How Brazil’s Drug War Became a Crusade Against People of Color

Open Society Foundations

How Brazil’s Drug War Became a Crusade Against People of Color

by Eduardo Ribeiro

In Brazil’s old colonial capital of Salvador de Bahia, February means Carnaval, a six-day Dionysian celebration often called the biggest street party in the world. But behind the merriment hides a striking example of Brazil’s endemic structural racism.

Though Salvador’s population is 80 percent black, the carnavaleros dancing down the cordoned-off avenues are mostly white, protected from the masses by largely black, rope-holding sentinels. Bleachers packed with white spectators are defended by still more black security guards. Police patrol the crowds, demonstrating radically different attitudes toward the carousers depending on the color of their skin. It’s black Brazilians’ unequal status made manifest in a week-long party—a reality all the more maddening given the Afro-Brazilian origins of both Carnaval and Salvador.

That’s why my fellow activists and I chose Carnaval season to speak out about the racism that permeates our society. Specifically, we’re setting our sights on the so-called war on drugs, which might be more accurately seen as Brazil’s war on black communities. In its official launch, the Black Initiative for a New Drug Policy took to the streets of Salvador during Carnaval with a group whose samba theme urged spectators, “Tire seu racismo do caminho que eu quero passar com a minha co” (Get your racism out of my way, I want to pass by with my color).

A man is searched by police on the second night of carnival in Salvador, Brazil, in February 2012.

© Mario Tama/Getty

The mission of the Black Initiative, launched in partnership with Brazil’s Collective of Black Entities and the Latin American Network of People Who Use Drugs, is to build a movement of black organizations and activists advocating a new approach to drug policy.

Our aim is to highlight the disproportionately negative impacts of current drug policies on Afro-Brazilian communities in advance of April’s UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the “world drug problem.” This event, and the preparatory meetings leading up to it, offer an historic occasion for communities negatively impacted by drug policies—not just communities of color, but indigenous populations, women, youth, and people who use drugs. In the presence of some of the same people who originally launched the war on drugs so many years ago, it’s our chance to present and assess possibilities for purging our world of such harmful paradigms.

Punitive drug laws—and enforcement of those laws—have had disastrous results for Afro-Brazilians. Approximately 53 percent of Brazilian society identifies as black (negro) or mixed-race (pardo). Yet black and brown people represent eight of every ten homeless people, 77 percent of homicide victims, and a large majority of those incarcerated in the country’s overcrowded prisons, where half a million people survive in subhuman conditions.

Nationally, young black men are nearly three times more likely to be killed than their white peers, and in largely black states like my home state of Bahia, young black men are over 15 times more likely to be murdered than white teenagers. Our judicial system is selective about who it prosecutes and jails, focusing on certain segments of society and certain types of misconduct, particularly drug- and asset-related crimes within the black population.

Domestically, the Black Initiative is working with stakeholders who are already engaged in racial discussions to identify and address core issues crucial for ending the harms of a misguided drug-law regime. Like the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, we see clearly that the war on drugs in Brazil is really a crusade against black people, codified in law. To paraphrase Columbia University neuroscientist and drug policy reformist Dr. Carl Hart when he visited Brazil not long ago, Brazil is living under apartheid and blaming it on drugs.

We’re taking our efforts abroad as well. In March, we will cohost a panel on “the color of incarceration” in Brazil at the Narcotics and Drugs Commission in Vienna with the Brazilian government and other drug policy reform organizations. And at UNGASS in New York, we hope to host another panel discussion in partnership with Brazil’s national antinarcotics office, which, thanks to good new leadership and pressure from drug policy reform organizations, now recognizes the racial injustices inherent in Brazilian drug policy.

In 2015, the UN launched the International Decade for People of African Descent. If we’re successful in our effort to link the drug policy agenda to the black youth agenda, we will give names, faces, and voices to black Brazilians who have died because of futilely prohibitionist policies. As our counterparts in the United States say, vidas negras importam—black lives matter. For the next decade, and for every one after that.

The Black Initiative for a New Drug Policy is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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