By Felipe Neis Araujo, TalkingDrugs

Early last year, TalkingDrugs reported on the partnerships between UN agencies and the Brazilian government in an attempt to breathe fresh life into the failed campaign for a drug-free society. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are sponsoring President Jair Bolsonaro’s bloody drug wars with funds and human resources, working together with the Brazilian government to establish the Centre of Excellence for Illicit Drug Supply Reduction (COE). The COE’s first report, detailing how drug traffickers adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic, was published last December. Reading through it, at first, I did not feel like commenting. Watching side events at the 65th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, however, where the fetishisation of drug supply reduction was frequently displayed, alongside the annual commitment to design and implement further strategies to dismantle the illegal drug markets, I felt the urge to discuss some of the findings brought in the report. What was the impact of the combat of illegal drug supply during the first year of the pandemic in Brazil? A short answer: the incarceration of over 80,000 people, most of them Black and Brown men with low levels of formal education and, therefore, small chances of entering the legal labour market during what is one of the hardest economic crises that Brazil has ever experienced.

One of the lessons that both the UNODC and the Brazilian government learned since they established their so-called centre of excellence is that illicit entrepreneurs are resilient. They too design and implement strategies to adapt to adverse situations, as evidenced in the report: 

“Brazil remains a strategic region for the transit of cocaine without major changes in the routes traditionally established pre-COVID-19 pandemic. There is a strong resilience on the part of drug trafficking organisations with a great capacity to adapt and diversify routes.” 

Traffickers searched for new routes through land and rivers. They changed their routes to other regions of Brazil and its bordering countries. They moved smaller batches between points. Police forces kept on seizing banned drugs, though, which the Brazilian government claimed was a successful approach, even when there is no evidence to back up the notion that seizures and arrests contribute to the reduction of crime, violence, and other forms of harm.

The report suggests that the main reason that people engage in drug trafficking is due to the lack of alternative economic opportunities. This is not a new finding, and neither is it only a Brazilian peculiarity. Evidence shows it is a reality faced around the globe. Increasing incarceration, however, cannot help to sort this situation out.