Brazil’s Counternarcotics Policy Challenges

By Tom Long

Minister Alexandre Padilha meeting to discuss policies against crack | Photo by: Ministério da Saúde | Flickr | Creative Commons

Long a significant market for cocaine – the second or third largest in the world according to estimates – Brazil is suffering a major increase in crack cocaine use.  Visible in the centers of major cities, drug abuse has become a more serious national concern as Brazil prepares to mount the world stage as host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics.  Brazil was slow to recognize the problem as it grew to epidemic levels, surpassing the United States as the largest consumer of crack cocaine, according to a recent report from the Federal University of São Paulo.  While national and local authorities have emphasized their recent approach to drugs as focused on public health – in contrast with the U.S.-led, supply-oriented policies – Brazil also has increased control and interdiction efforts.  According to the UN, cocaine seizures by Brazilian security tripled between 2004 and 2010.

The effort to control the flow of cocaine into and through Brazil will test both the country’s diplomacy and state capacity.  Its long, undefended and sparsely populated borders touch every major narcotics-producing and ­transiting country in South America, and cooperation in addressing the problem varies widely for political reasons and disparities in capabilities.  For example, the government of President Evo Morales in Bolivia has declined Brazilian requests for crossborder eradication, InSight Crime reported.  Other countries’ counternarcotics focus is almost completely internal, such as in Colombia and Peru.  As a result, Brazil is increasing action on its own.  President Dilma Rousseff supports plans to spend some $400 million on an expanded fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to provide surveillance of its borders.  Military patrols have increased, albeit in necessarily limited areas.

Experts have long warned that the “balloon effect” of counter-narcotics policies – when successful drug operations push the trade into less-defended countries and regions – was going to worsen the flow and use of narcotics in Brazil, and Brazil has long sought ways, within its resources, to collaborate.  When U.S.-Bolivia cooperation deteriorated in 2009-2010, for example, Brasilia tried to fill some of the void.  Brazilian diplomats have usually tried to lead quietly, build consensus, and avoid obvious pressure on neighbors.  However, as concerns grow, domestic politics could push Brazilian leaders to be more assertive, with the potential benefits and risks that would entail.  The challenge will be for them to find ways to collaborate on a common drug strategy with often skeptical neighbors while making gains to reduce internal demand.  Four decades of U.S. experience provide a cautionary tale.

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  1. Brazil’s Counternarcotics Policy Challenges « Brazil Portal

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