The Irrationality of the War on Drugs II

Image: Aphiwat Chuangchoem


The most rational position on the problem of illicit drugs is to defend and legalize all of them

War on drugs, militias and the election of Jair Bolsonaro

In the war on drugs, governments make stratospheric spending on prisons, policing and weapons (the theme of the “weapons industry” and its relationship with drug trafficking, by the way, deserves a whole separate chapter). To justify the war and the expenses it involves, they fuel the moral condemnation of drugs. They then feel free and authorized to carry out war. In Brazil, the main concern of the police is not to kill someone during an operation; the problem is whether the person was not a drug dealer. If you're a drug dealer, that's fine – the media will understand, society will accept it, and the war goes on.

But the gigantic expenses, the increase in the production and consumption of drugs, and the social cost of the deaths – revolt, resentment –, the corruption of police officers, civil servants, politicians and businessmen do not yet end all the effects of the war on drugs. It also elects rulers. In Colombia, the links between drug trafficking and the elections of the early 1990s became famous: while the Medellín Cartel was destroyed and Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, the Cali Cartel, led at the time by the brothers Miguel and Rodríguez Orejuela, tried to finance the candidacies of various politicians of interest to you.

In Brazil, the war on drugs also had the effect, in 2018, of the election of a President of the Republic, Jair Bolsonaro, and several extreme right-wing governors such as Wilson Witzel in Rio de Janeiro. In Brazilian elections, however, the causal relationship between one thing and another is not so explicit. Between the war on drugs and the election of Bolsonaro there are some mediations. The main one is perhaps the phenomenon of militias.

Historians, sociologists, anthropologists or journalists, when trying to better understand the rise of neo-fascism in Brazil and the arrival of the extreme right to power in the 2018 elections, certainly cannot disregard the war on drugs as one of the main explanatory factors. Let's look at some connections.

We repeat all the time that Brazil is perhaps the most unequal country in the world. We have a lot of money, we are still among the largest capitalist economies in the world, but income is extremely unevenly distributed. Workers and workers do not need to read The capital from Karl Marx to feel that they are being exploited, to experience social injustice first-hand and day-to-day. Extreme inequality then breeds anger, resentment, and violence. And the way in which all of this is almost always dealt with in Brazil is the violence used by state agents, particularly the police and the armed forces. Thus, even before the public policy for the war on drugs, the country was already experiencing a social crisis that is generally treated as a matter for the police.

The military dictatorship, which was in force between 1964 and 1985, left among its legacies the so-called “death squads”, extermination groups that acted outside or outside the law, carrying out crimes of execution and torture, with the justification of ending violence. and disorder in the poorest neighborhoods. This whole story, including the one we tell below, is excellently narrated in the book The Republic of Militias: From Death Squads to the Bolsonaro Era (However), by researcher and journalist Bruno Paes Manso. When, in 1988, the country created a new Constitution, these groups began to act in an even greater illegality and illegitimacy than before.

But its performance now was no longer a good deal: with the end of the dictatorship, civil society and its institutions began to have more strength, and the State could no longer turn a blind eye to the police and former police officers who acted outside the law doing justice with their own hands, even earning for it: they charged to kill. And so many of these groups had to disappear. Many, but not all: some of them turned into militias, particularly in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

When the war on drugs really took hold in the 1990s, the increase in violence made life in the favelas and poor neighborhoods of Brazil's big cities even more unbearable. To the violence of drug traffickers was now added the police violence resulting from the war. And as the war was – and has been – a great failure, the violence of war did not solve the problem and increased it. This is how the militias were born: they emerged to bring peace to the residents. Since the State itself was not able to guarantee, within the law, peace and security in the poorest territories, groups of state agents – police officers, former police officers, penitentiary agents and military firefighters – began to create private militias. to act outside the law and the Constitution, with the aim of bringing peace to these territories. And since the culprit for the violence was drug trafficking, the militias were born with a strong discourse that remains to this day: “combat trafficking”, putting an end to drug traffickers.

In fact, militias are a phenomenon of privatization of public security. If extermination groups charged to kill on demand, the militias were born by charging security service fees to local merchants, ensuring that they would not be robbed. In Rio de Janeiro, these groups were initially called “policia mineira”, an expression that designated a type of corrupt police. From the safety of traders, these groups extended their services to all residents, starting to charge them fees for the services provided.

As these private security guards expanded and strengthened, they began to charge all kinds of fees, such as rent, sale and purchase of real estate, and clandestine installation of TV and cable internet, in addition to assuming a monopoly on the sale of cooking gas. . Thus were born the militias as we know them today. A 2008 exploratory study carried out by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in partnership with the LAV (Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence) at UERJ (State University of Rio de Janeiro) described what militias were:

Initially composed of police and other state agents, these groups began to dominate areas previously controlled by drug traffickers. In many cases, residents and merchants paid a fee in exchange for supposed protection. The initiative provoked an intense controversy. A significant number of public figures, headed by the mayor of the city, demonstrated with speeches justifying the initiative, if not openly supporting it, considering that the 'militias' were a reaction of the police who lived in those places with the intention of 'liberating' populations subjected to drug trafficking.[1]

However, under the pretense of bringing peace to poor communities, the militias waged another war. In many ways, the presence of militias made people's lives even worse than under the drug war. In the 2008 report just quoted, researchers noted the difficulty of interviewing residents, even under strict confidentiality, because they feared reprisals from militiamen. In 2011, in another report, also by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the LAV-UERJ, researchers stressed that the situation was even worse. And they wrote: “It is easier to study drug trafficking than militias. The climate of intimidation in these areas is intense, as revealed not only by the refusals, but also by many of the lines that we finally obtained”.[2]

And, in fact, the cruelest face of the militias became known to the country's population in May 2008, when two reporters from the Rio newspaper O Dia they were kidnapped and physically and psychologically tortured by militiamen in the Batan favela, in the western zone of Rio, just because they were trying to cover up a story about the militias' activities in the neighborhood in secrecy. Since then, militias have come to be seen for what they really are, armed groups operating outside the law. May 2008 was a milestone, a turning point in the history of the militias: “What had spread for years in the most peripheral regions of the city of Rio de Janeiro and in the Baixada Fluminense and which terrorized the daily lives of more and more people, finally became a notorious case, leading, among other actions, to the installation of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry in the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro, that same year”.

The CPI, coordinated by PSol (Socialism and Freedom Party) deputy Marcelo Freixo, discovered many crimes and indicted many people involved, including several elected parliamentarians, as well as police officers, former police officers and civilians. Some were arrested, and the militias suffered greater repression, in such a way that even some leaders who were not arrested had their activities blocked.

The big corporate media then resumed the war on drugs discourse – understandable, because if the militias were to leave, the “legal” war against drug traffickers should “return”. The militias, however, did not cease to exist, they just started to act in a more discreet way: they are less ostensive, they control less access to and from the favelas, they are less exposed. But they remain just as violent and tyrannical. And although their structure was shaken after 2008, with some leaders arrested and their elected members losing their political mandates, the militias remained economically strong in 2011. These were some of the conclusions of the LAV-UERJ report, more than ten years ago …

Jair Bolsonaro, as is known, has always been a defender of the militias, and he defended them publicly, including in his speeches in the Chamber of Deputies in Brasília. No one paid much attention to him – he was the “madman of the PM's” and the military, an extreme right-wing guy, what was left of the basements of the dictatorship, an ex-army soldier who seemed to offer no danger, so bizarre were his lines. But in the public defense of the militias, Bolsonaro was not alone: ​​some governors, mayors, deputies and councilors joined him. The reason they defended the militias was always the same: the local population, including police officers who lived in the neighborhoods, were carrying out a “community self-defense”, in the expression of a mayor of Rio, against the violence of drug traffickers.

However, after 2008 and the CPI of that year, it became increasingly clear that the militias were criminal organizations with the participation of state agents, especially police officers, and that they were as violent and tyrannical as the drug lords, or more. But there is more: “The final nail in the coffin of the myth of the militia as a drug trafficking liberation crusade happens when we prove that, in some cases, the militia itself controls drug trafficking in a more or less indirect way, as a way to increase your income”.[3]

Money corrupts. But the militiamen were born corrupt, with their practices of taking justice into their own hands, illegal private security for local businesses and charging residents fees for protection services. From there, association with local drug dealers was just a step away. Drugs make a lot of money, and that was always what the militiamen were looking for.

Nowadays, almost everyone knows that Jair Bolsonaro and his three sons have direct or indirect links with the militias, particularly those in Rio das Pedras, a neighborhood that is considered the birthplace of the militia phenomenon. This connection became clearer in late 2018, shortly after Bolsonaro's election, when it was discovered that a former adviser to his son Flávio Bolsonaro was being investigated for the crime of corruption. It was Fabrício Queiroz, a former police officer linked to the “Office of Crime”, the name of the militia organization in Rio das Pedras, the Bolsonaro electoral corral. The Crime Office is suspected of being behind the murder of Marielle Franco, then Rio city councilor, and her driver, Anderson Gomes. All of this is still being investigated, but the indications and evidence linking the Bolsonaros, the militias and the murder of Marielle are too strong for this line of investigation not to be worked on.

In 2018, and we already know this, Jair Bolsonaro was not exactly the candidate of the economic, financial and media dominant classes. But when it became clear that society was polarized between a center-left candidacy, headed by Fernando Haddad of the PT, and the extreme right of Jair Bolsonaro, they opted (some discreetly) for the latter, in line with the anti-PTism that the large media corporations had been preaching for over ten years in the country, but also in coherence with the neoliberal project that these classes defended.

Jair Bolsonaro was then favored by a specific, complex situation, and there are a number of factors that explain his rise to power. The fact is that with him the militiamen, who had already been trying to occupy executive and legislative positions, came to power. And since militias are often associated with drug trafficking, the arrest of an air force sergeant, caught with 39 kilos of cocaine at the airport in Seville, Spain, was “symbolic”.

We know the story: the sergeant was one of the members of Bolsonaro's entourage that landed in Seville on a FAB (Brazilian Air Force) presidential plane; the entourage was due to head to Japan to attend a G-20 meeting. The sergeant was sentenced to 6 years in prison and a fine of 2 million euros. When that happened, the government of Jair Bolsonaro had not yet completed six months in office. In less than 18 months of government, Jair Bolsonaro already had more than 30 impeachment requests filed in the Chamber of Deputies. Society began to realize what it meant to elect a militia representative of organized crime.

Necessary causality and irrationality

The war on drugs did not come out of nowhere and necessarily causes different effects, certainly more negative than positive, more harmful than beneficial. Corruption, deaths, murders, mass incarceration and increase in the production, trade and consumption of drugs – these effects show that the war on drugs not only does not eliminate the problem of trafficking, but amplifies it even more, creating new and bigger problems . One of them may be to contribute to electing presidents of the Republic linked to militias that were also born, to a large extent, as an effect of the war itself. In the case of Jair Bolsonaro, its negative effects extended to an entire country, with devastating consequences for the Republic and for Brazilian sociability.

So, does it make sense for a country to spend lots of money on public policies like this?

Spending huge amounts of the public budget to increase the problem you want to fight, insisting on the same path when its inefficiency and counterproductiveness are already clear, this has a name: it is called irrationality.

Less than a century ago, drug trafficking was not a problem. Marijuana, cocaine and other psychoactive substances were not illegal – but starting in the 1930s, the United States decided that they were. The problem did not exist, it was created. And this is also a story that is becoming more and more known. Increasingly advancing in the relentless pursuit of producers, traders and consumers of these substances, the United States led or coerced most countries to sign multilateral agreements to combat the demon of drug trafficking and drug use.

Since 1961, when UN member countries signed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the war on drugs has intensified over the past 50 years. And the problem has not been resolved, nor has it even diminished – on the contrary, it has only increased. It is now clear as daylight that there is nothing wrong with drug war policy: they are the wrong thing. Because they do not combat evil: they promote it, increase it, make the “monster”, the “demon” of drugs and trafficking grow.

But we might ask: what would be the solution then? Harm reduction policy, decriminalization of users, etc.? Measures like this are not bad in themselves, on the contrary. But perhaps it is necessary to touch the wound and undo a problem that was created to be fought, and by being fought, its size increased. As long as drugs continue to be prohibited and demonized, it will always be necessary to fight them in order to comply with the law and to satisfy moralistic postures.

It is true that the issue is complex, but several countries are already realizing the baselessness of the wars on drugs and taking a different path. A good example of this is the United States itself, where it all began, but where several states have already legalized and regulated the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana. Marijuana accounts for more than 80% of psychoactive substances consumed worldwide. Therefore, in the end of the war, Denis R. Burgierman, who traveled the world to learn about other ways to deal with drugs, correctly argued that legalizing and regulating marijuana is a strategic case if we want to end the war on drugs.

The documentary breaking taboo ends with this sentence: “In 1971, the US declared war on drugs. Forty years later, it is time to declare peace.” That was in 2011 when the documentary was released. In Brazil, almost ten years have passed and public security policies continue to insist on following the same path. It is irrational – except perhaps for those who gain from it (drug dealers; corrupt businessmen, politicians, police and judges; arms industry and private security). It was also in 2011 that Denis R. Burgierman published the end of the war. It was no coincidence that he chose as the epigraph of the book this famous quote by Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Insisting on the war on drugs is an insanity that is proved by the necessary effects of a public policy that bears the marks of irrationality and inhumanity.

But the winds of legalization are already blowing…

In 2022, maps of legalization in the US already showed that legalized marijuana covers more than 85% of the US territory, despite the different laws of each state, more or less permissive regarding the two main types of cannabis use (medicinal or recreational ; most states that have legalized allow both uses). Canada is the most advanced country in the matter: there, marijuana is completely legal throughout the country. In Brazil, legalization is progressing, but at a slow pace. It is expected that the current democratic and progressive government will seriously resume the agenda, now that the reactionary and fascist project of Bolsonarism has been defeated at the polls, although it has not been in society.

It is in this sense, of a resumption of the agenda of legalization and against the war on drugs, that the current Minister Silvio Almeida seems to be signaling. In his interview with BBC News Brazil in addition to pointing out the “mortal damage” that the war on drugs causes “to Brazilian society”, he points to something important in this debate: the need to have the State itself and science as allies in the fight for the legalization of drugs. 

Few people know, but while in the sphere of the State an action that deals with the decriminalization of drugs has been stopped since 2015, in the field of science an important step was taken more than four years ago. Against the irrationality of prohibitionism that led to the war on drugs and the increase in drug trafficking, Brazilian scientists decided to position themselves in the debate. The Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science – SBPC –, at an Ordinary General Assembly held in July 2018 on the occasion of the 70th. At the entity's Annual Meeting, its members unanimously decided to write a motion with the title “For a progressive and non-prohibitionist drug policy”. Scientists simply decided to take the most rational position on the illicit drug problem: they advocated legalizing and regulating all of them, not just marijuana.

Well, scientists… The document was published and sent to the Presidency of the Republic, the National Congress, the Supreme Court, the press and other important bodies and institutions in the country – so that everyone could hear the voice of reason. It is true that not everyone listened, and the voice of scientists does not seem to have reached all citizens of the country either. All good. For as Freud said in The future of an illusion: "the voice of the intellect may be low, but it does not rest until it is heard."[4]

* Marcos Ferreira de Paula Professor of the Social Work Course at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

To access the first article in the series click here.


[1] Global Justice (org.). Security, trafficking and militias in Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2008, p. 48.

[2] “In the shoe”: the evolution of the militias in Rio de Janeiro (2008-2011) / Ignacio Cano & Thais Duarte (coordinators); KryssiaEttel and Fernanda Novaes Cruz (researchers). – Rio de Janeiro: Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2012.

[3]Global Justice (org.). Security, trafficking and militias in Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2008, p. 64.

[4] FREUD, S. The future of an illusion. Complete Works, vol. 17. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2014, p. 297.

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