Brazil’s failed war on drugs revisited

Bolsonaro campaigned on promises “to kill at least 30.000 people” to make Brazil safe for his followers and, to this end, vowed to arm those eager to ‘’fight crime.’’ Español.

Arturo Desimone
13 May 2019, 12.01am
A police force unit blocks the entry to the Ministry of Justice by order of President Bolsonaro during indigenous protests in Brasilia, Brazil, 26 April, 2019. Photo: Pablo Albarenga/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

‘’Penal populism’’, or the call for a vigilante politician to wage war on street crime, hence justifying a police state, is a kind of politics all too common in Latin America-- in no way original to Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Such policies often gain support from a swathe of the urban middle classes who experienced childhood under the dictatorships that came to rule most of the region - except Venezuela - during the 1970s.

The typical supporter of ‘’penal populism’’ believes that military rule guarantees safety, despite the unbearable bloodshed that went on back then. The faith expressed by many civilians in the gendarmerie, despite undeniably widespread police corruption in Latin America, proves how the propaganda of that time yielded results so pervasive as to resonate 30 or 40 years later.

Bolsonaro, who accessed power due to a void in leadership and the crack in democratic legitimacy produced by the Workers’ Party’s leader Lula da Silva’s imprisonment, has promised to end all investigations into police misconduct – which is responsible for an estimated 5.000 homicides in 2017 alone.

Bolsonaro made his way to power thanks to an earlier fundamental shock to Brazil’s young democracy in 2016, when Michel Temer led pro-business congressmen to call for the “impeachment’’ of democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff on corruption charges - which have been overturned since by Brazil’s Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro blames the failure of the old drug war on how democracy and human rights interrupted the dictatorship’s crusade against drug trafficking and drug-related crime.

The imprisonment on corruption charges of Paulo Salim Maluf - a billionaire corrupt politician and Michel Temer’s ally who, despite being named on Interpol’s ‘Wanted’ list, also participated vociferously in the ‘’impeachment without a Watergate’’ process against Dilma Rousseff - has not only reaffirmed the integrity of the Supreme Court Court as an institution, but has led to the de-legitimization of the traditional centrist/conservative parties which, as a whole, have lost more votes than the Left at the last elections.

The old drug wars

Ironically, Bolsonaro’s ‘‘penal populism’’ and his call to arms recalls the events of the late 1960s: the clashes which eventually degenerated into the drug wars of the early 1980s under the watch of the dictatorial regime that Bolsonaro so praises.

There is little coincidence here: one of the most influential historical drug cartels, the Comando Vermelho, was founded in 1969 by a small group of left-wing professors in the Brazilian prisons together with ordinary convicts. This Red Command declared war on the police – there were clashes with Molotov cocktails and grenades being thrown inside the prisons and at police stations – but ultimately achieved little, and the guerilla finally sacrificed its ideology almost entirely in the 1980s. Eventually, the Command spawned a Red Phalanx – a phalanx being, by the way, the typical old Fascist formation.

For Bolsonaro, who sentimentally identifies with the military dictatorship, the drug war may just represent an old score to settle, for he blames the failure of the old drug war on how democracy and human rights interrupted the dictatorship’s crusade against drug trafficking and drug-related crime - which, according to him, would have otherwise succeeded.

The Reagan Doctrine’s comeback

According to Brazilian philosopher Vladimir Safatle, Bolsonaro owed his electoral success largely to his stubborn avoidance of issues, a highly organized fake news’ campaign that used Whatsapp and other digital means to defame his opponents, and his deliberate avoidance of any open debate with other parties during the campaign. Actual debate would have revealed, for instance, Bolsonaro’s position on healthcare and universal public education, as well as on national industries.

Brazil appears as an anomalous exception in the current market-fundamentalist world order. Bolsonaro has promised to integrate Brazil into the post-liberal, market-fundamentalist financial system, and Forbes magazine just called him ‘’Brazil’s last hope’’ for his commitment to benefitting the global market.

Brazil’s new president seeks integration into the global market by disintegrating his country through creative destruction. The very first targets slated for eradication are the public university system and public healthcare, despite the enormous popularity that both institutions enjoy among Brazilians and despite the dire consequences of scrapping healthcare in a poor country vulnerable to epidemics.

The war on drugs generally goes hand-in-hand with exaggerated border patrols and the reinvigoration of old, dangerous border conflicts between Latin American states

Before his election victory, Bolsonaro avoided declaring his least popular positions (i.e. the economic ‘‘shock doctrine’’ of unlimited privatization) and focused instead on issues such as religious-led opprobrium towards gay marriage and identity politics. He is ready to offer Brazil as a colony to help boost Trump’s America First project of protectionism at home whilst engaging in plunder overseas. His stance has won him praise from the likes of Steve Bannon, whose admiration for Ronald Reagan is well-known.

Reagan stood for the dismemberment of any progressive movement in Latin America, for mass-privatization schemes which even George Bush criticized and, last but not least, for the War on Drugs of infamous memory throughout Latin America - a failed project that only led to corruption, division, bloodshed and more drugs.

The new old Right

Oblivious to memory or history, Bolsonaro’s muscular action-man rhetoric and his nostalgia for the dictatorship are intertwined with his willingness to get back to the failed wars of the 1970s, in the hope that more bloodshed will reverse their degeneration. In this sense, the rise of Bolsonaro cannot be seen as separate from other recent events in Latin America, such as the fierce, bitter rejection of the 2016 Peace Agreements by pro-Uribe Colombian voters.

The fact that the peace-talks took place mostly in Havana, in the presence of Cuban and Venezuelan top-level officials who chaired the talks between the former-revolutionary FARC guerilla and the Colombian government, made the peace deal look even more diabolical to the eyes of hard-line supporters who espouse the old reactionary ideology of never ever negotiating with left-wing guerillas.

Before the Lima group denied its support for a military intervention in Venezuela this year, an unnamed Colombian official, quoted in the Brazilian newspaper Folha De Sao Paulo, suggested that Colombian aid would be forthcoming should Bolsonaro decide to attack Venezuela. The Colombian chancellor Trujillo and president Ivan Duque categorically denied this, which would of course have vindicated Bolsonaro’s vocal enthusiasm for the use of violence against ideological opponents but would have violated the Geneva Convention.

Duque, a politician who was all in favour of Alvaro Uribe’s policy of turning Colombia into the continent’s top-gendarme in the US-led War on Drugs, insisted that his country gave up interventionist policies long ago. It would be naïve, however, to assume that fear-mongering about a Brazilian armed intervention in Venezuelan affairs came from anywhere but Bolsonaro’s campaign marketing HQ. Bellicose threats to put adversaries under pressure also happen apparently to be the Trump’s style of conducting foreign affairs.

Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has quite accurately pointed out that Trump’s (now nearly forgotten) verbal invectives towards North Korea, which spread fear the world over and got nuclear-powered Kim Jong-un growling back, fit in perfectly with Trump’s concept of ‘’The Art of the Deal’’, which involves fierce bluffing in order to put the enemy under stress and get him to make major concessions.

In all likelihood, Bolsonaro’s entourage, like their Colombian and Argentine governmental counterparts, have taken the option of ‘’modernization’’ – which means the adoption of a strategy of violence more attuned to the times. They use the media and financial creative destruction - “austerity’’ and other Spartan strategies - to define their aggressive domestic and foreign policy.

This is not entirely a happy choice for some Latin American nationalist militarists, for during the boom of global neoliberalism in the 1990s, much military equipment was sold off for profit, which diminished the military’s weight and strength, especially in neighboring Argentina. Bolsonaro has long expressed admiration for the Argentine military, and the Argentine army’s deterioration in the late 1990s may have factored among the reasons why ultra-nationalist Bolsonaro had previously opposed the globalist, neoliberal doctrines he currently embraces.

Many who knew him for his nationalist career were indeed surprised at Bolsonaro’s “heterosexual marriage” to Chicago boy economist Paulo Guedes. Bolsonaro openly concedes that he ‘’knows nothing about economics’’, unlike his newlywed accountant-manager Guedes.

Bolsonaro, accompanied by Paulo Guedes, Minister of Economy, at the Planalto Palace. 8 April, 2019. Photo: Mateus Bonomi/AGIF/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The absences and insecurities of Brazilian identity, brilliantly satirized in Lima Barretto’s novel The sad demise of Policarpo Quaresma about a foolish but sincere Brazilian patriot, were quite apparent when a fire burnt down Río de Janeiro’s 200 year old National Museum last year, despite the fact that gendarmes - with the approval of then-president Michel Temer - had put Río under martial rule in the name of “safety’’. Impotence of the Brazilian army to prevent the fire from consuming a monument of national significance seemed a dress-rehearsal for Jair Bolsonaro’s regime, ready to let swathes of Amazon burn as he massively over-invests in “security”.


Following the cue of the nationalist Euro-skeptic right-wing parties in Europe, Bolsonaro has suggested a full-fledged withdrawal of Brazil from MercoSur, the Latin American common market. This is intended to be an echo of the UK Tories’ Brexit from the EU. MercoSur’s architects deliberately copied the EU model, seeking to establish an organization aimed at facilitating international trade.

MercoSur, however, has taken shape under the influence of the different leftist governments of Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay from the late 1990s until very recently. Unlike their counterparts in Brussels, MercoSur officials have never misinformed the public about the purely commercial nature of the union and have never led it to suppose that it could substitute the workings of other inter-state institutions such as the Inter-American Court (no friend of Bolsonaro’s either). The organization’s frankness is visible in its very name, MercoSur: Southern Market. Unlike the EU, which has earned criticism for being a managerial and trade powerhouse under the guise of a deeply political, democratic and federalist organization, Mercosur has never raised discontent and unpopularity among Latin American majorities.

Withdrawal from MercoSur fits into Bolsonaro’s securitizing regime. It will mean, for example, the end of my right as an Argentine citizen to work legally, without any special permit or requirement, in Brazil. Brazil’s exit from MercoSur will follow the cue of Peru’s president, who gave Venezuelans in Peru a deadline ending on December 31 of last year to apply for work permits.

The War on Drugs, like its botched siblings the War on Terrorism and the War on Immigration, is a crusade against invisible enemies fuelled by ancient human prejudices.

Brazil - unlike European states – is a vast and sprawling country, with unknown regions, underdeveloped industry and agriculture that require manpower, and enough room for almost anyone willing to settle there. The war on drugs generally goes hand-in-hand with exaggerated border patrols and the reinvigoration of old, dangerous border conflicts between Latin American states which have historically kept the continent ablaze.

Reagan’s Frankenstein monsters

The rumors (only recently denied by the Lima group) about Bolsonaro contemplating a violent, Trump-backed intervention in Venezuela to oust Maduro stirred up memories of historical events - such as the infamous Triple Alliance, when Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil united to do away with Paraguay’s self-sufficiency and committed virtual genocide in the 19th century, backed by British investors.

Bolsonaro has rhetorically outdone many of his militarist colleagues by publicly showing his admiration for none other than Hitler as a military strategist. In this, he joins the ranks of Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, who in a gruesome statement compared himself to Hitler and said that, much as the latter did with his Final Solution, he would kill “three million” drug addicts. Both in South East Asia and in the Americas, a denial of the failure of the decades-old US-sponsored War on Drugs has been brought back to life as part of a global Fascist revival.

The War on Drugs, like its botched siblings the War on Terrorism and the War on Immigration, is a crusade against invisible enemies fueled by ancient human prejudices. These are wars declared on symptoms, beliefs and language itself: wars that cannot find or describe the enemy’s face and flag. These are wars arising after the end of the Cold War and after the last of the traditional interstate wars (that of Britain against Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland islands). Since then, wars are fought against poltergeists, against phantom menaces – wars that recall the endeavors of religious warfare, and the Third Reich’s obsessions.

In Latin America, the War on Drugs resulted in Uribe’s Colombia and in the deterioration of Central America and Mexico leading to mass emigration and insecurity. Is it more of this past that awaits us in the future?

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