Sliding into the Soap Dish of the US War on Drugs

I sat with a group of women, varying in ages from 18 to 58. I was the only one without thick black braids draped down my back, the only one not dressed in a pleated traditional Cochabambino skirt or laced shirt. We labeled dirty clothes that had been delivered from the outside by sewing colored thread into the hems. I asked how long they have been here. One woman responded that she no longer remembers. The others chuckled.

"Why are you here?" I asked. One by one they confessed Law 1008 as the reason for their imprisonment. Not one looked me in the eyes. I come from the country that wrote this law, I told them. They did not know that this law was originally written in English, and that it came from the United States.

The War on Drugs that is being fought in Bolivia is producing statistics that give the appearance of success in the battlefield. The Embassy of the United States in Bolivia annually reports the number of detained narco-traffickers. That number has been exponentially increasing since the implementation of Law 1008 in 1988. This is the "Law to Regulate Coca and Controlled Substances". Any alleged association with drugs (including many cases in which the evidence is beyond ludicrous) condemns an individual to loss of freedom, family and rights. These people become numbers in the US database under the category "narco-trafficker".

Who are these narco-traffickers and does their imprisonment truthfully reflect victory in our abstract war against drugs?

A prisoner of the war on drugs was kind enough to share her story with us. We were sitting in the jail sewing room where, thanks to a local non-profit, many women learn the seamstress trade during idle imprisonment time. Two cholitas were machine embroidering tablecloths and pillowcases. Vacant sewing machines surrounded us. We all drank refresco (soda). "Why are they writing things down?" asked a woman in Quechua.

Forty-year-old Marlitza was telling of her arrival to the San Sebastian prison 4 years and 8 months ago. She was simply storing a package for a friend. The package happened to contain chemicals used to transform the coca leaf into cocaine. She searched her brassiere for tissue and guided us to a concrete side-room for privacy. She cried to us of her family, shattered by her imprisonment, separating her husband and her three children. The youngest child resides in the jail with her. "It wasn’t mine" was all she could say. But that didn’t cut her sentence to anything short of 6 years and 8 months. Is Marlitza a triumph in the War on Drugs? Is her existence in jail mitigating the problem of narcotics? Or did she just slip into the "soap dish" through no fault of her own?

Law 1008 strips a person of their rights as a citizen. There is no justice. People are guilty until proven innocent. Walter Vino, a National Police guard of the jail whispered to me on my way out of the jail "I think there are more innocents here than guilty". The lives of people should not be determined by an unlucky slippery slope that lands hundreds in jail for the sake of misleading statistics that imply that the War on Drugs is being won.


Christina Haglund is a native of Portland Oregon and a former US Peace Corps volunteer. Christina and other Democracy Center volunteers (US and Bolivian) have been visiting the jail as part of an investigation into the human toll of the US-sponsored War on Drugs.

[A note from Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center, in Cochabamba, Bolivia: Last March, in its formal report on the war on drugs in Bolivia, the US Embassy reported that, in 2004, total arrests on drug-related charges numbered 4,138. That is nearly double the figure for 1999, when The Democracy Center wrote about the case of one innocent US drug war victim, Adela Rojas Rodriguez, who spent 22 months in the San Sebastian jail with her infant baby son, Josue.]

Photo from Peace and Justice Ministry