Last November, in an unprecedented display of force, the Brazilian authorities performed a spectacular crackdown on criminal gangs operating in the Complexo de Alemao, a big system of favelas in the northern area of Rio de Janeiro. Such display of force is by no means excessive: some of the gangs in Rio's favelas are well-armed, equipped with assault weapons, rifles, and in some cases with anti-tank and anti-aerial rockets. All of those, of course, bought with the proceeds of the drug business.
An interesting feature of this operation was the involvement of several agencies and forces. In addition to local police and the famous BOPE (portrayed in the acclaimed movie Tropa de Elite), military forces, including even the navy, participated in the crackdown. Reports say that the Army has been given the mission to preserve law and order in the favelas in the aftermath of the operation.
Why is this so interesting? After two decades of military rule which ended in 1985, the Brazilian society reached a sort of consensus regarding the role of the military. Under such consensus, police forces would be in charge of preserving law and order, while the military would only be in charge of defending the country from external aggression. This is why you would very seldom see a solder in the streets of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or Porto Alegre. Circumstances, however, have forced a change: fighting gangs in the favelas demands a level of force that goes beyond what the post-dictatorship consensus could have foreseen. It was impossible to foresee, at that time, that a certain illicit operation would be so profitable, that it would grow beyond the limits of ordinary crime to become a threat to the security and the stability of the country. Gradually, circumstances are forcing Brazil to abandon a consensus which, so far, had made a significant contribution to the building of democracy. And they're forcing Brazil to become the newest member of the club of countries whose lives have been torn apart by the drug business.
In perspective, the widening of this club should itself be a reason to question prohibition policies. After four decades of enforcement of such policies, the flow of drugs into the United States and Europe has not stopped, and has not even shown a significant decline. South of the border, however, countries suffering significant problems due to drugs are growing in number. Twenty years ago you had Colombia, Bolivia and perhaps Peru. Now you have Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and most of Central America. People die. Governments and institutions are permeated by corruption. Generations of young people become outlaws. Where does this stop?
Decades of failure should be enough to suggest examination of the policy. An examination that should start by acknowledging that, in spite of numerous small victories, the war on drugs has not been won anywhere. Make no mistake: Colombia has not won the war on drugs (as some like to claim). Colombia has won successive battles against particular criminal organizations. Such victories have cost Colombia (and the U.S.) thousands of lives and billions of dollars. But these victories didn't stop the business: defeated cartels are quickly replaced by others, which will in turn be fought, dismantled and replaced by others. Even if Colombia won the war on drugs, or Mexico did, their place in the international division of labor in the drug business would be taken by other countries. The time has come to give this policy a second thought.
*Andres Mejia Vergnaud is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the academic director at Bogotá's Instituto de Ciencia Politica.