Monday, March 02, 2009

Brazil's Drug War Also Targeting Privileged

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about the growing ecstasy drug trade among middle- and upper-class kids in Rio de Janeiro. At the time, I was relatively pleased to see the cops were moving beyond just targeting the poor in the favelas in their "drug war," though I had my doubts that such a war on middle- and upper-class drugs would continue in Brazil.

Apparently, my doubts were misplaced:

Drug trafficking in Brazil has become increasingly demonized in the eyes of the law — to the point where drug financiers can now receive stiffer prison sentences than murderers — and the country’s elite is not being spared.

Just last week, federal police officers arrested 55 people, many of them in Rio de Janeiro, in a nationwide investigation focused on upper-middle-class youths who the police said were smuggling Ecstasy, LSD and other synthetic drugs into Brazil from Europe.

This does strike me as good news overall in terms of realities in Brazil right now. For years, the police have launched extremely repressive measures to fight the drug trade in the favelas, using military occupations and indiscriminate killings (as well as entering militias to control the drug trade and gain profits for themselves), all while middle- and upper-class drug usage has been relatively untouched. Unfortunately, as with corruption among police in the drug wars in the favelas, the ecstasy cases are also rife for police corruption:
Ecstasy’s emergence as the drug of Brazil’s wealthy has opened the door even wider for corrupt police officers to seize upon users and their families. Now that Brazil has eliminated prison sentences for drug users, sending them to treatment or community service instead, the police are extracting sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for not charging those caught with Ecstasy as drug dealers, according to defense lawyers and three convicted drug dealers now out of prison.

This is both unfortunate and unsurprising. But again, within the realities of the drug trade and law in Brazil, at least the same attitudes and mechanisms are increasingly being applied relatively equally across the social spectrum.

Of course, many of the middle- and upper-class youths who have been busted for dealing ecstasy feel they are being treated horribly unfairly and extremely. However, it's hard for me to feel too much sympathy for people like Lucas, a middle-class kid busted for bringing drugs into the country, when he complains “I was treated like a hardcore criminal and put in jail together with killers, kidnappers, you name it.” Two-and-a-half years may seem severe for what many might consider a "youthful mistake," but Lucas deserves no better treatment than the drug dealers caught in the favelas. Indeed, he might think he was dealt with brutally, but at least he was arrested at the airport when he tried to smuggle drugs into the country, rather than having the police come into his neighborhood with guns blazing, leaving a couple dozen dead in their wake. After all, the Brazilian "war on drugs" may be levelling the field somewhat by going after the non-poor sectors of dealers, too, but even then, the poor in the favelas still face more adverse conditions than Lucas did. And at least he lived to go to jail, rather than ending up another one of the dead traficantes on the streets of a favela.

That said, regardless of whether you are in favor or against increasing the efforts to combat drug use in any country, it's really encouraging to see Brazil going after drug production, dealing, and usage regardless of the drug or the socio-economic classes with which a particular drug is associated. And the fact that the story is based in São Paulo (and not Rio) indicates that the drug war is no longer something just for Rio's favelas, even if the gap in treatment of wealthier drug users and dealers and the poorer dealers and users still exists.