Women Caught In The Crossfire Of The Drug War In Ecuador

Karla Pesantes in Guayaquil

In the drug trafficking industry, like many other industries of power, women are workers who stand at the lowest level, the most vulnerable. In this  business, there is even an additional element of vulnerability: their spouses or couples use patriarchal violence to force them to commit crimes.

According to the SNAI (National System of Assistance to Prisoners), about 54,8 percent of the 1.409 women in prison in Ecuador is due to drug traffic, and most of them for selling small amounts of drugs. This is a very similar percentage of the reality in Latin America, where more than 60 percent of the prison population is linked to the drug war, says a study from the Institute for Criminal Policy. In Ecuador, in particular, the Government confiscated 201 tons of drugs in 2021, an historical amount says official data.  

Vivianne Almeida, a human rights activist in Ecuador, says that it is not possible to “justify a crime, but if we listen to them and analyze the predicament more broadly we come to realize that society somehow pushed them into this path”. 

Trapped in prison 

It April 2020, Viviane Almeida and her team of the Municipal Direction of Women visited the Center of Liberty Deprivation of Guayas, a women’s prison in Ecuador. COVID had just hit Ecuador and the corpses of those who died because of the virus from COVID where left in the street. 

Women’s prison in Guayaquil. Credit: Marcos Pin

Despite the pandemic, Almeida decided to intervene in this prison. The penitentiary is located in the outskirts of Guayaquil, on one very busy commercial avenue. And it’s right next to the Litoral Penitentiary for men in Ecuador. 

At the female prison, Almeida met who is still in jail because her former partner was a drug dealer in town. We will call this woman, Linda, to protect her identity.

Linda reported to the team that “she knew her partner was committing a crime, she did not ask him about it  because she was afraid for her safety and her children’s safety. She also depended on him to provide for them.

Later on, ‘Linda’ was arrested after a forced entry in her house where the Police officers found drugs, and her partner ended up accusing her of the crime.

According to Almeida, stories about men´s abuse of power over women are common in prisons. “When we entered to the penitentiary we didn´t act like the Justice Department authorities, but they kept telling us that have committed the crime for necessity, for their children and even for love”. 

On TV or streaming series, the audience is used to see TV shows often depict women involved in drug trafficking as the cartel leaders or bosses. However, this is not the case. Most of the women involved in the drugs in Ecuador are imprisoned for lesser drug offenses.

These are not women who are at the top of the illegal drug trade. Most of them are not a serious threat to society and are detained for doing low level activities like transporting drugs or preparing them. 

“They are like unskilled workers, used, manipulated and trapped by their necessities. The drug cartel identifies these needs of money and knows how to convince the immigrants, they tell them it would be only one very easy job”, adds Almeida. 

Rebeca Trivino, a psychologist who works with young women in rehab, says that the message in the drug industry is clear: “Men are still dominant in the power structure and in the crimes related to drugs”. 

The visits of Almeida and the Municipality delegation to the prison took place for over a year, and delivered health services, computers, nutritious kits and even something so basic at many homes like sanitary pads. 

But the program stopped when the prison crisis exploded in Ecuador. This emergency in the penitentiaries has left 269 inmates killed since February 2021 till the present day. 

The Ecuadorian Government has reduced the crisis to a dispute between the drug lords and their gangs in the prisons. Although there are no women inmates among the deaths, because the prisons are right next to each other, the female prison is so close to the male prison that the bullets pass by very close to the female prisoners and their children. 

In fact, the walls of the female penitentiary are easily assaulted and used to enter weapons and drugs. “This well-known by the SNAI´s authorities and the Police”, states Martha Macias, a lawyer and former director of the female prison in 2018. 

Almeida and the Guayaquil´s Municipality decided to start the rehabilitation project in the female prison because of the prison was due the lack of support the inmates received. Almeida reported that “people think that once they are in jail, they lose their human rights”. 

Vivianne Almeida with a prisoner and her newborn daughter. Credit: Municipality of Guayaquil

Currently, the program is on hold and waiting for an alliance with the new Human Rights Department, created by the Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso. 

The perfect victims 

‘Pedro, who is a resident in Guayaquil,  ‘agreed to be interviewed by phone and without leaving his house in Bastion Popular, a poor neighborhood in Guayaquil. He has fear because “every night there are several cars passing by very close to his home”, since his daughter was killed.

‘Pedro’ raised his daughter ‘Claudia’ till she was 16 years old. But then she got pregnant and her boyfriend never took care of the child and the little boy, now 5, lives with ‘Pedro’. 

“My daughter tried very hard to work in many places like a cashier or cleaning lady, but she did not finish the school, so it was hard to find a job”, says this man. 

One day, ‘Claudia’ met a man who became her partner for 2 years until both got assassinated in El Empalme, a small town of Guayas´s province. 

According to the Police report, they were both in the car when a motorcycle with two other men intercepted the vehicle. One of the men jumped out from the motorcycle and stood in front the car, he shot several times until killed them. 

‘Claudia’ is now part of the the Police statistics. Between 2021 and the beginning of 2021, 3.023 violent crimes between 2021 have been committed. Among these deaths, 228 are women and the majority of the cases are “sicariato” or done by a hit man and linked to drug trafficking. 

For this father, the life of her 21 years old daughter is more than a statistic. “She always talked about working in a a beauty salon, and was trying to study for that. But later she met this guy, and I knew he was selling some drugs, but couldn´t say anything”. 

The violent crime of this young woman could be classified as a femicide, according to Fundacion Aldea, a gender organization in Ecuador. 

“There are crimes where the dispute among delinquents is expressed through the cruelty of the patriarchal violence over women´s body”, says the Foundation.

And for the organization, the past 2021 was the deadliest for women who were in poverty and social inequality. “Their bodies were used as spoils of war between drug cartels”. 

Vulnerable and without many opportunities

In 2018 when Martha Macias was in charge of the female prison in Guayaquil for over a year, she has witnessed the precarious situation of the inmates.

“We had women sleeping on the floor or using mattresses in one abandoned wing”, remembers Macias, who later went to preside the men penitentiary for 4 months. 

This study helped her to quantify the overcrowding in this prison, that only had a capacity for 400 inmates but it was occupied by 980. “At this moment the number of prisoners is much less, but it´s still overcrowded and without a real rehabilitation program. Under these circumstances it´s very complicated to leave the felony activity”. 

Macias says women detained for drug trafficking received very long sentences or are imprisonment without bail. “There are sentences of more than 10 years for handling small amounts of drugs”. 

Who are the women in jail for drug trafficking? Just like any other crime, Macias says the census reveled that they are usually “young women, who emigrated from the small cities in Ecuador, and also have their first sex encounter at the age of 12 or 15. Many of them are orphans or have escaped from the house. And in most cases they committed the crime because their partner asked or forced them”. 

According to Macias, these women are vulnerable, an easy prey for delinquency. 

Also, Almeida from the Municipal Department indicates that these women don’t have too many alternatives. “They have no education or economical resources, or even conscious to escape from violence”. 

Therefore, they see it as “normal” to commit a crime asked by their loved ones, “and then society judges them and wonders ‘why couldn’t they leave leave their husbands’?”. 

There are also other factors that increase the problem like poverty and unemployment. In Ecuador, 32 percent cent of the population is poor or live with barely 84 dollars every month. 

And 6,7 percent of women are unemployed, and when the COVID pandemic arrived, these women were very vulnerable and working in the informal sector in the streets. Around 23 percent of underemployment is among women, that means they work less hours, has fewer incomes and not insurance. 

“Everything has come after the other, the pandemic aggravated the unemployment, cutting the access to opportunities and the social development for women”, says the psychologist Trivino. 

But the status of these women does not change once they enterentered the crime world. They don’t become the owners of their lives. On the contrary, they live in violence, “the abuse of their partners is complete, physical, psychological and sexual”.

For Trivino, they have very few opportunities to move forward and leave the felony activities.  “In 2016 I could treat some women at the female prison in Guayas, and it was clear they have gone rock bottom, because they have lost their freedom, children and health”. 

Trivino, Almeida and Macias, say that prevention is perhaps the only path to mitigate the problematic. 

For these three professionals, it’s pertinent to treat the causes, and also give opportunities to the girls and teens that later end up in jail. In 2021, more than 2.000 women were incarcerated due to crimes related to drugs, says official data

“When you only find poverty and violence, it´s like a dead end, and they are in the corner with fewer choices. There is a lot of work to do in prevention and education, it’s  a historical debt from the society to the little girls”, says Almeida. 

But coming from the Ecuadorian Public Institutions there are very few policies and resources, according to the lawyer Macias. “The programs we have are not focused on to treat the causes, and the efforts are few, and sometimes it depends on private organizations”. 

The truth is that Ecuador is a nation where the social protection of children, teenagers and women are still pending. As an example of this, we have the data from the Human Rights Department: 3.000 girls from age 10 to 16 are forced to have a child every year, and 7 out of 10 suffer sexual abuse. These girls and teens don’t have too many choices and are destined to repeat the same circle of violence of their mothers or families. 



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