Selected for a student exchange program, I stepped into Brazil for the first time in July 2012. I was a 19-year-old innocent girl very passionate about the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture. My biggest culture shock was undoubtedly while entering a bank: security revolving doors equipped with a metal detector and the presence of armed guards carrying shotguns. It took me 365 days to understand the reality of violence in Brazil and how drug trafficking slowly destroys Latin America.
Drug trafficking, gang violence, and police shootout are daily news in Brazil. In big cities, many Brazilians live with the daily fear of venturing into the street day and night. Walking on the street means running the risk of losing one’s wallet, phone, or own life.
Yet, by then, Brazil was the country of the future: the Brazilian economy was booming, and the country was heralded as a ‘new player on the global stage’ as it became one of the top 10 wealthiest nations in the world. A few years earlier, Rio de Janeiro had captured the right to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, marking the first time a South American nation had been selected to host the event.
In the early 2010s, security for tourists visiting Brazil became a high priority. For years, Rio de Janeiro engaged in an epic struggle to convince the world that it was the right choice to hold Brazil’s two major sports events. In Rio de Janeiro, many favelas have been controlled by gangs of armed drug dealers. So Rio’s government sought to implement “community-oriented policing” called Pacifying Police Unit to stop organized crime and drug dealers. In 10 years, many favelas were ‘pacified’ – including some of the most dangerous slums such as the infamous City of God and Complexo do Alemão – sometimes looking like war scenes with tanks, assault rifles, and military equipment. Some favelas like Vidigal and Rocinha opened to tourists with great hostels and the best parties.
As if Brazil’s endemic violence was only a bad souvenir.
But as the Games began, Brazil suffered its worst economic and political crisis. A few months before the Games, the Marvelous City unraveled: the government declared a state of financial emergency. In other words, the state was bankrupt, leaving thousands of government employees unpaid and causing funding shortfalls for police forces. As a consequence, crime resurged across Rio de Janeiro state. From January to October 2016, murders increased by 18%, and street robberies jumped by 48% compared to the same period the previous year. Rio de Janeiro’s slums have returned to neglect, and gangs have retaken control of several so-called pacified favelas; shootouts with traffickers have become routine again.
Violence in Latin America has been deep-rooted for decades. According to a report conducted by the World Bank, the continent accounts for only 8% of the world’s population but 37% of the world’s homicides. In 2012 alone, close to 150 000 people in Latin America fell victim to homicide – corresponding to more than four homicides every 15 minutes – compared to 350 000 dead in the Syrian civil war over ten years. The memory of a Brazilian mother mourning for her dead son killed by a stray bullet during a police intervention on TV will remain etched in my mind forever. The carnage is appalling.
Every time I would ask Brazilians about the situation, they would shrug shoulders: “Isso é Brasil,” literally “This is Brazil.” Violence takes on an air of normality. In Brazil, the line between death and life is fragile. Cariocas’ way of enjoying life as if there is no tomorrow began to make plenty of sense to me.
Latin America is the world’s leading supplier of cocaine, marijuana, opiates, and methamphetamine – particularly Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico – much of which is shipped to the United States and Europe, which are the world’s largest consumers.
The paradox of drug consumption is that despite the high availability of illicit substances, the central drug-growing countries do not consume as much of the drugs. In Colombia, the world’s top producer of cocaine, less than 0.9% of the population (or about 0.5 million people) reported using cocaine in the past 12 months (2017) as compared to 1.9% of the US population (or about 5.2 million people) aged 12 or older (2020). Most Latin Americans are disdainful of drug users, especially Westerners seeking to travel to Latin America to experiment with mind-altering substances.
Drugs used for recreational purposes are one of the leading causes of violence in Latin America. Although they fail to see the connection, Westerners hold a large part of the responsibility for it. Iman Amrani, a journalist, currently working at the Guardian, wrote: “It’s clear that western cocaine users have to accept they are contributing to violent crime that has left hundreds of thousands dead in Latin America over the past decades.” In 2018, the Metropolitan police commissioner of London also accused British middle-class cocaine users of fueling the drug trade, who in her words: “[…] will sit around, happily think about global warming and fair trade, and environmental protection and all sorts of things, organic food, but think there is no harm in taking a bit of cocaine. Well, there is. There is misery throughout the supply chain.” Cocaine is to blame and all other drugs produced or transited through Latin America, including cannabis.
My university, an 11-story massive edifice, provided a clear view over Mangueira, a slum marred by gang violence and poverty. While sitting at the academic library, I couldn’t help but stare at the slum wondering how Brazil ended up being one of the most violent countries in the world.
Drug use and addiction spread like a powder trail along the drug trafficking route. Given its long borders with several other South American countries, Brazil is a significant transit country for illicit drug trafficking to Europe. Cocaine destined for Europe mainly departs Latin America via São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This has resulted in an increasingly crucial domestic market for cocaine consumption: Brazil has recently become the world’s top crack market and the second biggest destination for powdered cocaine. São Paulo’s Cracolândia – literally “Crackland” –, the largest and most impactful open-air scene of crack usage in the world, is symbolic of the country’s drug epidemic.
Drug trafficking flourishes mainly due to the growing demand for illicit drugs by developed countries, as well as poverty and the lack of viable economic opportunities for the youth living in Latin America. Drug traffickers take advantage of juveniles and lure them with incentives like money and robbed electronics to encourage them to join drug trafficking and smuggling contraband. In countries where education systems are often underfunded, juveniles are easily brainwashed and think that studying is a waste of time.
Although an academic study suggests less than 1% of Brazil’s favela dwellers are involved in drug trafficking, they are often blamed as the source of drug-related violence instead of being considered ‘collateral victims’ of the drug trade. Slum residents often get unjustly stigmatized and discriminated against by the labor market, resulting in a growing ‘social apartheid’.
The use of recreational drugs is one of the “stones” that hinder the definitive solution for violence in Brazil. As long as there will be drugs produced in or transited through Latin America consumed in Europe or the United States, there will be violence in Latin America.
The Guardian, Here in Colombia, the hypocrisy of western cocaine users is laid bare
Sociologia, Problemas e Prática, The evolution of drug trafficking and organized crime in Latin America
Latin American Development Forum, Laura Chioda, Stop the violence in Latin America, A look at Prevention From Cradle to Adulthood
National Institute on Drug Abuse, What is the scope of cocaine use in the United States?
Drug Policy Alliance, How many people use cocaine?
QUARTZ, Brazil now consumes 18% of the world’s cocaine
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Brazil, Country profile (2003)
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