“The Professor, the Bikini Model and the Suitcase Full of Trouble”

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An article appeared in the New York Times Magazine yesterday about a physics professor who claims he was duped into unknowingly transporting cocaine from Argentina by a bikini model he met over the Internet.  But at his trial, prosecutors introduced text messages from the professor to the bikini model acknowledging that he knew that he was carrying drugs.   Now he is serving a 4 ½ year jail sentence in Argentina.

The real story about the transport of drugs and incarceration in Argentina is about the numerous women who transport small amounts of drugs across the Argentine border for little money (“drug mules”), face long criminal sentences, and are filling up Argentinian jails.

The International Human Rights Clinics at the University of Chicago Law School and Cornell Law School and the Avon Global Center for Women & Justice have been working with the Defensor del Pueblo de la Nacion  in Argentina on a report that will be released this May about the causes, conditions, and consequences of women’s imprisonment.  Our survey, randomly administered to over 30% of Argentina’s women prisoners in the federal prison system, showed that over 50% of women were in jail for drug-related crimes.

In the interviews we conducted of women in prison in Argentina in October 2012, we met with many women who said they did not know they were carrying drugs, including, Sharon Armstrong, the woman who is briefly mentioned in the New York Times Magazine article.  One young woman said a friend asked her to carry chocolates across the border that had drugs laced in it and another was asked to carry soap with drugs.   These women are all serving a 4 ½  year jail sentence.

Under U.S. foreign policy pressure as part of the “war on drugs”, many Latin American countries adopted harsh drug laws.  Consequently, the incarceration rate in Argentina for women increased by more than 800%, almost double the increase in incarceration for men for the same period.  It is high time that the United States and other countries such as Argentina re-think the lengthy jail sentences for people who make little profit from the drug business, but pay the price for it.

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