Elisa Castillo is 56 years old and has never been convicted of a crime. Three years ago, she 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. Nevertheless, she’s now been sentenced to life in prison for her role in this operation.
As the ACLU explains, Castillo likely received this harsh sentence entirely because she played a very minor role in the operation:
56-year-old 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, despite being a first-time offender who never saw the drugs she was accused of trafficking.
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. As former federal prosecutor Mark W. White III explained, “Information is a cooperating defendant’s stock in trade, and if you don’t have any…the chances are you won’t get a good deal.” But at what cost are these bargains made? There are clear incentives for law enforcement officials to seek information from criminal suspects when possible. But this system of trading information for reduced time often means that those at the bottom of the chain end up suffering consequences that are disproportionate to their crimes. As such, Castillo was effectively left to die in prison because of what she did not know.
At the very least, Castillo likely acted foolishly by entering into the strange business arrangement in the first place. Nevertheless, 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.