When was the last time you heard of a drug user, or a coca grower, or even a mother of a drug addict testifying at a U.S. congressional hearing on drug policy? The sad reality is that those most affected by drugs and drug policies – from urban youth in the slums of Lima to coca farmers in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley – are for the most part excluded from the drug policy debate. This is true not only in the United States, but across the globe.

Take the United Nations, for example. At the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), a coalition of civil society organizations fought long and hard to have alternative voices heard from the official podium. In the end, a Colombian woman from a coca growing town in the Guaviare region of Colombia and a representative of U.S. drug users were given 5 minutes each. Ten years later, when a mandated review of the UNGASS took place, a similar effort failed. Such voices could be heard among the protestors outside the UN compound in Vienna, Austria, but they were not given an official platform at the meeting. Those who most needed to hear alternative points of view were deaf to the voices outside.

Yet listening to those from the communities most affected by drug use, drug related violence and corruption, and the negative impact of drug policies themselves is crucial to developing sound public policies. And without listening to their voices, the human side of the story is lost.

Perhaps one of the groups most excluded from the policy debate are low-level offenders or those who are unknowingly used as drug couriers and who end up in jail, with sentences that are usually greatly disproportionate to the crime committed. Incarceration and long-term jail sentences affect not only those incarcerated, but also their spouses, children and communities. When they are released from prison, these individuals face the same lack of socio-economic opportunities that may have led them to get involved in the drug business in the first place, compounded by the fact that they now have criminal records.

In listening to their stories, two things become clear. First, the “drug war” can be profoundly unjust, with harsh mandatory minimum and tough sentencing laws – often combined with extremely abusive prison conditions – that are in direct contradiction of established international human rights norms. And second, addressing the roots of the drug issue is not simply a matter of law enforcement, but necessitates broader public policies, including policies that focus on the lack of economic opportunity for a growing number of urban and rural poor, particularly youth.

To bring the human face of the “drug war” into the policy debate, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) released two videos this week with interviews of women incarcerated on drug charges.

One is filmed in Mexico, where the Mexican government has launched an all-out war on the drug cartels, leading to unprecedented levels of violence. Nonetheless, the vast majority of those imprisoned on drug charges are low-level offenders or consumers – not those connected to the cartels that we read about every day in the press. Mexican jails are bursting at the seams with those from the most vulnerable sectors of Mexican society, while the drug trade remains alive and well.

As reported by WOLA and TNI:

In this video, Rosa Julia Leyva Martinez tells the story of how one day in 1993, she decided to travel from her home state of Guerrero to Mexico City. According to her testimony, a few people she knew from her town convinced her to travel with them, and without her knowledge, had her carry a bag with heroine inside through airport security. She says that she was tortured into signing a confession and as a result spent close to 11 years in prison. In this video Rosa Leyva comes to the following conclusion: “I think I finally accepted what that judge and that criminologist said ‘I don’t care if they tricked you, if you were a victim of a thousand and one things, what matters to me is that you were carrying it, and this is what matters for my sentence.’ And I thought to myself, what brought Rosa Julia Leyva to jail? I was brought because of ignorance, social-cultural isolation, hunger, a thousand and one reasons.”

Watch Drugs and Prison in Mexico:

The second video is filmed at the El Inca women’s prison in Quito, Ecuador. That country has one of the harshest drug laws in the hemisphere: Sentences for drug offences range from 12 to 25 years, whereas the maximum sentence for murder is 16. As a result, a non-violent drug offender can receive a higher sentence than someone who has committed murder. The Correa government is seeking to reform Ecuador’s drug law, but in the meantime, the existing law continues to be implemented.

Again, as reported by WOLA and TNI:

In this video, Analia Silva says she started dealing drugs out of poverty. She explains that she did not even know the type of drugs she was selling; that she only knew that being the sole provider of her two children, and she needed to make ends meet. She was caught in 2003 and sentenced to 8 years in jail. In the video she comes to the following conclusion: “When they sentenced me, and it’s the same for every woman they sentence, they not only sentence the person who committed the crime, they also sentence their family, they also sentence their children. […] [Authorities] don’t realize that they want to get rid of crime, but they are the ones promoting it because if they [the children] are left alone… what can they do? Go and steal… my daughter would become a prostitute, my son would become a drug addict, deal drugs, sell drugs.”

Watch Drugs and Prisons in Ecuador:

(Or go to Vimeo itself.)

While the videos were released without much fanfare, they quickly became a bit of a media sensation in Latin America – much to the surprise of those involved in their production. An EFE story with links to the video was reproduced in numerous places and mainstream media that has traditionally backed present drug policies picked up the story. The two most important newspapers in Lima, Peru (El Comercio and La Republica) gave the videos significant coverage, as did the leading daily El Universal in Mexico. In Colombia, both El Tiempo and Semana reported on the videos’ release. Semana’s front page coverage (including links to the videos) was picked up by non-other than Colombian rock superstar, Juanes – who has close to a million followers in Twitter and another million followers on Facebook – who tweeted the videos and linked to them from his website. Twenty-four hours later, more than 500 people had commented on the videos on his Facebook page.

So in the end, these two moving stories of “drug war” injustices may have had more immediate impact in raising awareness of the collateral damage of the so-called war on drugs than the detailed policy analysis that NGOs tend to churn out. And the audience reached went beyond policy wonks to Juanes fans across Latin America. Maybe hearing more stories like those of Rosa Julia and Analia is what we need to bring about much needed drug policy reform.

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