In the Spotlight: Brazil’s cocaine epidemic

Compiled by Christopher Martin – Brazil Institute, 02/25/2013

Photo credit: Lunae Parracho, Reuters

Photo credit: Lunae Parracho, Reuters

In recent years, Brazil has enjoyed economic success, rising purchasing power, a growing economy, and decreasing poverty levels, which have turned it into a more attractive market for drug trafficking.  As cocaine use in the United States, the world’s largest cocaine consumer, has fallen by an estimated two-thirds in the past thirty years, South American drug traffickers are increasingly turning towards Brazil’s growing market.  This is proving to be an effective and profitable strategy; recent years have seen cocaine consumption quickly rising and health officials say a nation-wide crack-cocaine epidemic is taking hold.  This is obviously not the image the South American giant wishes to project as it prepares to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup, followed by the 2016 Summer Olympics.

With respect to cocaine, Brazil has a border control problem that no other nation in the world has: it shares half of its 10,000-mile-long border with the world’s three biggest cocaine producers: Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru.  To make matters worse, much of this border falls in difficult-to-control, remote, and largely unguarded jungle areas.  Colombia, which was long the world’s top cocaine producer, has seen the amount of land used for coca leaf production, as well as its ability to produce cocaine, tumble in recent years.  However, the decrease in Colombian cocaine production has been eclipsed by Peru and Bolivia, which have seen significantly ramped up production in recent years.

The source of cocaine in Brazil is increasingly landlocked Bolivia, which shares a 2,126 mile border with Brazil, which is longer than the Mexico-U.S. border.  Much of the border lies along the Mamore River, separating Bolivia from the Brazilian state of Rodonia, which is patrolled by federal police agents who are under staffed, ill equipped, and must count on a degree of luck to determine which of the countless boats crossing daily are transporting drugs.  To make matters worse, the river is dotted with many small and isolated ports that can be used by traffickers to evade authorities.  However, according to Sabino Mendoza, an adviser on coca issues to Bolivian President Evo Morales’ government, Bolivia does not consider itself to be a cocaine trafficking country.  Mr. Mendoza said the problem is cocaine originating in Peru that makes its way through Bolivia en route to Brazil.  “For us and for Brazil, obviously it’s a concern,” he said.  “And between the two countries we are resolving it.”

Brazilian law enforcement and health officials say that the demand for cocaine and its highly addictive derivative crack is increasing.  Brazil has been the world’s number two cocaine market, behind the U.S., for years, with between one and two million users.  The cocaine market in Brazil is rising along with the explosion of its middle class, with 30 million people lifted out of poverty into the middle class in recent years.  According to the United Nations 2011 World Drug Report, cocaine seizures in Brazil have hit the roof, increasing from 8 metric tons in 2004 to a staggering 24 metric tons in 2009.  The outbreak of what is being described as a crack cocaine epidemic across the country, from major coastal cities to remote places deep in the Amazon, is especially troubling.  It has led to powerful drug gangs, violent crime, and prostitution.  Crack has been in Brazil since the 1990s, but its use has skyrocketed in the past six years, and according to a study by the Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil is now the number one market for crack cocaine in the world, with over one million serious users.

The Brazilian government takes the nation’s cocaine problem very seriously, and is now instituting a variety of policies and actions in response.  Since 2011, President Dilma Rousseff’s government has strengthened border security by sending thousands of troops, more and better equipped federal police agents, as well as a fleet of unmanned aerial drones to border regions.  In 2011 the government initiated a $2 billion program focused on prevention, health care, and policing.  Furthermore, Brazil’s Congress is expected to vote on a bill in coming months to raise punishment for drug traffickers and order forced treatment for crack addicts across the nation.  Brazil has also recently undertaken a controversial tactic traditionally used by the United States: cross-border joint operations with Peru in the Peruvian Amazon targeting cocaine production facilities, to stop cocaine at the source.  Only time will tell if this basket of newly employed tactics to combat Brazil’s cocaine problem will see widespread success before the arrival of the World Cup in 2014.

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