Brazil's Militarized Crackdown on Drugs

June 17, 2014

2639Brazil's military police (Anykeyh / Creative Commons)

On October 2, 2009, wildly enthusiastic crowds gathered on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the city’s earning the privilege of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. A teary-eyed President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced, “The world has recognized that the time has come for Brazil.”

The question is, the time for what? The awarding of the Olympics—and the 2014 FIFA World Cup for that matter—represents a golden opportunity for Brazil to showcase itself as an emerging superpower. It also entails, however, a tremendous risk and liability, a fact highlighted two weeks later when a police helicopter was shot down in one of Rio’s favelas. The police were there because one of Rio’s criminal organizations was attempting to wrest control of the favela from another, a conflict that had already left at least 21 people dead. The widely publicized incident, which cost three policemen their lives, occurred less than a mile from the principal olympic stadium.

Criminal organizations are not new to Rio. They emerged in the mid-1970s from inside the walls of the Ilha Grande penitentiary, 100 kilometers to the southwest of the city. In an unintended and ultimately tragic outcome, political prisoners held there under Brazil’s military regime impressed on a group of common criminals the importance of organization, loyalty, and discipline. The outcome of this unlikely encounter was the Comando Vermelho.

Initially, the Comando Vermelho sought to impose its control by taking out rival prison groups, dictating strict codes of conduct, and negotiating for improved conditions with suddenly besieged prison officials. Later on, as its leaders escaped or were transferred, its influence spread to other prisons. Then, in 1982, the Comando Vermelho’s leaders decided to fund the organization’s activities through the drug trade.

This choice led to a period of intense and bloody warfare for territorial control of Rio’s favelas where most of the distribution and selling points were located. All drug gangs had to do was to arrange for shipments to be made from out of state. The drugs were then mixed with other substances and sold to wealthy clients in surrounding neighborhoods and, later on, to users and addicts in the favelas themselves.

During Brazil’s early 1980’s transition to democracy, the government shifted its emphasis from repressing the poor to respecting citizens’ rights, and as such largely ignored the Comando Vermelho. In 1982, when Leonel Brizola, a bitter enemy of the military regime, won the first elections for governor of Rio in 20 years, he introduced fundamental changes in the nature of public security, which were effective in stopping the police from acting as a rogue force. Brizola was subsequently blamed for creating favorable conditions for the Comando Vermelho.

Personal disputes and intergenerational rivalries eventually caused the Comando Vermelho to split. The first of these divisions occurred in the late 1980s, and gave rise to the Terceiro Comando. The second, in the mid-1990s, made way for the Amigos dos Amigos. In both cases, the ruptures prompted a wholesale reorganization of the prison system and greatly increased the level of conflict out on the street as first the Terceiro Comando, and then the Amigos dos Amigos, competed militarily for territory and spoils. This competition turned whole areas of the city into a war-zone.

As the situation in Rio deteriorated, the relationship between the police and the residents of Rio’s favelas worsened as well. Brizola’s successor, Wellington Moreira Franco, gave the police free reign to hunt down and kill as many suspected criminals as possible. This hard line, or “mano dura” approach, has been adopted by every elected governor since, despite the policy’s failure to achieve its objectives.


Mass police violence against suspected gang members came to a head in Rio in June 2007, on the eve of the Pan American Games, which were held in part to strengthen the city’s bid for the Olympics. On June 27, after weeks of siege, 1,350 troops from the civil and military police and the recently created National Security Force invaded the Comando Vermelho’s stronghold in the conglomeration of favelas known as the Complexo de Alemão, in Rio’s Zona Norte. By the time the operation ended, 19 civilians lay dead, and the invasion was immediately and loudly condemned by human rights groups. The newly elected governor of Rio, Sergio Cabral, announced that the state was now at war with criminal elements, a war he said could not be won without bloodshed.

The Complexo de Alemão operation was the last time that the police invaded a favela, killing as many suspected criminals as possible, only to withdraw—a tactic known in military circles as “mowing the grass.” No doubt mindful of Rio’s deteriorating image abroad, and the pending Olympic committee decision, the authorities rethought their strategy. Specially trained police units known as Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), comprised of hundreds of policemen and women, secured a permanent presence in the favelas, enabling the authorities to keep hold on the favelas in a manner, and on a scale, never attempted before.

The first UPP was established in December 2008, in the favela of Santa Marta in Rio’s Zona Sul, followed by Cidade de Deus in Rio’s Zona Oeste. The most important UPP to date, however, was established in the Complexo de Alemão after the November 2010 police invasion and occupation of the neighboring favela of Vila Cruzeiro. Thirty-one civilians were killed in the process, and members of the local gang were forced to flee. When the Comando Vermelho attacked cars and buses the next day, bringing the city to a standstill, Rio authorities were incensed. With the support of the military, they sent in 3,000 troops to “liberate” the area and subsequently set up the UPP there.

Next on the government’s list was the 2011 invasion and occupation of Rocinha, Latin America’s largest favela. Rocinha has always been significant, in the criminal scheme of things, because of its size and its proximity to some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. In the mid-1990s, it was taken over by the Amigos dos Amigos.

Rio’s UPPs have been hailed by the authorities as an unqualified success, and their expansion to other regions of Brazil is planned. But the UPPs are costly. By 2014, the projected 40 UPPs in Rio will have a bill of an estimated $315 million per year, much of the funds dedicated to recruiting, training, and equipping the new police. According to the State Secretary for Public Security, between 2010 and 2016, Rio’s military police will increase from 40 to 65 thousand, with half these new recruits designated to serve in UPPs. While public security is clearly a top priority, it comes at the expense of almost everything else, as demonstrated by the nationwide June 2013 protests by as many as 2 million people over the dearth of services such as transportation, education, and health care.


The police in Rio are not only violent, but also notoriously corrupt, and entrenched in every aspect of the drug trade. Yet while only a short while ago they were universally feared and despised, today press coverage of the UPPs has been replete with stories and images of the police being welcomed as conquering heroes.

Part of this public relations makeover is designed to convince the international community that Brazil, and Rio in particular, is ready to host the World Cup and the Olympics. And part of this clean image is warranted, given that the vast majority of the policemen and women that staff the UPPs are new recruits, and have had neither the time nor the opportunity to be lured into illegal schemes. But the chance that they too will soon become involved in the drug trade is likely, given that Rio’s police remain among the poorest-paid in the country. In some favelas, there are already signs of “arrangements” between the police who staff the UPPs and the drug gangs they were supposed to replace.

Beneath this difficult reality lies the issue of political will, as the idea of a permanent police presence in the favelas is by no means new. As long ago as 2000, the lack of support from the Rio governor and police leadership led to abandoning a successful project designed to reduce the level of violence in the favelas of Pavão-Pavãozinho and Cantagalo in Rio’s Zona Sul. A new military police division, known as the “Police Groups for Special Areas” (GPAE), was created to foster a close, working relationship between residents and the police. Despite its ability to operate without resorting to force, the experiment didn’t have the necessary political support.

The current push for a permanent police presence in the favelas appears to have broad support—or at least, minimal vocal dissent for now. That is, in part, because there has been a decrease in violence in Rio, and real gains in the reduction of drug gang members wielding high-powered weaponry in the streets. But favela residents remain skeptical at whether this policing model will still be implemented after the World Cup and the Olympics are over, or whether the police will simply leave, as they have done so many times before. These are far from trivial question for Brazilians who have, for the most, embraced the UPPs, but who fear for their lives if the drug gangs are allowed to return.

Many Brazilians have also questioned the government’s broader implementation plan on the UPP’s reach, given that the majority have been established in and around communities where the World Cup and the Olympics will be held. The fact that the UPPs are an expensive community policing model suggests that it is unrealistic to expect they can be extended much beyond the current scope. As both the number of favelas and the size of the favela population continue to grow, it seems there is not much to prevent criminal elements from moving their drug trafficking operations to other parts of the city.


While Rio’s UPPs have received much international press attention, Brazil has never been a large domestic drug producer, and as a result, Brazil’s militarizing approach to the drug trade extends to Brazil’s borders and airspace, where the majority of drugs enter the country. Brazil as a whole has become an important transshipment point for cocaine, particularly as globalization and the U.S.-led war on drugs have prompted producers in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru to seek out alternative markets in Africa and Western Europe. While Brazil has a sizeable marijuana-growing region in the northeast, an estimated 90 tons of high-quality, pure cocaine enter Brazil through its borders each year, half of it from Bolivia, and an additional 40% from Peru.

2640Brazil-Bolivia border (Robert Gay)

As reflected throughout the region, the origin of growth of Brazil’s cocaine has shifted drastically in the past 20 years. Until the early 1990s, most cocaine was flown in by small planes from Colombia. Then, under significant pressure from the United States, both Colombia and Peru increased their ability to monitor their airspace, pushing drug-trafficking operations towards their borders with Brazil. The subsequent invasion of Brazilian airspace by unauthorized, drug-related traffic prompted the federal government to introduce a “Shoot Down Law,” or “Lei do Abate,” approved by Congress in March 1998, but not signed into law until October 2004. It grants the air force the authority to attack planes suspected of carrying drugs, but only after a wide range of precautionary measures have been taken.

Brazilian authorities claim that the law immediately reduced the number of unauthorized flights from Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru by as much as 60%. Critics contend, however, that the law is unenforceable, and that, if anything, it has pushed traffickers to devise new methods for transporting drugs. Pilots have been known to fly for 20 minutes into Brazilian airspace, drop their drug load at a GPS-specified location, and then return, secure in the knowledge that they have sufficient time to dash across the border before being intercepted.

As such, the attempt to restrict trafficking by air has done little to stem the flow of drugs into the country. Fueled by increasing domestic prosperity and new markets for drug consumption abroad, drug trafficking, drug use, and drug addiction are, in fact, mushrooming. Perhaps the most visible and disturbing manifestation is the crack epidemic currently ravaging Brazil’s cities. While crack has been available since the 1990s, its use and the violence associated with it have exploded since 2007.

In response, the Brazilian federal government has unveiled an ambitious plan to build a 10,000-mile “virtual fence.” The system, known as SISFRON, will use an exhaustive array of satellite technology, electromagnetic signaling, tactical communications, unmanned drones, ground vehicles, and river and naval craft. Projected to cost somewhere in the region of $14 billion, it is slated for completion in stages over the course of a decade, the first phase targeting the border alongside Bolivia and Paraguay. In the meantime the Brazilian government has launched military operations along the largely remote borders, including forays into neighboring countries to destroy illicit crops.

As Brazil flexes its muscles, it has been compared, at times, with its powerful North American neighbor. Pedro Taques, a senator from the state of Mato Grosso, said: “It pains me to say it, but I’ve heard people say we’re the new gringos. Controlling the border is a problem that Brazil never thought it would have to face…and it’s forcing us to do some uncomfortable things.” But can controlling Brazil’s borders choke off the supply of drugs that fuel public insecurity? For many, it’s a matter of too little, too late.



Robert Gay is a professor at Connecticut College. He is author of three books on Brazil, the latest, A Passage through Time: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer (Duke, forthcoming).



Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Summer Issue: "Reimagining Drug Policy in the Americas"


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.