WorldSocial, Racial and Gender Justice in the War on Drugs

Social, Racial and Gender Justice in the War on Drugs


The current model of prohibition of some substances made illegal by States has become an effective strategy with regard to the violation of a set of civil and social rights. Since the passage of Law 11.343/2006, known as the drug law, the number of arrests has continued to increase. According to Infopen data, in 2016, Brazil became the third most incarcerated country in the world, surpassing 700,000 people in prison, of which 64% declared themselves black. Of this total of prisoners, 40% did not receive a sentence, that is, almost half of these prisoners could not have been deprived of liberty if they had been tried.

In addition, the increase in sentences for drug-related offenses was justified in an attempt to diminish the power of criminal organizations that also exist in prisons. In this sense, the law does not achieve its objective either, as in addition to increasing the burden on the Justice System and public spending on the maintenance of prisons, it indirectly contributes to the strengthening of these organizations by taking more people to prisons. Added to this is the fact that thousands of people have their emotional ties abruptly broken, especially women who, in the vast majority of cases, are solely responsible for their children. Given this scenario, how is it possible to measure the social cost of the more than 60,000 lives of Brazilians who die each year and the disastrous impacts on the lives of affected families and people?

On the other hand, it is possible to observe the economic costs of this war process. According to data published by the Secretariat for Strategic Affairs of the Presidency of the Republic, the economic costs of “crime” rose, between 1996 and 2015, from around 113 billion reais to 285 billion reais, an average real increase of around 4.5 % per year. In a study carried out in partnership with the Igarapé Institute, the following components of this data were concluded, in order of relevance: public safety (1.35% of GDP); private security (0.94% of GDP); insurance and material losses (0.8% of GDP); legal costs (0.58% of GDP); loss of productive capacity (0.40% of GDP); incarceration (0.26% of GDP); and costs of medical and therapeutic services (0.05% of GDP), reaching a total of 4.38% of national income. In addition to high public spending, this policy also makes public servants ill; the rate of suicides among police officers is higher than the average for other professionals, in addition to deaths, serious injuries and sick leave. According to a survey by the Study and Research Group on Suicide and Prevention (GEPeSP), at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), coordinated by political scientist Dayse Miranda, in partnership with the Rio de Janeiro Military Police, of 224 military police interviewed, 10% said they had attempted suicide and 22% said they had thought of suicide at some point.

The homicides in Brazil in the last fifteen years registered a greater number than the same crime in eight South American countries added together, or even all the murders registered in the same period in the 28 countries of the European Union. About 56% of all murders involve young people under the age of 29, and of these, 71% are black. In addition to this situation, there is the inexistence of a system for the production of secure data on the circumstances of these deaths, conditions to assess the concealment of deaths by homicide and how many occur through direct or indirect police action.

With the justification of building good for the health of the population, the prohibitionist apparatus of the War on Drugs has produced more deaths than any use of psychoactive substances, causing several countries in our continent to question this model of building public policies based on in the persecution, criminalization and withdrawal of the rights of black, indigenous, poor and Latino people. The War on Drugs has affected public policies, creating a system of control, punishment, violation of rights and promoting institutional violence against populations that should be protected, in the full context of the Democratic Rule of Law.

We question a democracy that has produced a machine of death and torture in impoverished communities, based on the execution and investment in State policies that militarize territories, causing violent action and violating rights to occupy these territories instead of health policies, assistance and human rights. Currently, drug policy has had the direct result of strengthening a racial hierarchy, in which white people are protected and cared for, and black, indigenous and poor people are criminalized, suffering disproportionately the brunt of this war. We understand that criminalization is an ineffective strategy in the construction of health care for people who use drugs, considering that the stigma and discrimination suffered by entering a criminal case interfere in their search for help and health care.

The Brazilian Drug Law is the one that has provided an increase in the incarceration of the population, with emphasis on female incarceration, causing many women to “take care” of their problematic drug use in the prison context. It is important to highlight that entering the illicit drug market has been an option in Brazil and in several other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to the phenomenon of the feminization of poverty. The growth of illicit drug markets, especially the cocaine market in the Americas, is an important economic factor that includes poor women and single-parent families in the cogs of illicit drug retail, so that entry into this network is a Affordable and quick option for job placement to support their families. When incarcerated, the entire family community that depends on this income is affected, and the State presents no other options than punishment.

The right to motherhood has also been impacted by the War on Drugs context, producing scenarios of racial and gender injustice. Although the approval of the early childhood framework has guaranteed house arrest for women mothers with children up to 12 years of age, in practice the judicial system has ignored this recommendation, also violating the Bankok Rules, with regard to the United Nations rules for the treatment of women prisoners and non-custodial measures for women offenders (2016). These rules, which were recommended by the National Council of Justice, propose a different look at gender specificities in female incarceration, both in the field of criminal execution and also in the prioritization of non-custodial measures, that is, that prevent the entry of women in the prison system.

The current political option for the War on Drugs has affected the civil rights of black and poor people in our country, especially the rights to health, justice and social assistance. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Council of Justice issues Recommendation 62, which deals with the adoption of preventive measures against the spread of Covid-19 infection within the prison system and the socio-educational system. This recommendation has been ignored by the justice system throughout the national territory, even causing deaths of young people by contamination to Covid, who were provisionally imprisoned. Added to this factor is the removal of the right to visit by family members and the lack of availability of information about prisoners, which have marked the Brazilian prison context in the pandemic.

In this sense, we defend a drug policy based on social, racial and gender justice that, instead of producing a strengthening of structures of oppression, can provide opportunities for life, care, well-being and reparation. It is urgent and necessary to dialogue with all of society about the set of damages directly caused by the necropolitics of war. We are responsible for rebuilding drug policies, not only by making the scenarios of violations of rights visible, but also by proposing a political agenda based on justice and reparation for the communities directly affected.

In this four-episode webseries, the Black Initiative, the Fair Platform, the Bridge and the Brazilian Drug Policy Platform put justice in the spotlight, seeking to translate, from an artistic construction, a web of mechanisms that needs to be understood by the population in general, in order to foster qualified debate within civil society, expand access to information and to build paths of hope and struggle for a new drug policy.

Who signs?

Dudu Ribeiro and Nathália Oliveira, co-founders and coordinators of the Black Initiative for a New Drug Policy

Meet the series

The series was created on the initiative of JUSTA, a platform that researches the functioning of the justice system, the Brazilian Drug Policy Platform network and the NGO Black Initiative for a New Policy on Drugs. The script and the production of the videos were carried out by Ponte Jornalismo, a communication vehicle specialized in human rights, in partnership with the producer Iracema Rosa.

The four videos, lasting between 6 and 10 minutes, use animation as a resource to present, in an attractive and accessible way, an overview of how drug law is applied in Brazil and how magistrates and prosecutors became associated with the Governments to shield police violence and produce mass incarceration of the black population.

The animation will be shown every Tuesday, starting September 28, at Ponte Jornalismo, and will be replicated in EL PAÍS, on Yahoo! News, on TVT Network and on YouTube channels of the organizations responsible for the project.

Luana Malheiros, anthropologist, is the articulation coordinator of the Brazilian Drug Policy Platform; Tatian diniz, journalist, is the communication coordinator of the PBPD

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