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Drugs: The Rebellion in Cartagena

But for all the broken silences and taboos, for all the new frankness with which drug issues were discussed in Cartagena, other aspects of the drug war went unmentioned before and after the summit that, it seems to me, are both central to the discussion and permanently invisible in it. I spent a great deal of time in a drug-plagued community in Rio de Janeiro years ago, and it seemed to me inescapable by the end of that stay that race, inequality, and class segregation, which cut across all aspects of Latin American societies, underpinned Brazil’s enormous drug problem as well.

I lived in the hillside favela, or slum, of Mangueira back then, which at the time was dominated by three separate drug traffickers, each one king of a different part of the hill. The amount of violence was astonishing, but not nearly as much so as the official indifference to it. On the night of my first visit to the headquarters of Mangueira’s famous “school,” or carnival parade association, the president of the association was gunned down a few blocks away. One of my friends, a beautiful young woman by the name of Fia, was strangled to death a few days after carnival.

Shortly after I moved into a room in a house at the top of the hill I watched television with a little boy in the household. We watched a murder scene and he said, “that’s not the way you kill a man,” and demonstrated the right way to twist a knife in someone’s gut. Later I learned that he was the son of one of the hill traffickers, the nice one who provided pencils and chalk for the dismal school, and who was considered so fair that he was called upon to act as judge by the community.

No one expected fair treatment from the police or the justice system. (Even if justice for the guilty in the favela was sometimes a beating, sometimes death.) The traffickers were a principal source of work—mainly delivering and selling drugs and fighting the competition—for the hill youth. Grown men stood in line for hours whenever the city announced an opening for garbage workers, which was, by a very long stretch, the best-paid job and the one with the highest status in Mangueira. But the young men weren’t crazy about drowning in garbage for a living.

In the months between my first visit and Fia’s death I became a sort of unofficial photographer for families who had never owned a photograph of themselves or their children, and so I was invited into many homes and learned that almost without exception—I can remember only one—every family I talked with had a violent death to mourn. All this violence was directly or indirectly related to the ongoing war between the police and the community traffickers, and among the trafficking groups themselves. No case that I can recall was ever brought to trial. Each day it became clearer that the favelas—for Mangueira was only one of hundreds in the city—were being left to drown in their own blood, hidden from view as they were from the prosperous (and white) neighborhoods in the south of the city, and so hard to make behave.

The notable thing about Brazil’s long drug-related crime problem is that the country has never engaged in a US-imposed or -supervised war on drugs. What it’s had instead is a large and prosperous consumer market for cocaine and marijuana, and prohibition laws so lax that in Mangueira I watched people in fancy cars from beachside Rio line up for blocks at the bottom of the hill every weekend, waiting to buy their party dose of drugs, undisturbed by the forces of law and order that chose sometimes to kill and sometimes to jail the favelados.

For years, the myth that developing countries do not have drug problems was cherished in Brazil as elsewhere, but it has no basis. What is true is that traffickers systematically foist drugs onto young people in poor communities so as to create a local market,3 and that poor addicts in developing countries tend to get the highly dangerous leftovers of rich consumers’ drugs. Brazil is only the latest country to suffer the impact of widespread use of crack.4

Is there, in fact, a realistic alternative to prohibition? Suggested options range from an acknowledgment that marijuana is already all but legal in the United States and much of the rest of the world, and should be officially so (it is generally estimated to be the largest moneymaker for the illegal trade), to a regulated approach that would ban advertising of marijuana, restrict its distribution to government outlets, and tax the profits heavily.

Legalization could well turn out to be a lower priority if, as a recent editorial in the Salvadoran online newspaper www.elfaro.net pointed out, governments concentrated first on far less controversial and inexpensive solutions:

Political parties, infiltrated by the drug trade, are still receiving money without having to declare its origin, because neither a campaign-financing law nor a political party law have been approved. Nor has there been a tax reform that will allow governments to obtain sufficient funds with which to finance better salaries for the police, with better equipment for them and under better control; more and better prisons….

And, the writer could well have added, a functioning justice system.5

There were no radical conclusions to the Cartagena summit, which wound up as Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner left in a huff over the meeting’s failure to come out with a statement about her country’s right to the Malvinas, known in English as the Falklands. With only the United States and Canada dissenting, the other countries present reached unanimity at last in favor of Cuba’s admission to the 2015 summit. The host, President Santos, bravely risked playing a pick-up game of soccer against Bolivia’s Evo Morales (who can be seen on YouTube at a similar game with his political opponents, kneeing a rival player somewhere in the nether region).

Barack Obama maintained a prudent silence throughout most of the gathering, if the subsequent praise for his “ability to listen” is an indication. And since they could not arrive at a unanimous pronouncement on the drug issue, the presidents recommended that the Organization of American States, a recognized burial ground for sweeping initiatives of any kind, study the problem.

But something important happened nevertheless. A taboo was broken, a conversation began, and the secretary-general of the OAS, Chile’s José Miguel Insulza, seemed to indicate in carefully couched language that a radical restructuring of drug legislation might be a very good thing indeed. Above all, the strong sensation remained that the war on drugs, which will take a long time to draw to a close, has become too destructive to be defensible. It would not be an easy demise; unemployed traffickers, smugglers, and hitmen are dangerous, and as a forthcoming collection of essays points out, the mechanisms for legalization are neither simple nor risk-free.6

As for all the addicts in Bogotá, Seville, New York, or Kraków, shivering on street corners waiting for their next fix, there’s no solution in sight for them, with or without decriminalization, regulation, or outright legalization. But one could hope for a policy by which the 6 percent of its national budget that, for example, Colombia currently spends on antidrug, antiguerrilla, and antiviolence operations could instead contribute to family stability through schools and job training, family welfare centers and parks, voluntary weapons-surrender programs, friendly neighborhood police, and well-lit streets. These are policies that might keep children safe and off the streets, where they find nothing to provide pleasure or escape except the toxic dreams of drugs. There will always be alcoholics, heavy smokers, and drug addicts, but a society that provides for the welfare of its citizens is likely to produce fewer of them.

  1. 3

    See Víctor Gaviria’s shattering film, Rodrigo D: no futuro (1990), which was written and acted out by young criminals in Medellín, for a depiction of how this works. 

  2. 4

    Michelle Alexander strongly describes the connection with the war on drugs inside the United States in her book The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2010). 

  3. 5

    In Mexico, to take a typical example, less than two of every ten homicides are ever brought to justice, and only 42 percent of all prisoners have been sentenced. See www.mexicoevalua.org. 

  4. 6

    Jonathan P. Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark A. R. Kleiman, Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know (to be published by Oxford University Press in June). 

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