards decriminalizing drug possession, the number of people arrested on drug charges seems to have unexpectedly doubled.

Yesterday, Ecuador’s La Hora reported that police statistics show 4,116 individuals were arrested for small- and large-scale drug trafficking and related crimes in the first half of 2014, up from 2,937 arrests during the same period last year. Of these, 627 were minors, nearly double the 315 arrested in the first six months of 2013.

These figures should probably be taken with a grain of salt, as it is not entirely clear what the paper considers drug-related crimes (La Hora lumps carrying an illegal firearm along with drug sales, and vaguely refers to other “associated” offenses) and a chart accompanying the article appears to give contradictory numbers.

Still, accepting it at face value, the report is surprising. Little over a year ago, official drug agency CONSEP announced a change to its approach to drug possession, setting maximum quantities for illicit substances to be considered for individual consumption. The move was interpreted by regional and local press as a significant drug policy reform. But when Ecuadorean Attorney General Diego Garcia clarified that the changes were only intended as recommended guidelines, and would not be mandatory for judges, this received far less play in the media.

So while police officials told La Hora that the figures suggest an increase in youths becoming involved in drug trafficking, it’s worth questioning how many of these youths would be penalized at all under CONSEP’s revised guidelines.

Fortunately, the future for Ecuador’s drug policies is looking bright. In January 2014, lawmakers approved reforms to the country’s penal code meant to separate drug traffickers from small-time users. The changes will overturn the controversial Law 108, in place since 1991. As Coletta Youngers writes in the latest issue of NACLA’s Report on the Americas, the measure has become known as one of the harshest anti-drug laws in the region:
Law 108 does not distinguish the drug in question, the quantity of drug involved, or whether an alleged crime is violent or non-violent. All of those convicted of a trafficking offense are subjected to the same severe mandatory minimums of 12 years in prison. Furthermore, a drug trafficker can be indicted in multiple categories—for example, possession and transport—and thus the sentences can sum up to a maximum of 25 years. As the minimum sentence for homicide is 16 years, someone convicted for a low-level drug offense, like small-scale dealing, can end up with a higher sentence than a murderer.
Such draconian sentencing, combined with a policy approach that measured success in terms of how many individuals were jailed, has fueled alarming levels of overcrowding in Ecuador’s prisons.

The new penal code, which will establish more proportional sentences as low as two to six months for small-scale offenders, is still being implemented. As El Comercio reports, CONSEP’s recommendations were not automatically included in the new code, and the agency is currently preparing separate, more detailed guidelines based on the quantity in possession. According to Youngers, however, once in effect the reform could apply retroactively to thousands of prisoners in the country, potentially offering a major relief to its overburdened penal system.

News Briefs
  • Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Orosio Chong has appointed a new head of an independent agency to address immigration along the country’s southern border with Guatemala, El Universal reports.  The L.A. Times notes that the nominee, Humberto Mayans, is a PRI senator.
  • Guatemalan President Otto Perez told reporters yesterday that he and the presidents of Honduras and El Salvador are considering traveling to the United States to speak with Congressional leaders and President Barack Obama about the surge in unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • At the BRICS summit in Fortaleza yesterday, the governments of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa released a statement announcing the creation of the highly-anticipated BRICS bank, to be called the “New Development Bank.” Control of the new bank, which will receive an initial $100 billion in capital, was divided up among the members. As the Financial Times reports, the bank will be headquartered in Shanghai, China, and its first president will be from India. The first chair of the bank's board of directors will be Brazilian, and the head of the board of governors will be from Russia. El Universal reports that today the BRICS leaders are meeting with their counterparts from the UNASUR bloc in Brasilia.
  • With the World Cup over, authorities in Brazil are now turning their attention to preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The Wall Street Journal reports on the preparations already underway, noting that the task may be even more challenging than laying the groundwork for the soccer tournament. The Washington Post, meanwhile, notes that officials are optimistic about the Olympics in the wake of the relatively successful World Cup.
  • This week’s issue of The Economist features an overview of insecurity and crime in Latin America, which it describes as the region’s biggest problem. While the magazine points to the drug trade and income inequality as factors behind the trend, it ultimately places blame on the lack of strong judicial institutions in Latin America, as well as a need for greater emphasis on community policing.
  • During a speech on Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced plans to move forward what he called a “fiscal revolution,” El Universal reports. According to the Miami Herald, the project will include an audit of every company that received dollars at preferential rates during the first half of the year, as well as a potential shakeup of his administration’s economic ministers.
  • In a column for El Espectador, Cesar Rodriguez Gaviria of Bogota-based NGO Dejusticia reflects on taboos regarding discussion of institutional racism in Colombia, drawing on recent remarks by Brazilian soccer star Neymar to compare it to persistent discrimination in neighboring Brazil.
  • The full chamber of Colombia’s highest administrative court will hear arguments in the case of Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez’s controversial and allegedly illegal re-election in 2012, instead of the smaller five-judge section set to rule on the case earlier this week.  As El Espectador reports, the development is good news for Ordoñez, as his ouster was virtually guaranteed in a ruling from the smaller section, and he is believed to have more allies in the full chamber.  

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