When the social pathologies generated by prohibition and the black market drug trade intersect with the social pathologies of mass poverty, bizarre social phenomena can occur. Mix in an election on Sunday where a charismatic left populist leader loathed by the US government is poised to take control of South America's largest country, and things start getting downright weird.
It's happening in Brazil right now. Brazil is riding a wave of cocaine consumption, according to press and official accounts. The US State Department estimates that Brazil is now second only to the US in cocaine consumption, with Brazilians now snorting or smoking more of the drug than Germany or France. And consumption has been democratized: Where once powder cocaine was the fun drug of Rio's and Sao Paolo's jet set, now drug sellers market crack in the favelas of Sao Paolo and $1.50 lines of powder coke heavily cut with aspirin or caffeine. And while consumption per capita remains well below that of the US, the UN estimated that nearly a million Brazilians -- 0.7% of the population -- are coke users.
And drug trafficking groups grown rich off the trade have organized into various "commands" that are effectively governing many of the vast favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, the mega-cities where nearly one out of five of Brazil's 170 million inhabitants reside. The phenomenon is so widespread that the traffickers have become known as the Parallel Power, competing with -- perhaps defeating -- the power of the state to govern the lives of millions. Or perhaps that's a bit unfair: The Brazilian state has never really tried to govern or even provide basic services to the favelas, which originated as squatter communities, effectively ceding their control to whoever stepped in to fill the vacuum.
The Parallel Power has been flexing its muscle of late, murdering a popular investigative reporter, instigating bloody riots in Brazil's swollen prisons, and recently engaging in internecine warfare with murderous shoot-outs in the streets of Rio and Sao Paolo. This week, the Parallel Power called for a general strike in Rio and pulled it off, with schools and businesses across the city closing their doors on Monday. Even the world-famous luxury zones of Ipanema and Copacabana were affected, according to press reports.
The question of the day is why. The few US press reports on the rather astonishing power play by the traffickers emphasized the theory that the strike was an effort by imprisoned Red Command leader Fernando da Costa (known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar or "Seaside Freddy") to improve his prison conditions. Da Costa, who was arrested in Colombia while apparently dealing with the FARC, has been accused of orchestrating the recent wave of prison and street violence from his cell.
But the strike takes on a decidedly darker cast in non-US accounts. Argentine investigative journalist Stella Calloni, writing for the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, reported that Rio "lived a day of terror when the narcos ordered a massive closing of businesses and many schools in an evident effort to terrorize voters just as polls showed the rise of Benedita da Silva," a left-wing candidate for the governorship of Rio. Da Silva had angered the traffickers by attempting to combat them, Calloni wrote.
Calloni also noted that some Brazilians analysts thought this "conspiracy of narcos" was linked to "political groups with 'external' links," an apparent reference to a possible US role in destabilizing the country in order to prevent the election of Ignacio Da Silva, known universally as Lula, as president. Lula, a former union leader, heads the Workers Party and opposes the US on economic issues and the war in Colombia. He is so far ahead of the divided opposition that the main question in Sunday's election is whether he will the 50% plus one of all votes cast, enabling him to avoid a runoff election.
Whether or not the move by the Parallel Power was aimed at Lula and fellow Workers Party candidate Da Silva in Rio, the notion that the strike had political motives was not the exclusive domain of left-leaning journalists. Reuters reported on Tuesday that the state of Rio de Janeiro had requested federal troops to ensure safe voting. "State officials said gangs had threatened to lead an uprising in Rio to keep slum-dwellers from reaching the ballot box," the news agency reported.
Some Brazilians wonder who is the power behind the Parallel Power. The lines between politics and criminality have recently been blurred as Brazilians ponder the results of an 18-month congressional investigation into the drug trade. That investigation tied more than 800 prominent political, law enforcement and commercial figures to the drug trade, including two congressmen, 15 state legislators, four mayors, six bank directors and hundreds of police officers and judges.
In a just published article in the NACLA Report on the Americas special issue on the drug economies of Latin America (http://www.nacla.org/issue_disp.php -- full disclosure: This issue also contains work by your writer and DRCNet executive director Dave Borden), researcher Rob Neuwirth interviewed a veteran Rio police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Our country is dominated by the drug traffic. Our federal government, our state governments, everything is dominated by the traffic. It may sound like theater to you, but it's true," said the policeman. "When we go to favelas and we find an arms stockpile, we see boxes from the Air Force, Army, Navy. They are very new weapons. The military is very serious about making sure all weapons are accounted for. How can three or four boxes of grenades, pistols and rifles simply disappear from the military and reappear at the favela? I am almost certain that the guys that really run the drug commands are big military guys from the army, air force and even politicians."
Although the Brazilian government opposes US policy in Colombia, the Brazilian military has been cooperating with the US in the region and the US military is assiduously polishing its ties with its Brazilian counterparts. No one has produced any evidence of a nefarious plot a la Ollie North and the Contras, but the Brazilians are suspicious. "Nobody here believes that the strike was only because of [raids on them by da Silva], and some analysts suggest that the traffickers have entered into politics, supporting groups of the ultra-right," wrote Calloni. "Few believe that the narcos can act as they did on Monday without the complicity of politicians and police, and their actions appear destined to support the arguments of those in Washington who are already attempting to Colombianize Brazil with the intention of pushing for a larger US military intervention here."
Brazil is in economic crisis, and it is that crisis that will impel Lula to power, it is that crisis that intensified the country's slide into repressive violence, it is that crisis that makes possible the rise of the Parallel Power. And it is the children of the favelas who are its soldiers and its victims. Between gang warfare and police killings, nearly 4,000 young people have been killed in Rio since 1987. By comparison, 467 children and adolescents were killed by weapons fire in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the same period, said the report, "Child Combatants in Armed Organized Violence in Rio de Janeiro." The study's author, British anthropologist Luke Dowdney, reported that some 6,000 youngsters between the ages of 10 and 18 are working as "soldiers" for the various commands that constitute the Parallel Power.
But the Parallel Power delivers what the state can't or won't. In the favelas controlled by the various commands, the traffickers provide basic services -- transportation, utilities, food baskets, entertainment, and most of all for crime-plagued Brazilians, security. When the only presence of the state is that of trigger-happy policemen, gun-toting gangsters who actually provide services and security don't seem so bad. Welcome to the 21st Century in the Third World.