Is Brazil poised to become an emerging power in the illicit drug trade, as Mexican and Colombian crime syndicates look for new smuggling routes and potentially new markets outside the United States and Western Europe?
Brazilian officials strive to reassure that won’t be the case -- but they acknowledge Brazil’s booming economy, historic links with West Africa and expanding trade with Europe puts it at risk of becoming a significant link in the international drug chain. They also say they have no intention of being complacent and have vowed to boost Brazil’s anti-crime operations while assisting and coordinating with neighboring countries.
“The three fundamental tools for the fight to be effective are cooperation, cooperation and cooperation,” said Roberto Gurgel, the country’s general prosecutor, during a speech in December to the Ibero-American Association of Public Prosecutors.
Brazilian drug seizures have jumped 10-fold, from 25 tons seized in 2005 to more than 260 tons in 2009, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. The increase in confiscations reflects both more effective policing and a rise in trafficking.
Cocaine seizures up dramatically
The UNODC report also highlighted Brazil’s increasing significance as a country in the drugs chain. From 2005 to 2009, the number of seizure cases which involved Brazil as a transit country for cocaine consignments on their way to Europe rose from 25 (amounting to 339 kilograms of cocaine) to 260 (amounting to 1,500 kilos).
In the run-up to Christmas, Brazil deployed thousands of troops on its southern border with Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay to mount an anti-drug trafficking operation. More than 30 aircraft supported the policing exercise. Carlos Alberto Richa, governor of the state of Paraná, said the objective was to stop the supply of drugs and weapons to criminal organizations that contribute to the climate of insecurity in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. “We have to shield our borders against illegal acts,” said Richa, who co-conceived the joint operation with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
The operation marked the first time that federal and state law-enforcement and military agencies have mounted a joint anti-drug operation in Paraná and brought together personnel from all sections of the armed forces, as well as federal and state police and prosecutors and tax investigators. Richa promises there will be more joint anti-trafficking operations to come.
Paraguay becomes key entry point for illicit drugs
Brazil’s federal police say drug trafficking from Paraguay has jumped sharply in the last three years, and that 75 percent of all drugs now entering Brazil come through legal and illegal ports along the Paraná River and Itaipu Lake.
Small-arms trafficking is also on the increase, federal police officials say, and is fueling drug violence in Brazil’s northeast, where murder rates have soared in recent years. By contrast, security surges have managed to slash homicide rates by nearly 50 percent in the country’s two biggest cities, Rio and São Paulo, over the last 10 years.
But in the states of Bahia and Alagoas, drug trafficking and a flood of weapons has left a trail of blood. The number of murders in Bahia grew by 430 percent, to 4,709, between 1999 and 2008, according to a study by José Maria Nóbrega, a political science professor at the Federal University of Campina Grande. Rising violence in the northeast has come in the wake of increasing prosperity; greater wealth has triggered greater drug consumption and attracted traffickers and precipitated drug wars.
“If the consumer market is booming, the drug trafficker will come here as well,” Jaques Wagner, the governor of Bahia, told ABC-TV. “The social progress in Brazil is visible. But at the same time we still have trouble with drug trafficking.”
With federal government backing, Wagner has added 7,000 state police officers in the past four years, and has authorized 3,500 more. Brazil now has at least 1.2 million crack users, according to the Parliamentary Front to Combat Crack, a committee of government officials. Faced with increased drug trafficking and consumption, Rousseff has wasted little time since taking office one year ago to craft anti-drug strategies.
The Brazilian government has boosted nationwide services offering medical treatment to addicts and, controversially, it has implemented in Rio a policy of rounding up crack users in police operations, requiring underage addicts to stay in state-run shelters to undergo drug rehabilitation treatment.
Stepped-up border patrols on the rise
On the supply side, officials say the key rests in curbing trafficking along Brazil’s vast 11,000 miles of land border, much of which runs through jungle. Under a new strategic border plan, troops will be sent to trouble spots.
In announcing the border plan at a press conference last summer, Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo told reporters that “a central coordinating body, the Joint Operations Center will monitor operations in real time,” allowing for greater flexibility and the opportunity to move troops rapidly.
And Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy, is looking to its neighbors to help secure borders — especially Peru, which UNODC says is now the world’s largest producer of cocaine. “Peru and Brazil are strengthening their ties on combating illegal drug trafficking, with the aim of deepening measures for prevention and rehabilitation,” said Jorge Bayona, Peru’s ambassador in Brasilia, at a recent press conference.
Brazil’s regional support in the fight against drugs has been extended to its neighbors. This year, it announced it will donate four HN1 helicopters to Bolivia and is moving forward on a pledge made last year to provide Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” to Bolivia.
In a media statement, Milton Lozano, Bolivia’s general director for the vice ministry of social defense and controlled substances, said the choppers and drones will help gather detailed information on coca plantations throughout the country and monitor the movements of suspicious vessels up and down rivers.
Likewise, Brazil is heightening its monitoring of sea lanes and container traffic, as well as movements at airports — well aware of its position as the region’s leading transit country for South American drugs to Africa. In fact, Brazil was the only South American nation listed as a departure point for customs seizures made in Africa in 2009, according to the World Customs Organization.