Without a Card to Play, Texas Grandma Sentenced to Life Without Parole for First-Time Drug Offense

Texans can sleep more soundly at night knowing that Elisa Castillo, a grandmother and nonviolent first-time drug offender, is serving a life without parole sentence in Fort Worth. Yes, you read that right — the latest casualty of our War on Drugs is a grandmother who never even touched the drugs that sent her to prison. Though she may not look like public enemy No. 1, our persistently illogical criminal justice system has determined that this harsh punishment fits her crime. The truth, though, is that her fate was sealed, in large part because she didn't have a card to play when negotiating her sentence.

Convicted in a drug-smuggling conspiracy, 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.

In the past year, the national conversation about the failure of the War on Drugs has grown, but Castillo's case proves that we have a long way to go in reshaping the unnecessarily punitive sentencing laws that lead to the long-term incarceration of offenders who pose no threat to public safety. In light of the limited resources available to states in the aftermath of the recent fiscal crisis, it is both overly expensive and completely illogical to impose such a draconian and unnecessary sentence on someone who was convicted of playing so small a role in a drug smuggling conspiracy. And yet, within our criminal justice system, it's par for the course.

Learn more about the War on Drugs: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (11)
Read the Terms of Use


Please tell us how she was convicted without seeing or touching the drugs? What did she actually do?


I can't get the links that answer the questions CynicalOne asks, which I had too. ACLU says it's spam! This rant is a test-post, w/o links. But I did find some answers by searching the woman's name, "Elisa Castillo, cocaine, and Texas" :P


extremely poorly written article. I agree with previous comment...you failed to provide the facts of the case as laid out by the prosecution. Just because the ACLU makes a claim I would still like the full story before defending a convicted criminal.


Sounds to me like she was just an opportunistic drug smuggler. I am having a hard time feeling sorry for her. BTW being a "grandmother" doesn't mean you deserve more mercy than anyone else.


Illogical? You're thinking short term. The end goal is to privatize the prison system and thus open up a wealth of tax funded profits. The intermediate goals are to swamp the current prison system and prompt the "reform" required to solve the problem. Private investor's dream -- prisons overcrowded with old ladies and non-violent pot heads.

I'm buying stock in private prison system now...


I am guessing that the prisons in Texas are for profit.


Frankly I saw pics of her on facebook making gang signs, so I think she got what she deserved.


Prohibition on alcohol (a drug) in the thirties did not work, nor will this stupid prohibition on drugs work. In fact, it has already failed. In the mean time people are dying and taxpayers are footing the bill for locking people up. The government, the justice system and law enforcement are all run by crazies.

Woody James

The war on drugs is a dismal failure that has increased illegal drug use at an alarming rate. The so called war, has maintained the huge profits in the illegal trade which is causing a monumental increase in brutal violence by drug lords in the U.S. and Mexico.

Illegal profits are so huge and untaxed that cash contributions to people at all levels of government go undetected, not to mention the so called legal contributions to the PAC's of senators and congressmen (the small letters are on purpose) in the U.S. government who gladly accept the money to get re=elected and perpetuate and increase laws that allow this situation to continue.

All the private prisons are for profit and contribute heavily to the greedy people in Washington DC to have them pass more laws that benefit the prison business.
You don't have to be Einstein to figure out that if you send more people to prison, the prison business profits soar. This stupidity is offensive and destructive to all members of our society.

The life imprisonment without parole of a Houston Texas grandmother, is an affront to common decency. Please publish the so called evidence that the Texas jury used to convict her and then send the members of the jury to live in a city in Mexico that has the highest murder rate by the drug cartels and don.t let them back into the U.S

You texans should hang your heads in shame. Most of the drugs from Mexico come into the U.S. through your borders and are transported through texas to the rest of the U.S. Must be nice to have all that no tax cash flowing through texas' economy at the expense of the rest of us.


This may be her first conviction, it is hardly her first offense. She ran the Houston side of a Mexican tour bus operation that ran from Monterey to Houston for over two years. She was responsible for running the depot and renting the various warehouse facilities where drugs were unloaded for distribution and money was left to transport back to Monterey. She also ran the company's banking account in Houston. Court records show the average passenger load on these trips was around 10 individuals per trip paying $35.00 each. The feds confiscated about a ton of drugs between 2006 and 2007 and about $2 million in cash. She pleaded a Sgt Shultz (60's TV series Hogan's Heroes: "I know nothing, absolutely nothing!"). She apparently thought she could avoid conviction since she didn't physically touch the merchandise so she didn't take a plea deal. Bad choice. The prosecutor didn't believe her, the jury didn't believe her, and the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals didn't believe her. The appeals court wrote in their opinion: "We find an overabundance of evidence to allow a rational jury to convict Defendants-Appellants, and find that the district court operated within its proper discretion in imposing within-Guidelines sentences on Defendants-Appellants." ftp://opinions.ca5.uscourts.gov/byDate/Feb2011/Feb09/09-20361.0.wpd.pdf

I would have hoped for a more honest report from the ACLU, but then again, it is the ACLU.


Stay Informed