56-year-old Texas grandma gets life without parole on first-time drug charges

In Fort Worth, Texas, Elisa Castillo—a 56-year-old grandmother with no prior drug offenses— has been sentenced to life without parole. She maintains her innocence, and never "touched the drugs that sent her to prison," points out the ACLU; "Her fate was sealed, in large part because she didn't have a card to play when negotiating her sentence." The Houston Chronicle has more.


  1. Actually, reading the appeals court verdict, perhaps the book was deserved.

    More disturbing are the statistics on the number of people who plead guilty. The Huston Post article claims of 1766 recent prosecutions in the district, 93.2% engaged in plea bargaining to avoid trial, and of those who got to trial, 10 were found not guilty, and 82 had their cases dismissed. This means that only 2.7% of people are found guilty by a trial. If the purpose of a court and a jury is to ensure justice, why is it so frequently bypassed?

    1. If the people are guilty, and the evidence is substantial, then they avoid trial by making a deal, with the hope that the agreed upon sentence will be less than they would get from being found guilty in a trial.

      1. Or, if the people aren’t guilty, and the court’s stacked against them.

        And in America, it’s not uncommon. A lot of minority womyn get killed in this country. And sometimes the survivors get railroaded for defending themselves, without being allowed to present evidence of the attackers’ racism, violence, and Nazi tattoos.

          1. I can’t speak to Marja’s usage of the word, but in my experience “womyn” is a word used to substitute for the word “woman”, which contains the word man, and in its Old English etymology meant “wife-man” or “wife of man”.
            Hence many feminists and others prefer the “womyn” spelling.
            I prefer to call them “ladies”.

          2. I do understand the word’s source. On reflection I think I may have been a bit snippy, but then again, if Marja can be offended by a word choice, in the name of equality I can too.

          3.  @google-859c5937824aee84e8e529d606d1c58f:disqus I think you got the etymology of “woman” wrong.  My understanding is that “man” meant something along the lines of “person” or “human being” in Old English, so woman meant something more like “wife person” not “wife of man.”  Since “man” was effectively neuter in many cases, men were called “wermen” (i.e. “male person”, you can see this too in the etymology of werewolf).  The word “man” still has connotations of universality and humanity (e.g. Man and Mankind), which I understand are stronger in other Germanic languages.

            Why anyone would want to deny the humanity of their own sex is beyond me, though.

      2.  In states with powerful parole boards the decision to take something all the way to trial is an indicator that you are manipulative and refusing to take responsibility for your actions.

        Also if you happen to maintain your innocence after conviction.

  2. Ok, _notwithstanding the general badness of drugs policies_, it seems we’re talking about cocaine worth 10s or 100s of millions, not a “first-time” possession charge.  I don’t really know if it should be viewed as more sad because she’s fairly old.  I also don’t really know what to make of the fact she came off badly because of having no information to trade.  Is there some specific flaw in the system that this story highlights?

    1. Compare and contrast this story with John DeLorean and Tim Allen, a couple of white guys who got busted for the same kind of activity (to varying degrees).

      1. Tim Allen had less than a kilo, and was able to roll over on some other people involved in the smuggling.  DeLorean got off on entrapment, and was never shown to actually be involved in the smuggling.  This lady dealt with at least a ton.  Yeah, it’s all the same.  

        1. Also, I think bringing up race is unwarranted – I’d claim that socio-economic class is usually the more important factor (if there even was any kind of discrimination here, which I didn’t see).

          1. Good thing that socio-economic class has nothing to do with race, then.

            But honestly, as soon as I saw the headline I thought to myself “I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts they didn’t sentence a white grandmother to life without parole for that crime.” And I was right.

        2. The morality of trafficking cocaine is the same in all three cases. Do you think for a moment that Allen wouldn’t have smuggled more if he had the ability to do so?

    2. Uhm, I think the issue they have is she is a grandma, and grandmas do good things like bake cookies and knit, and so they shouldn’t have to pay for their crimes.  

      1. Because clearly the only two options were to let her go without charges or to ensure that there was no possibility she could ever leave prison alive.

        1. She should have tried to make a deal by pleading guilty, could have avoided life.  Possession with intent to distribute can result in a life sentence.  Considering she was involved in a major smuggling operation I’m sure her lawyer told her this was a possibility.  

          1. Possession with intent to distribute can result in a life sentence.

            Yes, and that’s what the rest of us are objecting to.

          2. There’s a huge difference between possessing a few grams of cocaine, which leads to possession with intent to distribute charges, and being involved in a large-scale 1,000 kilo plus cocaine smuggling ring.

          3. Did this woman break into your house and piss on your rug? Because you really seem to have it in for her.

      2. According to the linked article, her crime boils down to having invested in a bus company. 

  3. She was only involved in smuggling a few thousand pounds of cocaine, what harm is there in that?  

    Seriously, this woman’s complaint is that since she didn’t have anyone she could roll over on she’s getting the book thrown at her.  It’s not like she was caught with a few joints in her purse.  She helped set up a business with the sole purpose of smuggling cocaine.  Naturally she claims innocence, who wouldn’t?  She may have been a naive patsy tricked into getting involved, but that’s not an excuse.  

    1. She may have been a naive patsy tricked into getting involved, but that’s not an excuse.

      I’ll tell you what there’s no excuse for: sentencing a first-time offender to life without parole for a nonviolent crime. (But hey—at least she’s not white, right?)

      1. It’s a ton, not a few grams.  A ton.  That’s a hell of a lot.  She committed multiple crimes in essence, probably conspiracy also which tends to add to the sentence, plus consider every bus that came through as an additional crime.  This was not a one time deal on her part. 

        1. Non. Violent. Crime. And she’s serving more time than mass-murdering drug lords who had multimillion dollar bounties on their heads.

          1. Sucks for her, she got caught.  Being involved in a massive drug smuggling operation is going to land you in jail for a long, long time, and well it should.  While she may have not been involved in violence herself, drug dealing on this scale is typically tied to violence somewhere.  And it causes a lot of other crimes.  

            And what others are serving time for has no bearing on her case.  You want to complain about the injustice of the other drug lords serving shorter sentences, fine.  But that doesn’t mean her sentence should be shortened, just that theirs should be lengthened.  

          2.  Any time you are talking about drugs by the ton, violence has been involved. So she didn’t shoot anyone herself. Big deal. Scroll the front page a little and read about the Mexican cartels now using claymore mines. You think a ton of cocaine appeared from nowhere with a clean history?

          3. @Conspirator:

            While she may have not been involved in violence herself, drug dealing on this scale is typically tied to violence somewhere.

            So does using fossil fuels, but we don’t sentence SUV drivers to life without parole because they contributed to the conflict that brought down the twin towers.

            Even if you have no empathy for this woman whatsoever, do you honestly believe that keeping her locked away for the rest of her life is the most effective way to spend your tax dollars?

          4. Being involved in a massive drug smuggling operation is going to land you in jail for a long, long time, and well it should.

            Because, like, that strategy has shown itself to be just so gosh darn effective!

            The harm that drugs do so outweighs the harms that drug policies do, and the evidence is clear that the best way of dealing with what are essentially health issues is with guns and prisons.

            While she may have not been involved in violence herself, drug dealing on this scale is typically tied to violence somewhere. And it causes a lot of other crimes.

            Or, prohibitionist drug policies engender violence. I’m pretty sure that in places where drugs aren’t punished with life imprisonment, violence tends to be a wee bit less prevalent.

        2. I think that you fail to understand that some of us don’t give a shit how much blow she drove into the country. Drugs should be legal.

          1. Damn right. 

            Simple harm prevention policies would ameliorate the societal harm of legalized hard stuff to a measure far lower than what we have today with the hard stuff illegal, and marijuana being schedule 1 will be what future policy-makers look back on to perk themselves up with laughs about how stupid people used to be.

    2. “She may have been a naive patsy tricked into getting involved, but that’s not an excuse.”

      Are you fucking kidding me?

    3. She helped setup and run a bus tour company.
      Please show the class where she was seen loading or unloading the cocaine herself.
      Please show the class where she had long term knowledge of this, as even the complaint against her claims she had not heard of allegations of cocaine or money until a month after those events.
      Please show the class where it is better to give her a long term sentence but to shorten the sentence of others who have committed similar acts with much more knowledge and control of the events?
      Please show the class her Mercedes and massive mansion she purchased with her “drug profits”.

    4. “She may have been a naive patsy tricked into getting involved, but that’s not an excuse. ”
      Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
      Ignorance of a breach of the law is in fact an excuse according to multiple precedents.
      Can you show that she knew that the bus company was being used for illegal purposes?

    5. Are you from the USA?  Because this happened in the USA and, therefore, by being a U.S. citizen you are a party to this.  Go turn yourself in.

  4. Could we maybe have decent summaries.  I don’t like the way drug laws are either, but the fact this involves a ton of cocaine changes the tone of this considerably.

    1. Not if you consider the facts of the case of this particular person, who may not have known about any drug trafficking at all according to the linked article.

      1. Oh never mind, I missed the point of your post. 
        YES, we should have decent and informative summaries…
        when such information is available.

    2. Seconded,
      Whatever your opinions on drug policy the fact she ran a business that made its money by smuggling a ton of cocaine is highly relevant. There’s no other way to describe the current summary than as deliberately misleading. When FOX news pulls this kind of crap people are rightly outraged, there’s no excuse for Boing Boing to be acting like the left wing version of WND.

  5. This is the dirty little secret of drug sentencing.  Kingpins, at the top of the drug food chain, can flip and turn everyone else in, burning all their underlings and random, innocent associates of said underlings.  The underlings flip, but they can only snitch a little. And factually innocent people can’t snitch at all, unless they want to admit to a crime they didn’t commit.  So, Kingpins serve the lightest sentence. Underlings serve moderate sentences. And innocent people do hard time– unless they “study up” and enumerate all the crimes they were supposed to have committed and who with, so they can give a proper false confession. Combine this with federal mandatory sentencing, various three-strikes laws, and terrible public defenders and we’ve got ourselves a right good clusterfest.

    1. Sounds about right. The effect of taking down a kingpin is therefore a steep reduction in crime, due to the number of other bad guys that get put away.

      Underlings can only reduce crime a little.

      And arresting an innocent person doesn’t reduce a crime at all. Why should they be rewarded?

  6. From the PDF of the decision linked by MatGulde:
    “As director of Lizma in Houston, Castillo was deeply involved in the operation of the business. She obtained insurance and vehicle registrations for all of the buses, rented various properties, opened a bank account for Lizma, and deposited cash from the business into that account. On a daily basis she opened and locked the Wayside warehouse gate.””Evidence indicated that Castillo had knowledge of the illegal drug smuggling aspect of the business she ran. At trial Castillo admitted that she was aware of the seizure of more than two million dollars from a Lizma bus about one month after it happened; knew that a Lizma bus was found to contain cocaine on May 23, 2006; and knew Martinez had been stopped with 207kilograms of cocaine on June 11, 2006. Additionally, her expenses in operating Lizma far outweighed the revenue from the $35 ticket fee the average of ten passengers per trip paid.”Um, what “evidence” exists to show her guilt?

    “Castillo’s supervision of every aspect of the Lizma operation in Houston, and her renting the warehouses and apartment facilitated the sale and distribution of cocaine and indicated her agreement to join the money laundering conspiracy.”

    Really? If that is all it takes, then any illegal activities undertaken by me or by my roommate are indicative of an agreement to “join the conspiracy”.

    Huh. I don’t remember seeing that in my rental agreement.

    “First, the government presented ample evidence that the underlying offense occurred, as agents found 240 kilograms of cocaine bricks hidden in a Lizma bus, with stamps showing it was produced by one particular organization. Regarding the second part of the aiding and abetting offense–association, participation, and sharing of criminal intent–Ovalle admitted that he was a driver of the bus, and that he knew various details about how the Lizma operation smuggled drugs. This evidence was sufficient to allow a rational jury to convict Ovalle on count five.”

    So, because he drove the bus + he knows how traficantes work, he’s guilty?
    Dude needs a better lawyer.

    Folks, please read the appellate court decision for your selves and decide.

  7. It seems to me that the issue is with the verdict, not the sentence. She may or may not have been aware of what was going on with the cocaine, but once the court has determined that she was not only aware but actively involved, the sentence itself seems a bit harsh but not desperately wrong.

    The intro makes it sound like she was caught with a small amount for personal use, not that she was accused of transporting tons of the stuff over the border.

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