On Thursday (18), Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court minister Gilmar Mendes agreed to hear the arguments challenging drug criminalization in the country. The lawsuit should be judged only in the second semester, but his actions finally signal the political wear of the drug war. The fight against drugs is one of the few constants in the Brazilian public discussion — which, in security matters, can be summed up as “more policing” and “harsher legislation.”
As famous playwright Nelson Rodrigues once said, “underdevelopment can’t be improvised; it’s a work of centuries”. Similarly, Brazil’s violence statistics that rival countries in war weren’t improvised; they were built on decades of drug war.
It’s commonplace to point to the interventions in the political regimes of Latin America by the United States. It isn’t common, however, to consider the most longlasting American legacy for its southern neighbors: exporting the drug war and its associated violence.
In the 1970s, when the “drug war” was declared by Richard Nixon, including logistic and military support (as well as armed intervention) to fight drug trafficking, Latin America had started to leave its agrarian economy behind and started to build its cities. Drug prohibition in these countries didn’t only have as result to establish heavily armed rings in control of drug trade, but also shaped their urban growth and served as a justification for the military control of poor populations, who live under permanent occupation.
The impact of the drug war over the urban fabric in Latin America can be clearly felt in countries such as Colombia, where rural areas are occupied by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and in Mexico and Brazil, where cartels and gangs established their personal fiefdoms in the poverty-stricken communities in the large cities, which are in perpetually and literally under war.
Drug war in Brazil, particularly, pushed traffickers increasingly to the outskirts and the favelas — initially places of little interest to the police, since the first goal was to get rid of drugs in the city centers. As dealers established themselves in poor communities, the military polices in the whole country set permanent camp there, effectively erasing any individual rights the poor may have one day enjoyed. And as drug trafficking is always present in the life of the favela in Brazil, there’s a constant attempt to control the life of the dwellers.
Criminalization of poverty has several effects: it comprises mandatory random searches, home invasions for search and apprehension without mandate, demolition of “irregular” houses at any time and prison for any reason — generally for holding varying amounts of drug, something difficult to avoid when living side by side with drug dealers. The traffickers transformed the poor communities in trenches to fight off the police, but the battle the Military Police fights in the whole country isn’t exactly against dealers. Rather, it’s their attempt to establish control over the life of the favela dweller — it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with fighting drug rings, and it’s become a conflict against the poor. Statistics don’t lie: out of the 550,000 prisoners in Brazil, over half of them don’t have primary education (200,000 of them, by the way, are behind bars without judgement).
Of course, initially it was a very convenient thing: during the dictatorship and even after the military regime, it was interesting for the government to control the life of the poor, their ability to organize and work. It served even as demographic control in the favelas. Over time, though, the cost of imprisoning and controlling the life of the poor in Brazil has increased. The human corrals we call prisons in this country already house twice the number of people they can support and are on the verge of collapse. The favelas, on the other hand, have become so large (both their number of dwellers and their economy) that controlling them has become a money black hole.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The poor shouldn’t be treated by the government as criminals, and they don’t need to submit to the drug dealers. Prohibition and drug war have established regional monopolies in drug trade in the whole world, creating a fight for its command. The government can’t afford to keep socializing the costs of this conflict. We can’t handle 50,000 murders a year. Either the drug war ends, or we will face social collapse.
Nelson Rodrigues has another quote that perfectly encapsulates the government’s attitude towards the war on drugs: “If the facts are against me, so much the worse for the facts.” Facts have a way of sneaking up on us, though.