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Drug Policy in Favelas and the Formal City: A War Without Winners

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Last Wednesday at the National Park Library (Biblioteca Parque Nacional), social media and human rights activist Raull Santiago of Coletivo Papo Reto sat down with researcher Ana Paula Pellegrino of the violence research institute Instituto Igarapé for online magazine Vozerio’s “Library Conversations” series to discuss “A War Without Winners: The War on Drugs in the Favela and on the Asphalt” (formal city).

As the title of the event suggests, the War on Drugs lacks any clear winners. Santiago was quick to point out that those who inevitably lose are poor, black favela inhabitants: “At the end of the day, the War on Drugs is carried out by poor, black Northeasterners against other poor, black Northeasterners.”

Pellegrino agreed, and added that although drug possession is partially decriminalized in Brazil, the lack of objective criteria for distinguishing between users and traffickers leads both police officers and the media to overwhelmingly characterize certain people as users and others as traffickers: “When you think about drugs in favelas, it’s always trafficking, never use. When they arrest a kid, he’s never a user, always a trafficker.”

Pacification has been the most recent iteration of the War on Drugs that continues to characterize favelas as sites of trafficking, leading to one-sided public policies. “During the last five years of pacification,” Santiago noted, “we have noticed that the only public policies in Complexo do Alemão have been through the Secretary of Security, and that residents were seen through the scope of a police rifle.” This security-led war has led residents to view police as just another “faction” violently seeking territorial control.

Pellegrino emphasized how misguided the War on Drugs ultimately is. “The first thing to remember is that criminalization doesn’t stop anyone from using drugs. Whoever wants them, gets them and uses them,” she stated, adding that criminalization might lead to more drug use by “creating a fetish for the prohibited.” For Pellegrino, drug use is ultimately a public health issue. By making it a criminal matter, the drug war stigmatizes those who would seek treatment since they fear being turned in by their own doctors.

Santiago highlighted another side of the public health debate when it comes to the war on drugs: the very high death rate that plagues favela residents, even those not involved in trafficking: “In the favela, there aren’t ‘stray bullets’ because the bullet goes straight and the favela curves,” meaning someone is likely to be in its path.

As the moderator stated in her introduction to the event, Pellegrino’s and Santiago’s perspectives complemented each other very well. Pellegrino tended to focus on the global, emphasizing how though the US-led War on Drugs impacts all of Latin America, some countries, most notably Uruguay, have chosen to adopt more progressive policies of decriminalization. Brazil’s ambiguous laws and high rates of incarceration–Brazil has the fourth highest prison population in the world–have been a step backward.

Santiago grounded his experience in the local context of favela life. In one especially compelling story, he told the audience about his friend Fabio who had tried and tried to get a job, but when employers found out he was from Complexo do Alemão, they refused to hire him, leading Fabio to a life of trafficking and his eventual death. Santiago lamented the one-sided image that we get of his friend: “In the social imaginary, Fabio didn’t die from a series of rejections, he died because he was a dealer, he sold drugs, he decided to do it, and that’s it.”

Questions from the audience seemed to reflect two dominant sentiments: those who believed that decriminalizing drugs would lead to more addicts and thus more crime in the favelas and those who looked to policies from other places to underscore how violent and unequal, and therefore unsuccessful, the drug war has been in Brazil.

Pellegrino underscored the need for science to inform policy. Though the science seems clear that the current policy is not working—use rates have not dropped—she urged those present to be open to various possibilities: “There is a world of policies that we need to test responsibly.”

Raull Santiago; Photo credit: Erick Dau

Santiago tearfully urged the audience members, and himself, to believe in those other policies and possibilities, pointing to the “acredite,” “believe” in Portuguese, tattoo on his arm: “I have this tattoo not because I believe, it’s the opposite. I have it because, in the face of everything that I live, in the face of everything that I see, in the face of everything that I feel, in the face of all of the situations that confine me, that leave me without air, I succumbed to a sad, tired, ‘looking down’ mindset. And now, if I’m discouraged and look down, I’m going to see this on my arm: “Believe.” Because while doing what we do is difficult, we’ve seen some positive results. You all just being here today is positive.”