It was a moment that residents of Rio de Janeiro thought would never come. For decades many of the city’s favelas have been ruled by drug traffickers or militias. Sporadic flare-ups would see the police go in to these self-built settlements seeking revenge, only to pull back leaving bodies scattered and the gangs to return to business. But last month when the city’s two main drug gangs began hijacking and torching vehicles at gunpoint, this time the authorities’ response was different.
The police blitzes in this Olympic city’s biggest slums are meant to show the world that Rio is winning the fight against violent drug gangs that have ruled the shantytowns for decades. With this weekend’s occupation of the Rocinha slum, home to 100,000 people, authorities secured key areas near athletic events planned for the 2016 Games. Since the security program began three years ago, 19 permanent “police pacification units,” or UPPs, have been created. The problem is of such scale that even the main architect of the program acknowledges that policing alone will not halt the drug trade. Instead, the goal of the invasions is to win back strategic territory and take guns away from the gangs.
Mexico's new president has outlined a security strategy aimed at reducing drug war-related violence that, rhetorically at least, contrasts starkly with the emphasis his predecessor placed on using force to go after the cartels. For all the changes of tone, however, it remains unclear how different the strategy will be on the ground, aside, perhaps, from more funds dedicated to social projects aimed at disadvantaged youths at risk of being sucked into organised crime.
Mexico's new administration has offered the first details of its new strategy in the country's war on drugs, saying the government will spend $9.2bn this year on social programmes to keep young people from joining criminal organisations in the 251 most violent towns and neighbourhoods across the country. The government will flood those areas with spending on programmes ranging from road building to increasing school hours, said President Enrique Peña Nieto and Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the interior secretary.
For years the country was largely untouched by the brutal cartels that control the drug trade in Latin America. But an eight-year-old boy is proof those days are over. As little more than a transit-route, Argentina had escaped the worst of drug-related violence that has plagued many South American countries for decades. Now, the effects of the drug trade are increasingly visible – particularly in Rosario, which is acquiring the inauspicious title of Argentina’s “narco” capital.
Gang-outreach schemes, community centers,employment projects andconstruction programs aimed at transformingchaotic urban jungles. “There is a complete lack of focus,” says Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former member of Mexico’s intelligence agency. “It is such a mishmash of different programs that we will not know what works and what doesn’t. It is setting up itself for being a major waste of money.”
Ten police in Rio de Janeiro have been charged with the torture and killing of a resident of the city's biggest favela in a case that has highlighted anger about extrajudicial killings. For more than two months, Amarildo de Souza was simply classified as "missing", but the suspicious circumstances of his disappearance and the notorious record of Rio's police sparked demonstrations that forced the authorities to respond.
Homicides have fallen 65 percent in the Rio de Janeiro favelas where Police Pacification Units have been installed during four years of the flagship scheme -- an impressive figure, but one that could just indicate a displacement of violence to other regions. A study by Rio's Public Security Institute (ISP) looked at 22 Rio neighborhoods where Police Pacification Units (UPPs) have been in operation for more than a year.
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)
Latin America has emerged at the vanguard of efforts to promote debate on drug policy reform. For decades, Latin American governments largely followed the drug control policies and programs of Washington’s so-called war on drugs. Yet two parallel trends have resulted in a dramatic change in course: the emergence of left-wing governments that have challenged Washington’s historic patterns of unilateralism and interventionism and growing frustration with the failure of the prohibitionist drug control model put forward by the US government.
Ioan Grillo, journalist, author of “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency”
01 November 2012
We have to face up to the hard reasons why thousands of young men (and some women) with full mental faculties have become serial killers. These reasons should be taken into account by residents of Colorado, Washington state and Oregon when they vote on referendums to legalize marijuana. The painful truth is that the monster of Mexican cartels has been pumped up by decades of Americans buying illegal drugs under the policies of prohibition. If voters do choose to legalize marijuana it would be a historic decision, but it would also open up a can of worms. The U.S. federal government and even the United Nations would be forced to react to a state’s resolution to break from the path.
Penalties for growing and selling cannabis must be toughened because a surge in the trade is driving up shootings and gang-related violence, a senior police officer has warned. According to Assistant Chief Constable Andy Ward of Merseyside police, an "explosion" in cannabis production has resulted in bitter struggles between rival gangs keen to exploit the ease by which cannabis can be manufactured and what they regard as easy money.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) translated the article La raíz de la violencia by Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez that was originally published in Spanish in the June 2011 edition of the Mexican magazine Nexos. Guerrero’s article, "At the Root of the Violence," deserves as wide an audience as possible. The author makes a compelling case for shifting to a strategy of "deterrence" to reduce the horrific violence that has been spreading in Mexico.
This policy briefing analyses the results of the partial agreement on drugs reached at the talks being held in Havana between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and the Colombian government.
Latin American countries are turning to Europe for lessons on fighting drugs after souring on the prohibition-style approach of the violent and costly U.S.-led war on drugs. Until recently, most Latin American countries had zero-tolerance rules on drugs inspired by the United States. But now countries from Brazil to Guatemala are exploring relaxing penalties for personal use of narcotics, following examples such as Spain and Portugal that have channeled resources to prevention rather than clogging jails.
In Rosario, Argentina, the presence of criminal organisations involved in drug trafficking was a low priority for the government until New Year’s day 2012, when the killing of three innocent civilians by members of a gang sparked press attention.
Mexico has occupied the limelight when it comes to media attention focusing on drug-related violence in Latin America. However, it is actually Central America's Northern Triangle – consisting of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – currently experiencing much higher rates of violence and increasing Drug Trafficking Organization (DTOs) activity, thus providing an illustration of the 'balloon effect' previously experienced by Mexico itself after the implementation of Plan Colombia which was conceived at the end of the 90's. Together the countries of the Northern Triangle now form one of the most violent regions on earth.
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.
Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala face the need to modify their approach to the fight against drug trafficking and are urging the world to do the same. But Mexico and Colombia’s willingness to make the necessary changes is unclear. The three countries are connected by a powerful circuit of trafficking of drugs – whose main market is the United States – weapons and money from illegal activities. But the extent of the problem and the way drug organisations operate in each one of these countries vary.
The distribution of land and its unjust use are the major causes of violence in Colombia. For this reason land issues are the starting point of current peace talks between the Santos government and the FARC guerrillas. Remedying these structural problems at the heart of rural Colombia is the best guarantee of progress of the current peace negotiations that could bring an end to a half-century-old violent conflict.