Isabel Erreguerena is the co-director of Equis Justicia para las Mujeres, a feminist NGO in Mexico, working towards “justice for all women” since 2011. Isabel is originally from Mexico, and worked for the Mexican government before moving to the U.S, where she worked for the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the United Nations in New York, and pursued a Masters in International Law with a Human Rights specialization in Washington DC. After 6 years abroad, Isabel returned to Mexico, first working for the National Commission of Human Rights (the Ombudsperson office), and then pursuing a doctorate in social anthropology. During her fieldwork, she discovered EQUIS as a volunteer, and fell in love with the organization, where she progressed, first from volunteer to part-time staff, and last December, to co-director.
“Why did I fall in love with EQUIS? Because the investigation we do is applied investigation.”
EQUIS “does not perceive justice solely as access to court, but rather all the conditions which lead a woman to ask, or not ask, for justice, such as how the state prevents violence and injustice”.
EQUIS also emphasizes intersectionality, and their understanding that “there are different types of women who face different obstacles.” This is built into the organization’s DNA, as evidenced in their specific work with trans and indigenous women, as well as with the “invisibilized population” of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women.
While EQUIS approaches women’s rights from many angles, and a total of 8 areas of work, our interview focused specifically on the area of Women, Incarceration, Reinsertion and Drug Policy, and EQUIS’ work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women.
Incarcerated Women: Victims of the War on Drugs
Isabel first shared with us the research that led EQUIS to dedicate itself to, and work with, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women.
“Looking at women deprived of liberty in Mexico, we realized that in Mexico, and throughout Latin America, a large percentage of incarcerated women were deprived of their liberty because of the war on drugs. In Mexico, women only represent 5-7% of the penitentiary population. But at a federal level, the primary cause for which women are incarcerated are drug-related crime, representing 43%. Almost half of incarcerated women are incarcerated for such crimes.
This made us start investigating the effect of the war on drugs. We specifically started with incarceration, but we later began to see a series of phenomena. So we asked ourselves, why are there so many women deprived of liberty for these crimes? And we began to take note of the women’s profile: the majority are incarcerated for possession for commercial purposes. They are wrongly called “mules”, those who carry slightly more than is permitted. Through the qualitative work of interviews, we realized these women are normally the primary caretakers of children or people with disabilities, for instance, and are in situations of poverty.”
What are the populations that disproportionately suffer the impacts of incarceration?
“Looking at statistics, specifically in the Penitentiary Population Survey, one realizes that these women:
- Are first time offenders
- Do not have concurrent offenses
- Committed non-violent crimes
- Mostly have a basic education
- 70% are mothers.
All of this shows us that even though, in our collective imagination, we have this idea that the war against drugs arrests El Chapo, those who are the most affected are women, specifically of low socioeconomic classes.
Beyond this, I have to say we have a serious issue of a lack of data. Although the Penitentiary Population survey provides us with some data, it is very limited. When we asked the authorities of penitentiaries in the country questions about the number of disabled, indigenous and LBT women, we realized there is underreporting, and an erroneous perception, per se, of these categories.
When asked about women with disabilities, their responses were completely contrary to basic definitions, and they used words like manco, cojo (synonymous with cripple or lame), and focused primarily on physical disability. Psycho-social disability, for instance, is completely invisibilized.
But what we can see from this data, is that the majority are poor women who are principal caretakers, who are mothers. These would be the central characteristics.”
How does this disproportional incarceration affect these women?
“When you look at the National Penitentiary Population Survey, of the women detained by the Marines, 41% declared they were raped. And of the women detained by the army, 21% declared they were raped. I interviewed 15 women incarcerated for crimes against public health at a penitentiary center here in Mexico City, and all of them had been raped.
We also do not have clear information about the people dying of COVID inside prisons. The only official information is that of the National Human Rights Commission here in Mexico. And they themselves have said publicly that the information they have is incomplete because the identity cards are given by state authorities.
And what they are realizing is that they don’t test. Last year we had the highest deaths in prisons, but we don’t know what from. We don’t know who, and we don’t know how. In the State of Mexico, 80% of incarcerated people share a cell with 15 people, and 30% do not have access to water. So how can you maintain a safe distance? How can you maintain hygiene without basic living conditions?
And if women are sentenced, they are not supported. There’s a social condemnation in three ways:
1) Because you’re a “bad woman” for getting involved, 2) Because you are a delinquent. 3) Because if it’s related to drugs it is much worse.
These women generally get out without any family support. And in Mexico, many jobs request a letter of no criminal record, despite laws against this. The principal form of identification in Mexico is the one you use to vote, and when you are incarcerated, they take away your right to vote. For your identification to be returned, in the cases we have, it takes about 2 years. So imagine, without identification, how are you going to have a house, how will you be able to rent something? And women inherently come out much more alone than men, because us women are the support networks.”
So we became aware of all the obstacles women faced upon getting out, and we began to work with them, incorporating an internship program at EQUIS with them. We also facilitated a space for formerly incarcerated women, Red de Acciones por Las Justicias, from which three collectives, and two organizations emerged, with different focuses, from providing direct assistance, to working the theme of art for those who leave the prison system.
We did a meeting with formerly incarcerated women from the United States, Canada and Mexico, and they face the same problems upon getting out. In addition to what I already mentioned, the difficulty of finding a home and a job, mental health is a serious issue. Especially for those who went through solitary confinement.
What are EQUIS’ mission and vision specific to the area of Women, Incarceration, and Drug Policy?
“In summary, after telling you a bit of the story, we believe in de-penalization and the responsible regulation of drugs. Because it is clear that the war on drugs has brought no results. Consumption hasn’t decreased, it has increased, violence has increased significantly, including against women. Assassinations in public spaces have increased significantly, as well as forced disappearances, which also disproportionately affect women, given that 8/10 persons looking for disappeared persons in Mexico are women.
We seek responsible regulation, and to replace incarceration as the only solution. We are now seeing the Senate’s agenda this year, and the majority of propositions have to do with prison. Prison is not the solution, it should be the last option, and we need to think about the damage it does to society.
We are also working towards social reinsertion. In other words, what we do with the people who leave prison, what we can do as a society. That is when we accompanied the Amnesty proposition, which I will tell you more about.”
How and why do Latin American women become involved in drug trafficking? Do similar experience patterns emerge across the region?
“In Mexico, there are many communities of cultivators that package marijuana, for example. There’s a group of cultivators of poppy as well. This isn’t considered something bad, but rather part of their culture, as is the case in Bolivia and Colombia with coca.
While we see these phenomena, what the numbers indicate, is that within the crimes against public health, the women who transport quantities are overrepresented. They are at the bottom of the pyramid of delinquency, which makes them more prone to being detained, because they are in the part most vulnerable to detention.
The majority get involved because of a lack of job opportunities, their economic situation, a lack of state care systems, or coercion. There are many cases of gender-based violence where their partner forces them, like Orfa’s case. Also, once again due to gender roles, women are often in the places where drugs are stored. These are the phenomena we have seen.
But it is very important to tell you that there is a very serious issue of fabrication of guilt in Mexico. I’m going to tell you difficult stories, but I think these types of stories are necessary. And they also have to do with abuse by the police and military forces.
There was a case that shocked me, of a woman who was asking for a ride. A man gave her one, and he had a relatively high amount of drugs in his glove apartment, and they were stopped. The Federal Police took her, when he was the one in possession of the drugs, and they raped her anally for four hours. When the medical examiner arrived, they told her “You disgust me, I am not going to examine you.” The next day they had to perform an anal reconstruction surgery. And she continued in prison without a sentence when I interviewed her. And she told me this with integrity, and I think these stories are important because it is important to give them a face.
There is also Gaby’s Story:
She was raped, she had a baby, and at 6 months the baby could not hold its head up. So she went to the doctor, who told her the X-ray cost 4500+ pesos (more than 200 dollars). And she didn’t have the money. Somebody approached her to say that they could give her the money, if she started taking marijuana from Oaxaca to Mexico City. And on one of these trips, they arrested her and put her in prison for more than 10 years.
These are horrifying stories that have to do with the need to rethink militarism and militarization in Mexico, which are specific phenomena, and the abuse of human rights in these contexts.”
These stories are difficult and heartbreaking, but it is primordial to tell them, and to see the suffering of the women behind the statistics.
Your website indicates that in recent years, the number of incarcerated women has increased significantly. What is behind this increase?
“In Mexico there has been an increase in the number of crimes that have mandatory pretrial detention. Mandatory pretrial detention is basically automatic preventive prison, before you are sentenced. Normally, how it should work is that it is only used when there is proof that there is danger of flight or that you harm the victim.
But in Mexico there has been an amplification of the crimes that have mandatory pretrial detention, where you don’t have to prove anything. Just for this crime, they automatically put you in prison. Only by a little, by 0.2%, women are more affected by pretrial detention than men.”
These constitutional changes, these propositions which seek incarceration as a final solution, and the increase in incarceration of people without sentences, have caused the increase in the number of women in prison.”
Does the drug policy in Mexico in respect to women differ from other Latin American countries? Or are there similar patterns for other Latin American women involved in drug trafficking?
“They are very similar models. Now that we’ve done the regional meeting, we see the same thing throughout Latin America. The majority of the penitentiary popular in Latin America are incarcerated for crimes against public health.
There’s the case of Uruguay, which is an excellent example of regulation. Costa Rica is also a good example in terms of liberations, but these good practices are exceptions to the rule. Generally speaking, they have the same standards.”
What specific strategies of social insertion does EQUIS propose?
“We are about to publish a document, where we establish certain strategies. We realized that there are no reinsertion plans at any penitentiary center, with the exception of Mexico City. This affects the majority of women. There is a bad custom in Mexico, supposedly, for security reasons, to release women in the early hours of the morning.
Imagine being released at dawn in unsafe zones, where the prisons are, and not having any money. I remember a migrant woman who told me: “I came out, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anything. So I got a taxi, and I asked to use the driver’s phone. Fortunately he gave it to me and I spoke with the investigator who had been running investigations in the prison, and I asked if she could receive me at her home.
But for the majority of women, the most they get is a pamphlet. So it is necessary to create plans for social reinsertion. And what must these plans have? Firstly, it is necessary to analyze the contexts of women deprived of liberty, to see the structural problems due to which, many times, they came to commit an offense.
Secondly, we must include multiple authorities. It cannot only be the penitentiary authority, it must be connected to other authorities as well, for example the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Health, for it to work.
There also needs to be a creation of mechanisms to monitor these plans. Likewise it is important that there be information systems within the penitentiary centers to create the programs. And social reinsertion strategies need to take education into account, so that the women know of these options and can access social reinsertion.
In the same way, it is necessary to offer work options in accordance with real necessities and not according to stereotypes. There has been a lot of criticism that women usually receive manicurist or hairdressing courses. And I was talking to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, and they told me,
“Isa, the thing is that right now, I couldn’t be an engineer for Nissan, for example.” And why? Because of their caretaking responsibilities. So we need to see what women’s real needs are. In other words, we can’t say that to break stereotypes, let’s make them engineers, when they won’t be able to be engineers because of the lack of a State caretaking system. Because at the end of the day, you can cut hair while your kids run around in the back, right?
What we believe is super important is to prepare the exit of the penitentiary center. So, for instance, to tell them the procedures they need to follow, their legal status, the necessary procedures to obtain official credentials for foreigners… For them to know what comes next.
And when they come out, there needs to be a strengthening of medical attention, especially right now with COVID, and psychological accompaniment, since they come out for capacitation and work. We need to reinforce economic and social support, and the support networks for secluded and freed women.
In this discussion, I would like to highlight one of the collectives we work with, Mujeres Unidas por La Libertad. They want to create a halfway house, because in Mexico no halfway house for women exists. They want to do this so they can support each other amongst themselves.
So that when someone comes out of prison, they can come to this house and be guided by the experience of someone who has already gotten out and lived through all these obstacles.”
In addition to social reinsertion, what does EQUIS recommend for the creation of a legal mechanism for the liberation of women victims of drug policy?
“I am going to tell you the sad story of the Amnesty Law. Well, as you know, there can exist many mechanisms for liberation. In Mexico, there basically are two mechanisms: pardon and amnesty. The Executive, the president, handles pardons, and it only applies to people already sentenced.
And in a country with such a quantity of people incarcerated without sentences, this is ineffective. And it is done by name, so it requires an enormous capacity to revise the folders and create the list of names.
In contrast, amnesty is emitted by the Legislative powers and is a process that incarcerated people solicit. So we boosted the Amnesty law. Without a doubt, we knew that it was an imperfect law. We boosted it far before COVID, in September 2019, and COVID started in March of last year, more or less.
This law includes certain crimes such as simple theft, crimes against public health, but with certain conditions, for instance if you are in a situation of poverty, or were coerced by your partner or by organized crime, if you are indigenous… It also includes for instance, the offense of sedition, which is basically the crime of rebelling.
Oftentimes protesters are arrested for this. So this law’s mechanism is a committee that falls under Mexico’s Interior Ministry. This committee has to analyze the cases, and ultimately decide if they get out or don’t. The law was approved in April, and we were thrilled.
The committee did not meet until June, when they made the guidelines public. And we had already filed cases at that time, of two indigenous women who fall perfectly within the law’s assumptions. And they told us no, the deadline (four months from when you submit the case to when you leave), start with the guidelines.
Where did they say that? Where is it in the law? The committee met for a second time in December. And they decided not to release anyone. We’re going on a year and it hasn’t released anyone. We were undoubtedly aware that it was a law with limitations, as a federal law, but it has not worked at all.
This makes us reflect on why they promoted this law, if they did not have the machinery to make it work. So this is the mechanism that we promoted, and we are hitting the limit with. Right now local laws have been approved in three states: Hidalgo, Sinaloa and Mexico State.
Mexico State is especially interesting because it goes straight to the Judicial Power. It doesn’t go through a committee, and the Judicial Power is preparing very much to liberate them. So we hope to see if they will free somebody that way.
Without a doubt, there is another problem. In Mexico, this is not the only way to get out. There is a national Penal Execution Law that establishes deliberations when you meet a certain percentage of your, for good behavior, participation in activities…
When we analyzed the agreements of the judicial powers of the 32 states in the country, only 7 accepted solicitations for liberation under this law. And in 6 of them, you had to have requested it before COVID. The system is working to put people in prison, but not to get them out, not through amnesty, nor through pre-liberation in accordance with the national Penal Execution Law.
It is very worrying that neither amnesty nor the judicial system is orienting themselves to see this population, so vulnerable to COVID due to overcrowding.”
Which powers of the state does EQUIS make its recommendation to promote the incorporation of gender perspective in drug policy? How does your interaction with the Judicial, Legislative, and Executive powers work?
“We work with the Judicial Branch a lot, with trainings, and have produced many methodological documents. for example on how to analyze sentences. We have also produced recommendations for the executive powers for public policy in general. And with the Legislative Power, well, we only do monitoring, we don’t do lobbying.
“WOLA has always been a great ally. They wanted to work on the issue of a liberation scheme, and visibilizing women deprived of liberty. We also wanted to get into the issue of how we communicate, because sometimes we talk about these things in our ECONO room, in terms of drug policy, or between feminists, right?
We had already worked with them and so we created this campaign together. I don’t know if you know Coletta Youngers, but she is a great woman, a great leader who knows many organizations in Latin America, and has driven drug policy reform throughout Latin America.
When President López Obrador declared that the war on drugs was a failed security strategy,, we were given a good context, a good juncture to be able to carry out this campaign. We collaborated, and we continue to collaborate. Now we are going to have a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, about people deprived of liberty and COVID.
And we also did this with them and we are constantly working together, for example in the meeting for liberated women across Latin America. They also work with a very large group which is the National Council of Incarcerated Women Women and they have also helped us a lot by giving us ideas. We have a very good relationship.”
What achievements has EQUIS accomplished with its campaign to liberate women and reintegrate them into society?
“I think that passing the Amnesty law is a step. It is the recognition that the war on drugs has failed and is a matter of social justice. That this has been discussed in the Senate is an achievement per se. Because it is a population that is invisible and nobody speaks about. So to recognize that as such, I think is an achievement.
On the other hand, I think that a great achievement is that a liberated women’s movement is being created where, increasingly, EQUIS and the organizations are moving into the background, and realizing more and more that they are the experts.
I can tell you about the analysis of public policy, but the ones who were in jail, the ones who left and did not have a taxi and had to sleep on the street, are them. So seeing this movement, both Mexican and Latin American, fills me with pride and appears to me to be a great achievement.
They are getting financing for their projects. For example, for the halfway house, and are organizing. Right now, for example, someone gets out, and one pays the Uber, and the other receives her in their home and they try to create work. They also made a YouTube channel to share their experiences. That to me is already very valuable.
And being able to interview them… The truth is that his voice is very, very powerful. It’s been a process, where at the beginning I saw them talk a lot about the prison experience, and now I see them talk a lot about guaranteeing their rights. For example, one woman, her son, spent a long time in jail and got COVID and the whole process of accompanying her advocating for him and seeing everything she did … For me that is very valuable, because they carry the voice.
And this regional meeting, seeing women from all over Latin America, is also an achievement. Last year was the second time, the first was in Colombia and it was in person.
Seeing this movement where they speak, they mobilize and it is not the organizations that don’t have that experience, who speak, for me is the main achievement. They are the ones with the voice, and they are the ones we have to listen to.”
To learn more about EQUIS’ efforts for the liberation and social reinsertion of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, and the incorporation of gender perspective into drug policy, check out their page on Women, Incarceration, Reinsertion and Drug Policy.
Laura is a senior at the University of California, Los Angeles, pursuing a major in Spanish and Portuguese. Her passion for Latina America first stemmed from her personal connection to Brazil. Although she was born and raised in Europe, her mother is Brazilian, and she is a native Portuguese speaker who grew up frequently visiting Brazil, and considering it home. As a high schooler, Laura developed a keen interest in social problems, and specifically the role of NGOs in working towards their solution. She had the opportunity to volunteer at an educational NGO in Paraísopolis, a favela in São Paulo, over two summers, an experience which highlighted the discrepancy between the reality of favelas and their sensationalized depictions in the media, as well as the underreported work of individuals within the community to create educational opportunities despite their socio-political marginalization. Laura’s study of Spanish throughout middle and high school piqued her curiosity about Latin America beyond Brazil, and once in college, she embraced the opportunity to further connect with her Brazilian heritage, while diving into the greater region academically, studying its history, cultures, literature, art, and social problems. As a Latin American Correspondent, Laura hopes to bring stories about the intersection of art, resistance, and social change to the forefront, as well as to highlight non-profit organizations, entrepreneurs and community leaders working to solve social problems in the region.