Drug War in Rio: The Criminalization of Poverty

March 2007

The Governor of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Cabral, who took office on Jan 1, 2007, made several declarations in favor of drug legalization. He suggested that Brazil legalize drugs to help reduce the gang violence that dominates the city's vast shantytowns.

He stated: "Is the United States correct in its conservative policy on drugs? In my view, absolutely incorrect.” “I advocate for the revision of drug prohibition. We can not continue with (this policy) while people die.” “I know people are very conservative in Brazil, but I’m willing to engage in this fight. I’m not a coward.”

In a briefing to foreign reporters he said: "A lot of crime in my state and city comes from drug) prohibition, many young people die in wars over spots for selling drug."

May 2007

The State Security Department intensified police operations in the slums and other deprived communities, most of them located in the north and west zones of Rio, supposedly to apprehend drugs and arms, and arrest drug dealers. This showed that contrary to what was explicit in the governor’s declarations in March, they were continuing to do more of the same policy that has failed for decades.

The governor asks the Federal government to send troops from the National Security Force because of increasing violence and crime in the city.

On May 2, police lay siege to the group of favelas named Alemão Complex (population: 180.000).

June 27, 2007

1350 policemen and soldiers from the National Force invaded the Alemão Complex: a day of unprecedented violence in the history of the community and the state.

: 19 deaths - some lately reported as summary executions, some carried on with cruelty and refinement according to members of the community; one policeman wounded; two people arrested. (In two months of occupation, 43 people died and 81 were injured.)

Since 1990 Rio has suffered horrendous slaughters executed by policemen, but the State had always excused itself saying the murderers were off-duty bad cops, or other excuses.

But this time the whole group of top public security officials totally approved the operation, declaring it was a model to be repeated in other favelas. (The official justification for the killings is always the same: "they happened in confrontation.")

So for the first time the state administration assumed and justified a slaughter in Rio. This brings us to a new political reality: Is it possible to consider the state and maybe even the federal government as legitimate interlocutors in the defense of human rights in Brazil after June 27, 2007? They were responsible for premeditated homicides, the constitutional guarantees are gone, the rule of the law is gone.

A report from the Human Rights Special Department connected to the Presidency also concluded that most of the deaths in June 27 were summary and arbitrary executions. Them document reveals the 19 victims were hit by at least 70 bullets, many fired at short distance, many in the head or back. So what about those earlier statements of the governor in favor of drug legalization? Just lies or what?

Some Facts

  • An opinion poll in Rio revealed 85% approved confrontations in favelas.
  • The governor had several meetings with American officials from the police, the DEA, and high rank authorities (Campos, 2007).
  • Police forces and public security authorities are firmly against less repressive, tolerant drug policies. They carried on and even intensified the anti-drug policy from previous administrations. Rio has never been so violent.

October 2007

Commenting the images of policemen shooting from a helicopter two supposed drug dealers who were killed trying to escape downhill in the Favela of Coréia, the governor said: “The police are not oriented to kill but the decision to combat drug traffic and confiscate their war arsenals is unquestionable and irrevocable”. "People have to get used to this war because the operations will continue". (Isn’t it amazing how the governor completely changed his mind in just a few months?) - 12 people died during the operation, including a 4 years old boy and a policeman.

Public Security Strategy

How can the state justify the ongoing repression and coercion measures without being accused of unfair, authoritarian or despotic behavior?

1st- Criminalizing the poor. That is, blaming the poor for the violence generated by the punitive prohibition intended to diminish drug problems - but which in fact only increases those problems.

2nd - Associating the localities where poor people live to a group of ‘cruel and bloody murderers’: the traficantes (drug dealers). Although less than 1% of the people in the favelas are connected to the drug trade, all people who live there are suspects. Drug dealers are the alibi of the State to maintain the order and the status quo. Drug traffic is used to justify, legitimate and reproduce the criminalization of poverty.

The concept that criminals and favelados (people who live in slums) are synonyms is also found in the songs chant by members of the State Special Operations Batallion (BOPE) during their training:

"The interrogation is very easy to conduct / you grab the favelado and beat him til it hurts /The interrogation is very easy to complete / you grab the favelado and beat him til he dies."

"The bad guys in the favelas / you don't sweep them with a broom / you sweep them with grenades / with rifles and machine guns."

Drug dealers in favelas could be defined as "armed criminal groups with power over territories”. They rival the police in cruelty and brutality. Most of them die very young.

Local Drug Traffic Organizational Structure:

  • The Boss – ruler of the territory, has personal bodyguards
  • General Manager – control the packaging for retail and all the other managers (Marijuana Manager, Cocaine Manager, Soldiers Manager)
  • Drug Managers – distribute the packages with drugs to the Vapores (retailers) who sell to consumers
  • Soldiers – protect the managers and the Boss (who generally doesn’t live in the favela - and when arrested runs the business from inside the prison)
  • Watchdogs – watch the entrances of the favelas and inform the network (usually children or adolescents)

The Observatório de Favelas (Favelas' Observatory) researched from 2004 to 2006 the involvement of 230 youngsters in drug trafficking, age 11 to 24. At the end of the research 46 had died. Only 7% were still studying, but 90% reported they could read and write.

Almost half had quit school at age 11 to 14: the age interval that coincides with entering the drug business. 60% had entered when they were from 12 to 15 years old.

Criminalization of Poverty

You can't dissociate violence from the aggravation of poverty, misery, and the lack of future expectancy, especially for young people. Thirty, forty years ago there was also much poverty - less misery, actually - but it was a poverty that still preserved human rights. - Edmilson Valentim

Public security policy in Brazil is elitist, conservative, and excludable. It is not meant for the whole society. The poor population is considered a threat to security. This policy doesn't consider components such as social exclusion, unemployment, and lack of access to education, health, and social welfare. It blames the poor for their poverty and legitimates the violation of human rights. The violence is institutionalized.

The increase of crime has not a direct relation to poverty. The percentage of poor people involved with crime is less than 1%. In spite of the fact that crime is not related to poverty, the judiciary may issue search warrants for a whole community - every house in the selected region can be searched. Many of the deaths inflicted by policemen are registered as "resistance to detention" which means the victim supposedly died confronting the police.

However, Ignacio Cano, a researcher from Rio State University, verified that in 70% of the cases registered as "resistance to detention" people were shot in the back and from a short distance. As you cannot engage in a shooting with your back turned the other way, these killings were summary executions. In most cases the family has to prove their dead relatives were innocent and did not confront the police: it is their word against the word of the police.

The profile of the Brazilian prison population is exactly the same profile of the "resistance to detention" victims of police activity: young and poor black men who are undereducated, and living in deprived communities or slums.

Drug traffic is completely adjusted to the national reality. As elsewhere, it is a highly lucrative enterprise that accumulates wealth and uses cheap labor, established in a place where there is no concern for legal demands or tax payment. The work is alienating and the young workers are totally lost, with no future expectancy, holding powerful weapons, and bearing a strong illusion of power. That power exists, but it is local, limited and finite.

Their destiny is either death or prison.

Crime is so organized in Brazil that its real organization is invisible. What the media and the public consider organized crime is exactly where it doesn't organize itself: in the poorer sectors of society, the final link of a hierarchic, profitable and uneven chain. But something is wrong in this link. In most favelas you find lots of weapons and drugs surrounded by misery. The money doesn't stay there. And the investigations never reach the upper levels of the chain. It doesn’t matter. Because the logic of federal and state Public Security is repression directed to the poor sectors of society, not to the higher levels of the drug trade.

If they really wanted to combat drug traffic they would use less repression and more intelligence.

Most "big time drug dealers" in prison are so undereducated that they could never run such a sophisticated business as the international drug commerce. But the government insists on repressing those sectors pretending – or believing - they are combating drugs.

In his latest book, Adriano Oliveira from the Federal University of Pernambuco researched organized crime networks, including drug traffic. He analyzed 9 operations of the Federal Police and 4 Parliamentary Inquiry Commissions (CPIs) and found the participation of State officials in them all. And in 6 of them the criminal group had originated itself inside the State.

Oliveira states: "When we plunge in this underworld, we discover how the State is involved. Therefore, when we observe organized crime we see the State… it is impossible to deny that the State has its criminal side. Due to the great corruption inherent to the State and the criminal organizations generated inside it, the State can't function properly to repress crime… That is a great problem for the academy and the press. We can't recognize organized crime only in the slums… in Brazil, crime is associated to the State…or being conceived from inside the State".

Rio needs massive investment in the deprived communities: education, health care and social welfare; sanitation and urbanization. In order to make such investment it is necessary to reduce impunity and corruption.

Drug policy reform measures would include: the demilitarization of Brazilian drug policy; further promotion of the debate on drug prohibition and its negative consequences; change the prohibitionist culture based on fear and prejudice, providing honest, accurate, unbiased information about drugs; redirect drug investment from repression to education, prevention, treatment and research.