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In Brazil, 80,000 Incarcerations in One Year is What the UNODC Calls ‘Excellent’

Early last year, TalkingDrugs reported on the partnerships between UN agencies and the Brazilian government in an attempt to breathe fresh life into the failed campaign for a drug-free society. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are sponsoring President Jair Bolsonaro’s bloody drug wars with funds and human resources, working together with the Brazilian government to establish the Centre of Excellence for Illicit Drug Supply Reduction (COE). The COE’s first report, detailing how drug traffickers adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic, was published last December. Reading through it, at first, I did not feel like commenting. Watching side events at the 65th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, however, where the fetishisation of drug supply reduction was frequently displayed, alongside the annual commitment to design and implement further strategies to dismantle the illegal drug markets, I felt the urge to discuss some of the findings brought in the report. What was the impact of the combat of illegal drug supply during the first year of the pandemic in Brazil? A short answer: the incarceration of over 80,000 people, most of them Black and Brown men with low levels of formal education and, therefore, small chances of entering the legal labour market during what is one of the hardest economic crises that Brazil has ever experienced.

One of the lessons that both the UNODC and the Brazilian government learned since they established their so-called centre of excellence is that illicit entrepreneurs are resilient. They too design and implement strategies to adapt to adverse situations, as evidenced in the report: 

“Brazil remains a strategic region for the transit of cocaine without major changes in the routes traditionally established pre-COVID-19 pandemic. There is a strong resilience on the part of drug trafficking organisations with a great capacity to adapt and diversify routes.” 

Traffickers searched for new routes through land and rivers. They changed their routes to other regions of Brazil and its bordering countries. They moved smaller batches between points. Police forces kept on seizing banned drugs, though, which the Brazilian government claimed was a successful approach, even when there is no evidence to back up the notion that seizures and arrests contribute to the reduction of crime, violence, and other forms of harm.

The report suggests that the main reason that people engage in drug trafficking is due to the lack of alternative economic opportunities. This is not a new finding, and neither is it only a Brazilian peculiarity. Evidence shows it is a reality faced around the globe. Increasing incarceration, however, cannot help to sort this situation out. 

The criminal justice system is burdened by the drug wars budget and those caught in it must surmount significant difficulties to enter or reenter the formal job market when they leave prison. One question remains: why not channel the huge sums invested in a failed policy that destroys communities into initiatives that can tackle the challenges faced by vulnerable people? Because if poverty is leading people to place themselves in dangerous economic enterprises, why is the state using human and financial resources to put and keep poor people behind bars? Is this drug policy-related mass incarceration phenomenon really a policy failure or is it a purposeful project?     

It is also counter-intuitive that the UNODC and the Brazilian government have joined forces to confine people during the worst pandemic experience in contemporary history. Was it reasonable to enlarge the third biggest prison population in the world when COVID deaths were soaring, creating a breeding ground for infections? But one has to remember that Brazil is governed by a president whose attitude towards COVID-19’s death toll was defined in his own words as: “so what?”. In turn, the UNODC claims that there are better ways to deal with drug-related issues than incarceration, but there seems to be a huge gap between discourse and practice here. It is widely known that prohibitionism and incarceration go hand in hand. So why are legalisation, safe supply, and sovereignty never options for consideration by the UNODC?  

A picture of the reduction of illegal supply in Brazil during the pandemic would not be accurate without references to the other side of drug wars. And I do not mean a pretty, bright side where everybody is happy. No. Two sides exist to this coin: one is incarceration, the other is extrajudicial killings. In June 2020 the Brazilian Supreme Court prohibited police raids within Rio de Janeiro’s favelas due to the pandemic, and within a month the rate of people fatally shot dropped by 70%. One year after the measure, though, both the civil and the military police forces started ignoring the Supreme Court and participated in two massacres, one in Rio de Janeiro City and one in Sao Goncalo. Almost 40 people were murdered by police officers in both episodes. Now guess the colour of the victims’ skin, their age, and economic situation. 

Looking back at the data and the context, how can the specialists of UNODC and the COE recommend more policing, training, and surveillance—all of which feed into a vicious cycle of incarceration, violence, and death? Does it not look like simply doing more of the same failed strategy that has been carried out for decades? The same old recommendations have been rolled out—but let us now follow cryptocurrencies and the darknet as well! What a modern approach. They could as well have concluded by asking people to stay tuned for next year.

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