Thu, Jun 20, 2019 - Page 9 News List

How the US’ war on drugs victimizes women in Latin America

By Kasia Malinowska

It has been two years since Cecilia’s son, Carlos, set sail from the coast of Ecuador on an ordinary day’s fishing voyage. She has not heard from him since.

At first, she feared that his fishing trawler had sunk or been attacked by pirates, but the fate Carlos turned out to have met was more surreal than that, and in a way, even more harrowing: Deep in international waters, thousands of kilometers from the US, he was detained by the US Coast Guard. He has been locked away in a New Jersey prison ever since.

Carlos, who faces an 11-year sentence, is one of hundreds of men ensnared in an expansion of the US’ “war on drugs,” whereby US authorities now apprehend and detain foreign fishermen in international waters. Those fishermen’s’ families — particularly the women — are left agonizing over what might have happened to their loved ones, and they are often pushed to the brink of destitution.

Before Carlos was arrested, he and Cecilia lived in a modest house in Manta, a seaside city with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

In a good week, a fisherman like Carlos might take home the equivalent of US$7 to US$8 for his catch. However, in recent years, even this meager income had begun to dwindle, as large industry vessels and tourist-chartered deep-sea fishing boats depleted once-healthy stocks of marlin and swordfish.

In desperation, some of Manta’s fishermen, prodded by smugglers who prowl the port looking for men with boats and without options, have turned to small-scale drug running.

The smugglers promise to pay the fishermen to carry cocaine on their trawlers out to sea, where they are met by larger boats that traffic it onward to the US via Central America. More often than not, those promises are not kept.

Carlos had been approached by the smugglers many times and had always refused to participate. However, after his mother’s tenant got rough with her one day, he decided she needed her own house. He agreed to carry 5kg of cocaine on his boat into international waters, but before he could hand it off to the larger ship, the US Coast Guard stopped him.

The coast guard has been ramping up its arrests of small-time traffickers in international waters as part of an effort to prevent larger shipments from reaching the US. The strategy represents a legally questionable expansion of extraterritorial drug enforcement, as well as a shocking abuse of the rights of the arrested sailors.

No one knows how long Carlos was on the coast guard ship before he was delivered to New Jersey, but it could have been weeks or even months, according to reports about the practice.

And, as a 2017 New York Times report shows, the conditions aboard these ships are appalling. Detained men are shackled, underfed and forced to defecate in buckets. They are also sometimes made to stand all night, unable to sleep while exposed to the elements. These scenes drove one former coast guard lawyer to describe the ships as “floating Guantanamos.”

However, it is not only the men who suffer. As I learned when I visited Cecilia this year, the women who are left behind, suddenly deprived of income, face a different kind of hardship.

In Ecuador’s machismo culture, women are expected to keep house, raise children and clean the fish their husbands bring home.

As a result, many lack marketable skills. So, when one of their husbands, sons, or fathers disappears at sea, they often are left with no money and no options.

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