Despite efforts by governments in Latin America, illicit drugs continue to provide one of the largest incomes for criminal organizations, enabling them to penetrate and corrupt political and social institutions.
This briefing paper analyses the impact of drug policy on incarceration in São Paulo (Brazil). This research is expected to inform and assess some of the consequences of the current Brazilian drug policy, taking into account its impacts on prisoners’rights and on the criminal justice system as a whole.
Last month the film Tropa de Elite 2 (Elite Squad 2) was released in Brazil. It is a sequel to the very successful 2007 film Elite Squad, a semi-fictional account of the BOPE – special heavily armed police units that invade the slums in Rio de Janeiro going after the drug trafficking gangs. In the new sequel the BOPE have a new enemy: paramilitary groups known as 'milícias' in stead of the usual suspects, the drug gangs of Rio.
Reports of human rights abuses committed during the police and military occupation of several favelas in this Brazilian city are jeopardising local residents’ newfound support for the security forces and posing challenges within the police. "I have never felt so humiliated," a local woman who takes in people’s laundry for a living told IPS. Asking to be identified merely as "D", she talked about what happened during the massive joint police and armed forces incursion in the Complexo do Alemão, a series of favelas or shantytowns on the north side of Rio de Janeiro.
The "take-over" of Rocinha, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas, by heavily armed police and military units was seen by some as a media spectacle and by others as part of a successful strategy of regaining state control over an area ruled by armed drug gangs. Less than three hours after 3,000 police and soldiers occupied the favela or in the south of the city, Rio de Janeiro state Secretary of Public Security José Mariano Beltrame announced the "recovery of the territory" by the state.
The "pacification" of the favelas in this Brazilian city, aimed at driving out armed groups and fighting drug trafficking, has not yet become a fully effective public policy, says Eliana Sousa Silva, who has lived in one of Rio’s shantytowns for nearly 30 years. The pacification process begins when elite military police battalions are sent in to crack down on drug trafficking gangs. Once the drug mafias have been run out of the favela, permanent "Police Pacification Units" (UPPs) are installed to carry out community policing.
Four decades after Washington declared its "war on drugs" and began to spread the doctrine south of the U.S. border, the government of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro decided to shift away from that approach towards a strategy focused on community policing. The new focus has already produced results in some of the city’s favelas or shanty towns, which were long off-limits to outsiders, including police. The process began in 2009 with the installation of "Police Pacification Units" (UPPs) in the favelas.
The police, who used to shoot first and ask questions later in Santa Marta, a Rio de Janeiro shantytown, are now getting on well with the local community – the result of a state government plan that nevertheless has drawn criticism. Out of long habit, many local residents in the Santa Marta "favela" do not dare talk openly about the police who have been permanently posted in their neighbourhood for the past six months, as part of what the Rio de Janeiro state government describes as a plan to "pacify" the slums.
The policy of a saturation police presence in the favelas or shantytowns that are home to around 20 percent of the population of Rio de Jnaeiro is merely a means of criminalising poverty, because it does nothing to address the underlying question of social exclusion, which drives the violence, human rights groups complain. A year and a half ago, State Governor Sergio Cabral began to send Pacification Police Units (UPPs), made up of members of the military police, into the slums to wrest control from drug gangs. The UPPs "are just one more way to exercise control over the poor," said Patricia Oliveira, a member of the Community Network Against Violence.
Rio de Janeiro’s Pacification Police Units (UPP) are celebrating their fifth year in 2013. They do so with generally positive approval ratings from the media and society as a whole. A recent study by Instituto Data Favela indicates that 75% of favelas inhabitants approve of the UPPs. Notwithstanding major crises and criticism, the UPP constitute the single most important public security initiative in the state. And yet the persistent informality of the UPP may eventually undermine its sustainability. (See also: Rio slum pacification police accused of torture, murder)
An average of five people were killed by police every day in Brazil last year, according to an annual security report, revealing an entrenched culture of violence within the country's security forces. Brazil's Forum of Public Security joined forces with US non-governmental organization (NGO) Open Society Foundations to conduct an in-depth study of police killings as part of its annual report, concluding that the country's security forces are beset by a "culture of violence."
Authorities say crack use has dropped 80 percent in São Paulo's notorious "Crackland" district since the implementation of With Open Arms ("De Braços Abertos"), a government-sponsored drug treatment program initiated in January 2014, reported a municipal government office in São Paulo. But there are reasons to doubt the initiative's reported success.
While Brazil has the dubious honor of having the highest homicide rate in the world – with 56,337 killings reported in 2013 – Rio has the most number of murders committed by police than any other Brazilian state. The mayor points to the widely held belief in the city that successful drug traffickers need to control a territory. "There is cocaine and marijuana in every western capital. But that crazy idea of thinking that traffickers need to dominate an area is one of our peculiarities [...]."