CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On May 18, a 14-year-old boy was playing pool with his cousin and other teenagers in a backyard in São Gonçalo, in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro. Police officers, in pursuit of a drug dealer, fired over 70 shots into the home, killing him. He was black. His name was João Pedro Matos Pinto. There have been so many others.
In the state of Rio de Janeiro alone, the police killed over 600 people from January to April. Drug raids often involve indiscriminate shooting with military-grade weapons in dense, low-income areas. This is not exclusive to Rio or Brazil.
These acts of state violence spare well-off areas, reflecting racial and ethnic hierarchies. In Latin American cities, which tend to be more racially mixed than cities in the United States, many wealthy neighborhoods remain nearly exclusively white.
Latin America has some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Police forces kill in far greater numbers than in the United States. Much of this violence can be connected to the war on drugs. What is often overlooked is the systemic racism that goes hand in hand with police actions.
In Brazil, over 75 percent of people killed by the police are black. Even in countries where such data is not systematically collected, the evidence points to a clear pattern: Black and brown youth suffer disproportionately from the brutality of police forces, paramilitary groups and drug cartels.
In Mexico and Central America, victims tend to be concentrated among people of Indigenous ancestry. They include the 43 students from Ayotzinapa who vanished after being taken into custody by the police in 2014. And the vast majority of the 60,000 or more people who have disappeared in Mexico’s drug war.
The media fixation on kingpins aside, the war on drugs has consistently targeted users and those involved in retail operations rather than the well connected at the top. In Latin America, there is a convention of referring to organized crime as a “parallel power,” relative to the state. However, drug trafficking has become deeply entangled with governmental institutions.
The many sides of the illicit drug trade, from bribes to gunrunning, bring together traffickers and corrupt officials. There is ample evidence of the corrosive influence of collusion between law enforcement and traffickers, even in places outside the global drug trade nexus, like the urban margins of Buenos Aires. There is a parallel system of law enforcement based on class and race. This is perhaps starkest in Brazil, which has the largest Afro-descendant population in the hemisphere. Though recreational drug use is in effect already decriminalized in wealthy, white-majority enclaves of Brazil, going about your business in a black-majority neighborhood during a raid can get you killed.
In Brazil and Colombia, recent killings of black bystanders by the police have led to comparisons with George Floyd’s murder. These deaths have ignited local protests, but the sense of moral outrage is far less widespread. While the war on drugs is a clear driver of violence in Latin America, it is harder to speak of a causal relationship between racism and police brutality. Many officers are themselves black and brown. Yet, it is undeniable that racial inequalities and segregation determine who is on the front lines of the war on drugs and which lives matter. In Latin America’s upper classes, the war on drugs has become inseparable from a callous disregard for brown and black lives. It is also true that the appeal of anti-crime agendas cuts across social differences. Politicians often campaign on some version of allowing the police to shoot to kill traffickers.
A little over a century ago, before drug prohibition became a priority, the market for substances like marijuana and cocaine did not generate bloodshed. When President Richard Nixon in 1971 declared drug abuse “public enemy No. 1 in the United States,” he spoke of a “worldwide offensive.” As the war on drugs unfolded, the United States inspired and even funded many law enforcement models in Latin America.
More recently, Uruguay legalized recreational cannabis in 2017. Other Latin American countries have partially decriminalized some substances, and leaders from across the political spectrum, including presidents and former presidents, have been vocal about the need to end the war on drugs. Decriminalization efforts can produce unusual alliances. They will require transnational coordination. Given the devastating consequences to black and brown communities, we can frame that discussion as a key part of global anti-racist agendas.
It has become almost a cliché to say that the U.S.-led war on drugs failed. If the intent is to save lives in the United States from substance abuse, the results are mixed at best. Other approaches, like legalization and decriminalization of some drugs, are certainly more cost-effective. If the intent is to reward corrupt actors while propping up arms manufacturers, the prison industry and entrenched law enforcement bureaucracies, then the war on drugs has been successful. Some Latin American governments insist on copying the most profit-seeking aspects of the American system, like private prisons. In the United States several states are seeking to reform criminal justice, by decriminalizing marijuana and curbing mass incarceration.
Throughout the Americas, police officers still arrest hundreds of thousands of people for marijuana-related offenses every year. Black and brown people continue to bear the brunt of repressive measures. In the United States public opinion has shifted toward the legalization of cannabis and broadly opposes war-on-drugs methods. It is hard to imagine radical changes at a hemispheric scale without U.S. leadership.
We need to rethink drug policies. Decriminalization is working well in Portugal, for instance. At the local level, it creates opportunities to redirect funding away from weapons and drug-busting, toward social and health services. To think of a regulated legal drug trade as a source of revenue can open up discussions about the possibilities of reparations to address legacies of systemic racism.
Decriminalization and legalization will never be a cure-all. There are also as many questions as answers when it comes to how it should be done. But this is a time of reckoning and to reimagine the future. Bringing the war on drugs to an end could be a major step toward curtailing violence, saving countless lives caught in the crossfire. João Pedro’s life matters.
Bruno Carvalho is a professor at Harvard, where he is a co-director of the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative and is affiliated with the Afro-Latin American Research Institute.
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