'War on drugs' leaves Latin American women's lives in ruins

The war on drugs in Latin America is exacerbating the femicide in the region, say women's groups and activists.

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

'VIOLENCE associated with the "war on drugs" and organised crime, which includes government corruption in some countries, has specific consequences for women in Latin America,' says Chilean lawyer Patsili Toledo, a member of 'AntĄgona', a research group of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and a specialist in the subject of femicide in the continent.

For the very first time, feminist organisations are demanding that Latin American governments undertake a review of their current anti-drug policies. Hundreds of organisations from different countries in the region are raising their voices to warn of the impact of the 'war on drugs' on the lives of women, especially increases in the incidence of femicide.

As in war, the cruel rape of women is often symbolic: it creates cohesion within the armed groups, reaffirms 'masculinity' and is a way of attacking 'the enemy's morale'. But the 'domestic' violence is getting worse too: while there are women around the world who are threatened by their partners, the risk increases substantially when men have easy access to weapons and are less likely to be brought to justice, as in Mexico and Guatemala, where the impunity rate exceeds 95%.

Another aspect of the relationship between drug trafficking and women is that many of them end up in prison for drug offences. Federal prisons in Argentina reflect this phenomenon: most women inmates are accused of drug trafficking on a small scale, like mules.

According to Toledo, this war has shown to be harmful for women: homicides of women have increased in Central America and Mexico; in countries like Honduras, the increase is four times higher than the rate for men. Many of these cases also involve sexual aggression, torture and mutilation. 'In El Salvador, the rate of homicides where the victim is a woman is the highest in the region: 13.9 per 100,000 women. In Guatemala, the rate is 9.80˙ per 100,000 and in some Mexican states like Chihuahua, Baja California and Guerrero, the rate tripled between 2005 and 2009, reaching 11.1 per 100,000. In contrast, rates in countries like Chile and Argentina do not exceed 1.4 per 100,000 and most of them occurred in the context of domestic abuse,' stated Toledo.

The call for a drug policy review is made by the Feminist Regional Network for Human Rights and Gender Justice, which comprises organisations from six Latin American countries: ELA˙ Latin American Team for Justice and Gender (Argentina), Corporaci˘n Humanas (Chile, Colombia and Ecuador), Equis: Justice for Women (Mexico) and Demus: Bureau for the Defence of the Rights of Women (Peru). Recognised activists like Anna Carcedo (Costa Rica), Marcela Lagarde (Mexico) and Socorro Ramirez (Colombia) have also joined the initiative.

Ahead of the intergovernmental Summit of the Americas held on 14-15 April in the Colombian city of Cartagena, NGOs from across the region added their voices to this call. 'Violence against women, deeply rooted in sexism and structural discrimination against women, increases in the current context of armed violence in the region, directly related to drug trafficking. Therefore, the severity of this situation requires an urgent review of current drug policy in order to reduce violence and corruption that feeds extreme forms of violence against women,' says a statement signed by the organisations.

Patsili Toledo stressed the need to end the war on drugs in its current form, because so far, it's just profiting the traffickers, money launderers and countries that sell arms: 'The massive use of weapons feeds violence and undermines the judicial system; the impunity and lack of control make murdering easier and cheaper.'

She added that while violence against women exists in peacetime, it intensifies in times of war. The 'war on drugs' requires global changes in drug control policies that, unfortunately, no law against femicide approved in recent years in the region has mentioned. 'Ending the war will not eradicate the femicides in Central America and Mexico,' said Toledo, but it could at least bring them down to the rates seen in other countries that are lucky to be located further from the main trafficking routes. - WNN-Women News Network (                 

 Women News Network culture columnist and Latin American social critic Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente˙ is a feminist, and a Muslim woman, living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Born in Chile, Rivera is also an enthusiastic speaker on issues of gender and empowerment who has led volunteer programmes for rural communities in the Peruvian highlands. Through her human rights work she believes strongly in the power of words to change the world.

*Third World Resurgence No. 260, April 2012, p 41