Grandmother Receives Life In Prison For First-Time Drug Offense

Why is Elisa Castillo being so harshly punished for being an unknowing participant in a drug deal?

What is wrong with our justice system? (Photo: Curtis Gregory Perry/flickr)

May 22, 2012· 2 MIN READ
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Written by Judy Molland

The federal government didn’t offer a reward for the capture of Houston grandmother Elisa Castillo, nor did it accuse her of touching drugs, ordering killings or getting rich off crime.

But three years after a jury convicted her in a conspiracy to smuggle at least a ton of cocaine on tour buses from Mexico to Houston, the 56-year-old first-time offender is locked up for life, without the possibility of parole.

Three years ago, Elisa Castillo entered into an unusual business arrangement at the urging of her boyfriend: a Mexican businessman agreed to partner with her to purchase three tour buses that would travel between Mexico and Houston. He fronted the money for the buses, but they were kept in her name. Castillo claims she was unaware the buses were also fitted with secret compartments enabling them to smuggle cocaine across the border, but she was convicted nonetheless.

Locked Up For Life Because She Couldn’t Trade Valuable Information

And now she is locked up for life.

As the ACLU explains, Castillo likely received this harsh sentence entirely because she played a very minor role in the operation:

… Castillo maintains that she didn’t know she was being used as a pawn in a cocaine trafficking operation between Mexico and Houston. Given her alleged role as a low-level player in the conspiracy, it makes sense that she was not privy to — and therefore could not provide — any valuable information to federal agents that could lead to the arrest and prosecution of the leaders or other high level members of the alleged conspiracy. Since she was of no help to the government, Castillo received the harshest sentence of the approximately 68 people involved in the scheme …

From The Houston Chronicle:

Convicted of being a manager in the conspiracy, she is serving a longer sentence than some of the hemisphere’s most notorious crime bosses – men who had multimillion-dollar prices on their heads before their capture.

The drug capos had something to trade: the secrets of criminal organizations. The biggest drug lords have pleaded guilty in exchange for more lenient sentences.

Castillo said she has nothing to offer in a system rife with inconsistencies and behind-the-scenes scrambling that amounts to a judicial game of Let’s Make A Deal.

Obviously, something is wrong with a criminal justice system that sends a 56-year-old grandmom to prison for life for her first-ever drug offense.

Castillo Refused To Plead Guilty, Instead Went To Trial

Castillo maintains her innocence, saying she was tricked into unknowingly helping transport drugs and money for a big trafficker in Mexico. She refused to plead guilty and instead went to trial. It is well known that state and federal sentencing schemes allow for reduced punishment when offenders are able to provide information that leads to the prosecution of others. Since Castillo had nothing to offer, she was penalized the most.

MORE: Hollywood's 'Mexican Drug War' Love Affair

In 2010, 1,766 defendants were prosecuted for federal drug offenses in the Southern District of Texas – a region that reaches from Houston to the border. 93.2 percent of them pleaded guilty rather than face trial, according to the U.S. government. Of the defendants who didn’t plead not guilty, 10 defendants were acquitted at trial. Also, 82 saw their cases dismissed.

The statistics are similar nationwide.

An Unjust Justice System

While it is true that Castillo likely acted foolishly by entering into the strange business arrangement in the first place, her case highlights how high criminal sentences for drug offenses enhances the prosecution’s bargaining power often at the expense of individuals left to spend years or decades in prison for drug crimes.

Castillo’s sentence is outrageous, especially in the light of the brutal murders being carried out daily in Mexico by the leaders of drug cartels, who remain at large. Where is the justice in that?

The United States justice system needs some major revamping in order to get its priorities right.