Women filling prisons in Argentina for drug offenses – a photographic essay | Argentina


Paola left her home when she was 13 to escape abuse and violence. She lived on the streets for five years until she got pregnant. Her boyfriend left her when he found out. Without work or food, Paola agreed to sell drugs to a leader in the neighborhood.

She only had to deliver the drugs when her boss’ clients appeared on a street corner. With the money she earned in the first few months, she was able to rent a room and live there with her newborn baby. With a new partner and the basic needs of her family covered, she felt she could give up her job as a trader.

Sonia, 38, wears makeup in her cell, she is detained accused of drug trafficking, still without a final conviction
  • Above, Paola, 35, bakes fried cakes for relatives who come to visit her. Above, Sonia, 38, puts on make-up in her cell. She is detained, accused of drug trafficking, without final conviction. Right, a count of inmates in ward two of Unit 47. Far right, Sharon, 38, waits in her cell for officers to enter to count the inmates.

A count of the number of women detained
Sharon, 38, waits in her cell for the police to enter to count the prisoners

She had two more children and life seemed to be working out. But her partner left and Paola started selling drugs again to feed her three children. Again, the job seemed easy and the money started to flow: “What I earned in a month with drugs, I earned in six months by cleaning houses.

A pattern is developing in Latin America: Aggressive drug policies fill the region’s prisons with women, many of whom are forced into the drug trade because they have no other alternatives to support themselves. of their family.

Yanet, 28, jailed for drug dealing, celebrates birthday with her children during visit
Giuliana, 20, jailed for selling marijuana, kisses her mother on visit
Nahir, 19, plays with Estela, 30, whom she considers her big sister in prison
  • Above, Yanet, 28, imprisoned for selling drugs, celebrates her birthday with her children during a visit. Top left, 20-year-old Giuliana, jailed for selling marijuana, kisses her mother during a visit. Top right, 19-year-old Nahir plays with 30-year-old Estela, whom she considers her big sister in prison

In Argentina, 43% of inmates are serving a sentence for drug possession, according to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. It is, by far, the main cause of imprisonment for women in Argentina. By way of comparison, the second cause of imprisonment – theft – accounts for only 9% of convictions.

The pages of the detainee diary
The pages of the detainee diary
  • Pages from the detainee diary. Top left, “Today is very special for me because I became the mother of a boy who is now seven years old.” Top right, “I look forward to my freedom and to being with my family again, this time forever!” “

Getting out of the drug trap is difficult for women in poor neighborhoods. For many, drugs have been a lifelong presence in their lives from their early years. Nahir, 19, in prison in Buenos Aires, takes care of his dark hair and always keeps a long smile intact. She first tried cocaine when she was 15. Having a mother addicted to drugs was almost a natural thing to do. The powder was there on the bed, and she and her boyfriend casually tried it.

Maria, 20, talks to her cellmate Aldana, 20, who was separated due to an argument with another detainee
  • Maria, 20, talks to her cellmate Aldana, 20, who was separated due to an argument with another detainee

Nahir became entangled with drugs. She became addicted and, having no money, began to steal in order to buy more. One day, the police chased her through the narrow alleys of a slum when she was going to buy drugs. She escaped and hid in an abandoned house and fell asleep for an entire day. One week, she consumed 45 grams and stole 10,000 pesos. It could only end in two ways: a prison cell or a coffin. She was imprisoned. “Thank goodness,” she said. “I was taken. I lost the most precious thing: freedom; but I stopped using it and I’m still alive.

Nahir, 19, jailed for drug possession, is part of a group of inmates who inaugurated the young adult quarter of Unit 47
  • Nahir, 19, jailed for drug possession, is part of a group of inmates who inaugurated the young adult quarter of Unit 47

Selling drugs is a survival strategy for women in Latin America. They are the most visible – and the most exposed – face of drug trafficking in the region. They are also, in most cases, the product of their situation: violence, lack of education, poverty, asymmetric power relations and inequity.

Yamila, 22, sunbathes on the patio of her detention center
  • Above, Yamila, 22, is sunbathing on the patio of her detention center. On the right, the detainees in the courtyard in front of their cell to which they have access from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Prisoners in the courtyard outside their cells

Alejandro Corda, lawyer and criminal law researcher on drugs, declares: “We have a failed strategy, there is a criminal policy targeting petty traffickers, it is a usual practice which gives results by arresting as many as possible. . These petty traffickers are women, they are the weakest link in the chain, catching them does not require research or development. But these women are not the leaders in the drug trade.

Nahir, 19, plays rugby in Unit 47
Inmates play rugby in Unit 47
Inmates play rugby in Unit 47

The incarceration of women for drug-related offenses in the region has increased dramatically over the past two decades, and has increased at a much higher rate than the imprisonment of men, according to the Washington Office for Latin American Affairs.

Inmates study and share a moment inside their cells
Detainees watch television in their cells
  • Top left, inmates study and share a moment inside their cells. Top right, detainees watch television in their cells. Below, 22-year-old Yamila chats with her relatives in prison. Since the start of the pandemic, it is accepted that all detainees have a cell phone

Yamila, 22, talks to her relatives in prison.  Since the start of the pandemic, it is accepted that all detainees have a cell phone

Paola is currently serving a four-year sentence in Unit 47 prison in Buenos Aires. She is one of 22,000 women convicted of drug-related offenses. Inside the prison, Paola is an exemplary pupil, studying at primary school level. She does her homework, asks her companions for help when she doesn’t know something, cooks for the women in the ward, and helps her children at school over the phone. Paola doesn’t know what to do when she is released; she does not want to go back to prison but recognizes that drug trafficking is an easy and attractive alternative.


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