Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Why is it that when talking about the “problem of drugs” we are quick to point the finger at those “evil drug traffickers” of the notorious Comando Vermelho (Red Command), Terceiro Comando (Third Command) and Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) and assume that by “dealing” with them we will resolve Rio’s (in)security dilemma?

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca in New York specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.

This is not an argument for or against the legalization of maconha (marijuana) – which in and of itself would solve absolutely nothing – but a call for an alternative to the repression, extremism and sometimes inefficiency characteristic of Rio de Janeiro’s security policies.

It is Carioca practice to face a problem only when there is no other way around it and, when doing so, covering up symptoms rather than addressing root causes. The government’s crack down on drug trafficking and related violence is not much different. After three decades of neglect: warn, invade, expel, occupy and “pacify.”

In the pre-World Cup/Olympics UPP-hype our leaders proudly claim to be “eradicating drug traffic,” but I am not quite sure just how that will be achieved.

Have they finally understood public security is not dissociable from education policies? Does not seem like it. Or, do they honestly believe drug trafficking is the only facet of Rio de Janeiro’s high rates of criminality?

Here’s a thought. It seems it is not yet in the jeitinho brasileiro (Brazilian way), but why not try to invest in preventive, rather than simply repressive, policies? Why not educate the populace on drug consumption? Or on the perils of drug consumption? Why not expand access to rehabilitation? Why not widely disseminate education campaigns?

Such measures cost less lives and money. It is not enough to blame, threat, repress and punish. It is not enough to decriminalize and tax either. But it may be a start to educate.

Education is not simply for the economically underprivileged.

It is quite comfortable to sit at home with middle and upper class friends and call for the “bombing of Rocinha” (yes, I heard that). It is quite another thing to acknowledge that the maconha enjoyed at the parties and beaches comes from the same evil place where children as young as eleven serve as soldiers for drug trafficking gangs.

It is nice to see Cariocas taking to the streets in marijuana marches, as they have done for the past six years, chanting to “sou maconheiro, com muito orgulho, com muito amor” (“I’m a weed smoker with much pride, with much love”). It would be even nicer to see acknowledgment that their “harmless actions” have perverse repercussions.

True, the government should not decide what you can or cannot do inside your own home. Unfortunately, marijuana is not legal (yet), so if what you do in your privacy contributes to Rio’s record high rates of violence, it becomes a lot of people’s business.

A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.


  1. Marijuana is not the problem – it’s sheer hypocrisy to criminalize something that’s proven to be non-addictive. Crack is a problem, sure… but that’s another issue. To put all drugs into the same category is naive…

    And most of the drug-trafficker related violence is initiated by the police anyway… with their reckless invasions. If they backed off, there wouldn’t be a problem – except for the occasional conflict between rival drug gangs…

    But again, even if you eliminated all the drug gangs – you would have thousands of unemployed ex-trafficantes. Now what..?

  2. Brazil now treats AIDS/HIV as a public health problem and has conducted lots of educational programs. Cigarettes are a worse public health problem than pot and the Brazilian government now has educational programs–the pictures on most cigarette packs are scary indeed, states and cities are trying to prohibit smoking most places.
    Why not treat drug addition the same way? No money? Rehabilitation is expensive, and not simple–alcohol and gambling addictions are also very hard to treat, and most Brazilians still treat alkies as simply lacking in gumption and being too “weak” to quit–witness the almost universal outcry about Adriano’s escapades in Rome and elsewhere, when the real problem is, he’s an addict and needs treatment.

  3. Diego, you wrote: “most of the drug-trafficker related violence is initiated by the police anyway… with their reckless invasions. If they backed off, there wouldn’t be a problem.”
    Well, that’s exactly what Leonel Brizola did 25 years ago–fed up with police incursions into slums, he ordered them to back off. Back off they did, and the drug lords took over the morros, as any idiot could have foreseen. Brizola didn’t care, because part of his deal with the drug lords was that they have the people under their sway vote for him and his successors, who would ensure there were no police to trouble them. Another part was that Brizola wouldn’t have to raise police salaries to a decent level, because he knew the drug lords would see to it that lots and lots of police were corrupted. That evil policy continued for 25 years and created the hydra-headed monster we now face.

  4. I’m just saying that all these police invasions into the favelas accomplish nothing… except put innocent lives at risk.

    As for the rise of the drug cartels in the first place, yes… as you correctly pointed out… there is a history behind it. But their power increases due to government abandonment of the people and educational infrastructure and such…

  5. Thank you both for initiating a lively discussion…I agree with points on both sides…

    What I was trying to point out is that I am “tired,” of hearing Cariocas say the violence and drug traffic is a “problem of the slums,” (what, are slum dwellers not Cariocas themselves?). True, marijuana is allegedly “less harmful” than say, alcohol and tobacco. But it is still illegal, and its purchase and consumption have very real and direct impacts on millions of lives. So, as citizens, we need to acknowledge that.

    So many people are quick to point the finger, but much slower to engage in the sort of reflection you are making now (where does the “problem” stem from, what are its root causes?). Uncontrolled drug trafficking activities and related violence are only some of the symptoms of decades of a mixture of neglect, oppression and marginalization incurred by Rio’s least privileged.

    As I pointed out before, https://theriotimes.wpengine.com/brazil-news/opinion-editorial/opinion/violence-in-the-marvelous-city/, unless we recognize and deal with this directly, instead of once again attempting to “tapar o sol com a peneira,” the pacification ideal is doomed to fail.

  6. It’s better that the trafficantes are employed selling marijuana and cocaine… than robbing people on the streets. (Selling crack is bad though… i realize that – ADA in Rocinha and Vidigal do not sell crack).

  7. Bastante bom, corajoso, lucido e “sensivel”.
    Pela mesma ocasiao, bemvindo ao mundo das controversias, as vezes ferozes, voce vera, mas sempre interessantes e oportunidades para aprender e melhorar neste seu mundo dos “great debaters”.


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