Journalism from the center of the world
Coluna SementeAr

Art: Cacao Sousa

Some years back I had the opportunity to visit Costa Rica, where I attended a science conference near the town of Jacó, on the shores of the Pacific ocean. I was impressed by the quality of interpersonal relationships and the way things ran smoothly there in general, from the cleanliness of public spaces to a feeling of safety in the streets, even at night. Easygoing and kind, Costa Ricans use the expression “pura vida”—pure life—as a common form of greeting.

When I returned to the capital, San José, where I would catch my flight back to Brazil, I commented to my young taxi driver that I thought Costa Rica offered a positive contrast with other Latin American countries I had visited. He agreed enthusiastically, and I went on to ask him what might account for this difference. Without skipping a beat and with evident pride, the young man said the reason was simple: in 1949, on the heels of a bloody civil war, Costa Rica abolished its armed forces and began investing heavily in infrastructure, health care, and, above all, good-quality public education. As they say in Costa Rica, peace is “pura vida.”

The driver’s opinion was well founded in economic terms. From 1920 to 1949, prior to the abolition of the armed forces, Costa Rica’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita rose an average of 1.3% per annum. Over the subsequent sixty years, from 1950 to 2010, the yearly GDP growth rate averaged 2.28%. Costa Rica’s remarkable pacifist experience suggests that abolishing the military may be an effective way to achieve social well-being.

In recent years, however, things have started coming apart. Widely recognized as one of the safest nations in Latin America, Costa Rica is now witnessing a vertiginous surge of violence, spurred primarily by armed conflicts related to the drug trade. The national homicide rate climbed from 12.5 per 100,000 people in 2022 to 17.2 in 2023. Under pressure as Mexican cartels wield mounting influence and Colombia produces more cocaine, Costa Rica is fast becoming a transit zone for drugs on their way to the United States and Europe.

In the Americas, the United States has used the drug war as an instrument for the geopolitical domination of subordinate countries, accomplished through political blackmail and institutional tutelage. Waged within each nation-state by military troops or militarized police, the drug war is a powerful tool of racist violence and class exclusion.

Today, Brazil has the world’s third-largest prison population, surpassing 800,000 inmates. Of those charged with drug trafficking, 68% are Black although Blacks represent only 55% of the population. In the United States—world incarceration leader—more than 1.7 million detainees, or 33%, are Black, whereas Blacks represent only 12% of the population overall.

As in every war, in the crusade against illegal drugs, militarization sets the tone. In fact, all sides of the conflict recruit soldiers from the mass of youth living on the margins—young men barely out of boyhood who are enlisted at an increasingly early age so they can kill or be killed in a landscape of boundless brutality. In Brazil, 72% of drug trafficking defendants are under the age of 30 and 67% never finished high school. These are young people who need a school or a job, certainly not incarceration in some wretched prison that institutionalizes and massifies physical and psychological torture. The key to survival in these horrifying dungeons is to swiftly seek the protection of some mafia—all while the State stands by, almost always indifferent and sometimes negligent.

According to the National Prison Information Survey (INFOPEN), 89% of Brazil’s incarcerated population lives in overcrowded prisons, environments rife with fear, hatred, sorrow, outrage, and revolt. Outrageous and revolting in itself, this statistic has catastrophic implications for public security because criminal organizations do the bulk of their recruiting inside prisons. More than 80% of people imprisoned for possession in Brazil were unarmed at the time of their arrest, and around 87% had no apparent prior connection with criminal factions. It is the unjust, degrading violence of the drug war, through the extermination and over-incarceration of youth from the margins, that feeds and fattens the ranks of crime.

Where will it all end? In Ecuador, more than 20 drug factions born in overflowing prisons have engaged in open armed conflict with the State, assassinating a presidential candidate and invading broadcast stations to make death threats live on national television. Worse yet, the militarization of the government response has suspended democratic guarantees, led to increased reports of abuse, and further diminished the odds of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Because it includes almost all of Latin America’s cocaine- and marijuana-producing countries, the Amazon is at the epicenter of the destruction wrought by the drug war. In the far west of the rainforest, in equatorial Amazon, illegal mining finances drug traffickers, while a little over 1,200 miles away, in the far north of the forest, on the borders of Brazil and Venezuela, narco-mining effectively continues to enforce the project to exterminate the Yanomami.

The crisis is widespread. In remote villages, ever greater numbers of young people are recruited to serve as drug mules, forced to hike rugged trails for days, crossing international borders under the green protection of the overstory. The co-optation of Indigenous youth into this clandestine labor force has inflamed a moral panic over illegal drugs among various Amerindian groups, setting young marijuana users against older shamans, who blast the use of this herbal drug while sanctifying epadu and ayahuasca. This bizarre botanical racism is only one symptom of the tremendous turmoil caused by the drug war.

The drug trade is sowing social chaos far and wide. In the savage heart of the farthest wilderness, all crimes are intertwined, whether as part of the diversification of investment portfolios or as an excuse for unleashing the most monstrous instincts of oppression. Narcotrafficking is but one bead on the rosary of Amazonian afflictions, complemented by illegal logging, poaching, the burning and razing of forests, land grabbing, pedophilia, rape, torture, and contracts to kill.

Criminal factions have advanced into Amazonian cities and the rainforest as well, despite—or perhaps because of?—the actions and inactions of the military. Although the war on drugs has provided the main justification for beefing up the military’s presence in the Amazon in recent decades, drug trafficking has gained rapid ground throughout the region. For example, factions based in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro now operate in the Brazilian Amazon.

On both the right and left sides of the political spectrum, people who consider themselves quite smart believe the right way to address what they call “the drug problem” is through a violent crackdown on the trading of certain substances. However, in different parts of the world, this approach has failed to reduce either supply or consumption—although it has proven a smashing success in stigmatizing the users and retailers of these substances. In Brazil, 67% of people say they oppose the decriminalization of drugs. Despite decades of ideological confrontation of the issue, public opinion in countless countries continues to lean towards maintaining the status quo.

The war on drugs is an expensive war waged on poor people. In 2017, the state of São Paulo spent around 4.2 billion reals (roughly $1.26 billion) to fund its battle against the retail drug trade in favelas, while the state of Rio de Janeiro laid out over one billion reals (roughly $300 million) to finance its public insecurity machine. Not surprisingly, relentless warlike operations conducted by the Military Police in poor areas of Rio have had a devastating impact on the health and school performance of the country’s poorest youth.

Who does this endless war actually serve? In the first place, obviously, arms and ammo manufacturers, a sector that has a track record of stratospheric profits. Secondly, the military’s top brass—generals, brigadiers, admirals—who in unequal countries like Brazil sometimes enjoy salaries and bennies twenty times above the ceiling stipulated by the Constitution.

Retired army general Walter Braga Netto stands as a striking example. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020, the general—and former Federal Interventor for the Rio de Janeiro Department of Public Security, former defense minister and chief of staff under Bolsonaro, former VP candidate, and current subject of an investigation into his alleged active involvement in the January 8, 2023, coup attempt—received the staggering sum of 926,000 reals, or $178,000, for two months of service. This amount is about a hundred times the starting pay for a public-school teacher, now at 4,580.57 reals, or $880, per month. Exactly what type of work so essential to the fatherland did this general do to justify the State paying him a hundred times more than the teachers of young children and teens?

The truth is that the might of weapons guarantees those who wield them privileges that are incompatible with the construction of a prosperous, democratic nation. Militarism fosters the exercise of abusive authority and the emergence of outlaw organizations. Cultivated by the armed forces, oppressive concepts like “domestic enemy” and “psychological warfare” acquire new overtones when employed by militia groups.

Consider the execution of the councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver, Anderson Gomes. One of those accused of instigating the crime is former civil police commissioner of Rio de Janeiro, Rivaldo Barbosa, appointed to the post when Braga Netto was state public security interventor, a day before the double murder. Less than an hour after the killings, social media platforms were flooded with viral lies about Marielle and her political camp. A cynical Rivaldo met with grieving families the day after the crime and declared that finding the culprits would be a “matter of honor.”

Every mafia has its code of honor. Unfortunately, the military ethics of blind obedience to orders from above can be easily hijacked by transnational organizations that have turned the illicit drug trade into a multibillion-dollar underground business. Everything in this scenario contributes to the progressive infiltration of military institutions, as we saw in Mexico in 1997, when General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, commander of the national drug war, was arrested and charged with working with the Juárez drug cartel.

Has the same process perhaps occurred in the rest of the Americas as well? Who are the General Rebollos in other countries, both south and north of the Rio Grande? Why, in 2019, did the Spanish police find 39 kilos of cocaine with the entourage of then-president Jair Bolsonaro, on board a Brazilian Air Force plane? Why, 23 years ago, did the Brazilian rappers Sabotage and Black Alien sing: “quem tá no erro sabe, cocaína no avião da FAB”—”Wrongdoers know it, cocaine on the Air Force plane”? With a little imagination, we can surmise that we still don’t know the full story…

The fact is that while the militarist moral panic over certain drugs runs riot, bars, supermarkets, and pharmacies continue selling myriad other drugs, some far more damaging to individual and social health than marijuana or cocaine. Unfortunately, most of these people are still convinced there are good reasons for banning certain drugs but not others, as if some substances were “good” and others “evil.” This is a hypocritical fallacy devoid of scientific basis. All drugs can be helpful or harmful, depending on the dose, the body ingesting it, and the context of its use.

The war on drugs is actually a war on plants, people, ethnicities, and countries—mainly the most vulnerable—and its militarization pits the armed forces directly against the people. Still, militarist logic sometimes hypnotizes even important thinkers from the progressive camp. In Brazil, for example, Tarso Genro, an intellectual, former justice minister, and former governor of Rio Grande do Sul, recently advocated more war as the solution to the problem, even proposing a kind of South American NATO to combat drug trafficking.

You can’t put out a fire with gasoline. All drugs must be legalized and regulated equally and scientifically, according to their specific benefits and harms. We must also start quelling karmic vendettas that play wrongdoers off against victims in unending chains of violent retribution. To contain the social upheaval triggered by the normalization of daily clashes between the police, army, and drug cartels, Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador coined the slogan “Abrazos, no balazos”—”Hugs, not bullets”—and managed to ease the violence. Colombian President Gustavo Petro has lucidly called for an end to the drug war. Perhaps we could also call for an end to the military—and the wars they invent so they can keep on killing. After all, peace is “pure life.”

Sidarta Ribeiro is a father, capoeira practitioner, and biologist. He holds a PhD in Animal Behavior from Rockefeller University and a Post-Doc in Neurophysiology from Duke University. A researcher with the Strategic Studies Center at the Oswaldo Cruz Foudation (Fiocruz), and a cofounder and educator at the Brain Institute at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, he has authored five books, including O Oráculo da Noite and Sonho Manifesto (Cia das Letras). For SUMAÚMA, he writes the monthly column Thought Seeding.

Art by: Cacao Sousa
Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes e Douglas Maia
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Julieta Sueldo Boedo
English translation: Diane Whitty
Layout and finishing: Natália Chagas
Editorial workflow: Viviane Zandonadi
Editor-in-chief: Talita Bedinelli
Director: Eliane Brum

© All rights reserved. Written authorization must be obtained from SUMAÚMA before reproducing the content of this page on any channel of communication