Failed by the System

Sara, 50, fled her family at age 13 to escape sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle. With no education or opportunities, she became drug dependent and worked in the sex trade, and was eventually arrested for selling small quantities of crack to support her own consumption. Out of desperation, she attempted to bribe the police officer arresting her for selling drugs with the equivalent of US$3.75. She is currently serving a combined seven-year plea-bargained sentence for the two offenses.

Current drug laws in Latin America reinforce a cycle of poverty. A lack of education and economic opportunity often pave the way to drug dependency, low-level involvement in the drug trade, sexual exploitation, and recidivism.
Sentence: 5 years, 4 months for selling crack. 1 year, 8 months for attempting to bribe a police officer with US$3.75.

At age 13, Sara left school and ran away from home to escape sexual abuse by her uncle. The boy she ran away with was also abusive. She fled from him at age 15 and was forced to sexually exploit herself to survive.

Sara spent most of her life living on the streets. She began using drugs and became involved in criminal activity to support her habit.

Life on the streets was dangerous.

One day, she was attacked by a violent man she had refused to sell drugs to and beaten with a board of rusty nails.

“I don’t know how long I was lying on the ground, but they say that when the ambulance arrived, the nurse told the boy who had helped get me onto a stretcher that a few minutes more and I would have been dead.”

Eventually, Sara was sent to jail. When released, she fell back into using and selling drugs.

She is now 50 years old and serving a plea-bargained sentence for drug trafficking, plus an additional one year and eight months for attdempting to bribe the arresting officer with the equivalent of US$3.75.

She still hopes for a better future.

“When I leave here, I’m going to stay with my little sister and get a job somewhere, but I won’t go back to working illegally and much less to consuming [drugs], because my sister really needs me.”

Giselle Amador is a medical doctor and a Senior Advisor to the Costa Rican Association for Research and Intervention in Drugs (ACEID). She met with Sara during a recent visit to Buen Pastor and says that her case is not uncommon. It serves as an example of the cycle many women get caught up in.

“Since childhood, Sara has suffered a lifetime of violence and violations of her basic rights. Physical and sexual abuse, repeated pregnancies, and finally confinement in prison for selling small amounts of crack, all complete the picture of vulnerability.”

This photo series was produced by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) with support from the Open Society Foundations.

Producer and Photographer

Jessamine Bartley-Matthews

Editorial Assistance

Kathy Gille, Kristel Muciño, and Coletta Youngers

Special Thanks to

Buen Pastor Prison, San José, Costa Rica