While we might be just two weeks into 2017, Brazil has already witnessed a grand total of four prison riots. Since January 1st, 134 inmates have died inside the Brazilian penitentiary system. The deaths are the result of clashes between rival gangs, which fight for the control of both prisons and drug routes. The country is being forced to deal with the appalling living conditions of its facilities and has exposed the actions of drug cartels. These recent events have led to a big question: does Brazil risk becoming a narco-state?
plus55 discussed the issue with Guaracy Mingarde, a researcher at the Brazilian NGO Forum for Public Safety and one of Brazil’s most respected experts in organized crime.
To answer this question, we need to first properly understand the definition of a narco-state. The term refers to an area under the control of drug cartels, where law enforcement is effectively nonexistent. This is hardly the case in Brazil, although it remains true that the government has failed miserably to repress organized crime.
So why won’t Brazil become a narco-state? “For starters, Brazil is not a major drug producer. And that is a big difference between Brazil and countries like Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia. Nor is Brazil the main route to a larger market, like Mexico,” explains Mingarde.
Back in the 1980s, Bolivia experienced a narco-state during the dictatorial government of Luiz García Meza. His regime rose to power thanks to the financing of Roberto Suárez Goméz, a.k.a. the King of Cocaine. In return, Meza appointed the drug lord’s cousin as the Minister of Interior. That narco-regime, however, collapsed just one year later.
Such regime is difficult to replicate in Brazil. First and foremost, our country is gigantic, and putting such a model in place would require the kind of muscle that our cartels lack. Bolivia, on the contrary, is a country with a population smaller than that of São Paulo.
“Furthermore,” Guaracy Mingarde points out, “in those Latin American countries, the economic elites got involved in the drug business. That hasn’t happened in Brazil. As much as I hate our elites, they are the same they were centuries ago – and they are not dealing drugs.”
Drug money in elections
Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court has expressed concern with drug cartels financing political campaigns. In some of Rio’s favelas, gangs coerce residents into voting for a specific candidate. Mingarde, however, comments that such power is relative. “While there is some degree of success in a few communities, that’s not a widespread phenomenon.”