By Lauren Fulton
Courting Africa, Vol. 29 (2) - Summer 2007 Issue

Lauren Fulton is a staff writer at the Harvard International Review


With the reelection of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in September 2006, inequities appeared to be fading and the quality of life of the average Brazilian seemed to be improving. Lula promised to advance the economy, already the ninth largest in the world, and thereby strengthen Brazil’s claim to be a “country of the future” and an economic world power. In order to achieve this, Lula recognized the necessity of combating poverty and to this end, he set up the Bolsa family grant, which delivers aid to the most impoverished regions of Brazil. Many Brazilians assumed that drug trafficking, which had been increasing since the 1980s, would subsequently decrease alongside falling poverty. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. A 25-year legacy of drug trafficking has made the practice a major feature of Brazil’s perpetually impoverished urban slums. While the country is currently on track to see a 50 percent reduction of poverty by 2015, drug production has only escalated. Hence, Lula’s main initiative should be to overcome organized crime in the slums, such that the poor, who remain vulnerable to gang warfare, will be able to live free of crime and rise out of poverty.

In a 2001 report released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Committee, large scale cultivation of coca—whose leaves are the major raw material for cocaine—was noted to be spreading from Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia, where it has long been documented, to Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Governments are concerned that its spread may correlate with the steady rise in drug trafficking in South American countries, most notably Brazil. While Brazilian drug trafficking began in the 1980s with the exposure of gold miners to the lucrative dealing of drugs in the border states, cocaine production and trafficking has taken root in urban slums, where gangs began earning a quick profit for exporting the contraband. In March 1999, then-Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso created a task force designed to fight drug trafficking and organized crime, thereby acknowledging the connection between crime mobs, drug trafficking, and poverty.

Unfortunately, the causal links among poverty, crime, and drug trafficking have been embedded in the nation. Poverty has created a culture of drug trafficking that will need continued effort and money to prevent further proliferation. The urban slums, especially those in Sao Paulo, have spawned organized gangs that deal in cocaine and raw drug products, and the violence that results from the combination deters police from entering the areas. The shantytowns, or favelas, are breeding grounds for new militias that continuously come into existence once an old gang is defeated. In February 2007, it was reported that these militia had overrun 90 of Brazil’s 600 favelas, often taking control of the drug trade themselves. What is most troubling is that the militias have included former police officers, prison guards, and firefighters who have turned to a more profitable reign of terror over slums and drug lords, further entrenching a deeply ingrained culture of corruption. Lula’s grants and attempts to end poverty have not reached these slums, and unless they are cleared of crime and reconstructed without the organized gangs, poverty and drugs will persist. Brazil needs to firmly prove that organized crime will not be tolerated and that officials even in impoverished areas will receive a fair salary. In order to do this, the income inequality gap must be bridged.

Only several years ago, Brazil had the most unequal income distribution in the world. With the Gini coefficient—which measures income equality from 0, for perfect distribution, to 1, for completely inequitable distribution—hovering around 0.6 between 1976 and 1996, Brazil’s growth has not benefited everyone; other countries with similar growth rates maintain Gini coefficients of approximately 0.34. At present, the richest 20 percent of the population receive 30 times more income than the poorest. This disparity helps create the slums that become home to organized gangs and drug lords. Furthermore, many of the gains made under Cardoso and Lula measure success on a countrywide scale and ignore the fact that while some of the impoverished have increased their incomes, those in Sao Paulo’s slums have not.

The question remains, what can Brazil do about this growing socioeconomic threat? Lula’s main objective should be to stop preserving a faзade of equal national prosperity and instead focus on solving the real problems of the urban poor. Although poverty is decreasing in Brazil, Lula must now deal with its consequences; drug trafficking in Brazil can only be eradicated by continuing to fight organized crime and close the income inequality gap.

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