QUITO, Ecuador (WOMENSENEWS)--Maria Lara, a 50-year-old mother of seven from the coastal town of Esmeralda, has been at the Center for the Social Rehabilitation of Women for seven months.
She gets through some days by directing the marimba club for other prison inmates who play the folk percussion instrument, a type of xylophone. There are 12 women in the group who practice three times a week.
"It takes out the pain of prison," she said. "We've even performed in La Casa de la Cultura."
Women's eNews visited the jail for a Friday morning in early February.
During that time, women rolled out dough in a cramped kitchen, danced lambada in a sunny courtyard, bartered at the visiting market set up inside the facility or huddled by a preacher in the shadows of the corridor. Guards at the door alternated between buying pirated movies from street hawks and checking in visitors.
Unaccompanied children brought food in plastic bags to the doors to supplement the jail's ration of one meal per day.
The center, which doubles as a detention point for women waiting for a hearing and a social rehabilitation facility, holds 260. Most are Ecuadorean. A third of inmates--including the relatively small foreign population--are charged with being "mulas," or "mules," women who are couriers in the region's drug trade.
"Eighty-five percent of women are here for narco-trafficking," said Washington Yaranga, who directs the women's jail. "Either as mulas or street peddlers, but most of them are also consumers."
The term narco-trafficker envelops petty consumers and large traffickers alike. The majority of women at the rehabilitation center have low incomes and limited literacy. Many are single heads of household, according to studies conducted by FLACSO, Ecuador's leading social science university, in Quito.
"More and more women are selling on the streets," said Lt. Ramiro Mantilla, chief at the provincial headquarters of the national police's anti-narcotics department in Quito. He added that many are single mothers who need cash. Some, he said, can be found in Quito's historic center, carrying a child in one arm and selling drugs with the other.
Mantilla pins the rise in women's drug-related activities in part to Plan Colombia, an anti-narcotic strategy forged between the United States and Colombia in 2000 and regionalized in 2001. The policy is controversial for its negative socio-economic consequences in Ecuador's northern border region, which has witnessed the arrival of hundreds of refugees, the rise of illicit trades and violence.
"The consequences of Plan Colombia spilled across our borders," said Mantilla. "Drugs from Colombia are brought to the major cities of Ecuador and then distributed by women who sell them on the streets."
Most of the drugs from Colombia come into Ecuador by land transportation, according to Mantilla, and reach the United States by ship.
The contraband is mainly purchased by men, who often buy between 5 to 10 kilograms. Women are often given smaller quantities--ranging from 300 to 500 grams--to sell on the street, according to Mantilla.
The center makes an effort to give inmates work training to help their re-entry into society. It bestows 30 types of certificates to women interested in developing the skills needed for such trades as doll-making, baking or basic accounting. The activities are split in the morning and afternoon. Each class holds 30 to 40 women, but they are encouraged to teach each other what they have learned, said Yaranga.
Less than half the women at the rehabilitation center--100 out of 264 in January--had appeared in court or received their sentence. Some, said the jail director, have spent years behind bars without seeing a judge.
"The majority are still going through the legal process," he said. "They are little fish, in it out of necessity."
A 'Victim of Justice'
One of them is Maria Lara.
She said she is a victim of the justice system because she was caught as a consumer but treated as a dealer. Lara was apprehended outside a football stadium in Quito smoking a joint.
Police searched her apartment after the arrest and found 30 additional grams of marijuana, which she said she kept for consumption not sale.
Lara said she used to consume between 50 and 100 grams each night. The law only allows a consumer to carry 10 grams.
"They see my black face and treat me like a criminal," she said. "The real dealers, the rich drug traffickers, walk in and out of court as if nothing. But the law takes no pity on poverty, on addicts. We need help, not judgment."
Lara said she worked day and night to sustain her marijuana habit and maintain her seven children. She told Women's eNews she worked as a prostitute on the streets because brothels would not take her for being old and black. In one night, she would earn $100. She spent half her income on the drug and the other half on groceries.
When she reached the jail, she recalled, she needed tranquilizers during the nightly lockdowns because she felt she was losing her mind while her body cleaned the drug out of her system. After the first few days she managed to get marijuana from other inmates.
"You can buy drugs here too," explained Lara.
Despite the challenges in the jail and the lethargy of the legal system, Yaranga, the jail director, credits the current government for taking a closer look at the jails. One measure introduced in 2008 to counteract stiff penalties is the process of pardon for offenders who have served half their sentence or who carried smaller amounts of drugs.
This measure has not affected Lara's case yet but it has freed many others.
In 2006, the jail was bloated with 600 women. Now, the jail's population fluctuates between half and a third of that number, with almost no recidivism, according to Yaranga. But the recidivism statistics include only women who have been formally charged in court, less than half of the detainees.
While women wait for the legal landscape to shift, Yaranga prunes down the prison population. One turnaround since he took office, he said, is the near absence of minors.
In 2006, about 250 children lived with over 600 women in the jail. These minors included teen boys, said Yaranga, who would develop sexual relations with the inmates and impregnate them. Now, the jail is home to only 17 kids, ranging from newborns to toddlers.
Mother and child are split when the infant turns 3 under the current policy. The child is then put under the care of the Marcha Blanca or Jesus Divino Preso, two Quito-based social service offices that provide a day-care center at the jail, caseworkers for the mother and the child, as well as shelter to older kids living on the streets.
Lara's two underage children are at Divino Preso.
"I was mother and father to them," she said. "Even though I had to whore myself, I fed my children."
Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor.