Historical Background on Drugs in Brazil

By Alexandra Smith

The high murder rate which exists in Brazil’s poorest communities today is a result of long term economic and social developments dating back to the 1950s in Brazil. First, high levels of economic inequality and urban poverty in Brazil led to migration to the cities and the formation of favelas. Second, the repressive military regime in Brazil imprisoned large numbers of dissidents and criminals, who were forced to form gangs to protect themselves from atrocious prison conditions. Third, Brazil became an important transit point for drugs produced in other parts of South America destined for the United States and Europe.

The growth of narcotrafficking and gangs in Brazil is connected to the growth of favelas, a type of informal settlement or shantytown which emerged in Brazil’s major cities beginning in the 1950s.[1] Favelas grew due to migration from rural areas to cities and the lack of adequate housing available for poor migrants. Favelas became politically organized in the 1960s, relying on clientelist connections to gain resources for favela residents, but the breakdown of these connections after the fall of military rule in 80s created a power vacuum.[2] From 1964-1985, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship, which heightened social issues and poverty. Today, the favelas are the main area in which organized crime operates, due to the lack of state presence in the slums.[3] The organized crime organizations have “recruited thousands into their ranks, provide a certain social control, and even pave streets,” while operating as part of the drug trade.[4]

However, the origins of the organizations which today operate in the favelas come from the country’s prisons. Brazil’s military dictatorship, decided to keep communist guerillas and violent criminals in the same prisons.[5] Instead of fighting, the two groups worked together to form a prison gang called the Red Command in the early 1970s, which initially professed a leftist ideology, but soon became focused entirely on organized crime.[6] The gangs spread onto Brazil’s streets from the 1970s to 1990s.[7]

While organized crime in Brazil originated with a focus on gambling, or the so called “animal game,” international trends in organized crime drove gangs to participate in the more profitable drug trade.[8] In the 1980s, Andean cocaine traffickers were looking for new routes to send their drugs to developed markets and began shipping narcotics through Brazil with the tacit or active support of some elements of the state’s security forces,” coinciding with an increase in violence.[9] Colombian cartels in particular worked in Brazil on cocaine production, including building laboratories in the country.[10] Brazil is also targeting by international drug trafficking organizations because Brazil itself has a high demand for drugs, which makes it different than other Latin American countries which are simply areas drugs are trafficked through.

The result of these developments is a high rate of crime in Brazil concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods. Militarized crackdowns by authorities and conflicts between rival gangs keep violence levels high, while an opportunity for income provides incentives to join groups like the Red Command.

[1] https://www.insightcrime.org/brazil-organized-crime-news/brazil-profile/

[2] Arias, 239.

[3] https://www.insightcrime.org/brazil-organized-crime-news/brazil-profile/

[4] Grillo, 37.

[5] Grillo, 42.

[6] Grillo, 43.

[7] https://www.insightcrime.org/brazil-organized-crime-news/brazil-profile/

[8] https://www.insightcrime.org/brazil-organized-crime-news/brazil-profile/

[9] Arias, 239.

[10] https://www.insightcrime.org/brazil-organized-crime-news/brazil-profile/

Further Reading

  1. For a longer, but still accessible summary of Brazil’s criminal history: https://www.insightcrime.org/brazil-organized-crime-news/brazil-profile/
  2. For more information on Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship and its approach to issues other than Drug Trafficking: https://oxfordre.com/latinamericanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199366439.001.0001/acrefore-9780199366439-e-413
  3. For more historical background, and information on drug routes and use and Brazil: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/miraglia-brazil-final.pdf


ARIAS, ENRIQUE DESMOND. “Gang Politics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.” In Global Gangs: Street Violence across the World, edited by Hazen Jennifer M. and Rodgers Dennis, by Venkatesh Sudhir, 237-54. University of Minnesota Press, 2014. Accessed April 25, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt6wr830.15.

Grillo, Ioan. Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America. New York: Bloomsbury Press (2016).

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