<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
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Change, Already!

Rio Legislator's Forum Pressures Lula Government to Reform Drug Laws… and Gets Reported Results

By Adriana Veloso
Reporting from Rio de Janeiro

May 26, 2003

The hall that once housed the National Congress, today the seat of the Rio de Janeiro State Legislature (ALERJ, in its Portuguese initials) opened its doors to Civil Society last week to discuss how to pressure the administration of President Lula da Silva to make the changes in drug policy that have been promised.

State Assemblyman Carlos Minc invited Dr. Fábio Mesquita, pioneer in the struggle to impede the damages caused when drugs are prohibited, known as “Harm Reduction,” and the investigator Luke Dowdney of the non-governmental organization, Viva Rio, to make the case last Monday.

“The program of Lula’s government pledges that the National Anti-Drug Secretary (SENAD, in its Portuguese acronym) will lose its Cabinet-level status and will soon by under the Justice Ministry’s command. It has also proposed that the title – with the words ‘Anti-Drug’ – will be changed to ‘Drug Policy’,” said the Assemblyman Minc, concluding, “it’s already been five months and nothing has changed.”

In this manner, the debate has begun. Thirty invitees representing diverse specialties like harm reduction, universities, psychologists, social workers, health agents, members of non-governmental organizations, and AIDS patient, who brought the word of their communities to the forum.

The Rights of Users

Carlos Minc
Photo D.R. 2003 by Adriana Veloso
Before passing the microphone to the invitees, Minc smiled and announced that the state governor recently signed a law: “Law 4074 is the first in the country that recognizes that drug users have fundamental rights. This is a change in perspective toward those who are normally treated as marginal,” he said.

With the law now in place, Civil Society demands its compliance. Célia Szterenfeld, of the Brazilian Harm Reduction Association (ABORDA, in its Portuguese initials), pointed to the first paragraph of Law 4074 where it guarantees “the right of the drug user against discrimination by anti-drug campaigns” and questioned the new anti-drug campaign by the state government that says “the user is to blame for the violence.”

Fábio Mesquita began his talk underlinding that this law should be made national, as well as the Harm Reduction labors conducted by the City Halls of São Paulo, Recife, and Porto Alegre. The Doctor of Hamr Reduction suggested that “the local experiences should be transformed into public policy,” and to reach that goal he suggests “the creation of an Observatory of Drug Laws with representation from Civil Society and an agency that coordinates the information in order to orient the actions inside and outside the government,” he explained. For him, the choice for who will lead the SENAD is in play. “We have to demand that the secretary of the SENAD will be a civilian who will change the entire language of what is referred to as drugs, to a more human and less militarized discourse,” he said. The only job of the Army, he said, “should be to protect the borders of the country.”

“There has been a growing expectation that the changes predicted in the government’s program in fact have become reality,” he observed, “and society simply has to claim them.” Mesquita has years of experience in public work, since 1989 in Santos when he coordinated the prevention of HIV, until now occupying the same job for the City of São Paulo, one of the two largest cities in América.

Mesquita, like the other invitee Luke Dowdney, also raised the issue of the collection and distribution of information about drugs: “The state cannot forget. It is not the role of non-governmental organizations to substitute for the government, just as it is not the proper role of police to teach about drugs in schools,” said Mesquita. He referred to the PROERD program (the Brazilian program modeled after the failed U.S. “DARE” program) in which police teach youths about drugs. “We have to put each agency in its proper place,” he said.

Trafficking as Consequence

Luke Dowdney is author of the book, “Crianças do Tráfico” (“Children of Trafficking”) based on a study conducted in 2001 in which he interviewed 300 people in 25 favela slum neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro. Among them, police, youths, representatives of neighborhood associations, and all the protagonists of drug-trafficking and violence on the hillsides. “The youths seem very much like the soldier-children in countries at war,” said this Englishman in perfect Portguese who has investigated the problems of youth in many countries around the world.

Luke Dowdney
Photo D.R. 2003 by Adriana Veloso
“In the 1980s, the number of occurrences of the involvement of minors in crime numbered around 100 per year. By 1998, police recorded 3,211 occurrences of minors involved in crimes,” said Dowdney, concluding: “The age of children entering the labor market of drug trafficking becomes younger every day.”

After more than five years working in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Dowdney says it was vital to understand “the history that brought about this situation” in order to write his book. “There is a lack of presence by the State on the hillside, both in terms of policing as in public policy.” The results of his investigation concluded that, “drug trafficking in the favelas of Rio is a symptom of other problems.”

Dowdney said that we have to get to the roots of the problem in order to find alternatives. “We have to look at the social problems in relation to this questions.” According to him, the two biggest problems are “the attractions of trafficking; status, money, and social ascent,” in light of the structural problem of unemployment in the country. He says that “the great majority of children in the favelas are not actively involved in trafficking” and that “forty percent of the youths who are actively involved in the illicit drug business have somebody close to them – family or friends – who were involved in this activity in the past.” Another large motive that brings youths to participate in this structure “is rebellion. Thirty percent of the interviewed youths involved in trafficking lost their fathers to violence,” he explains. According to him, from the 1980s to today, “there has been a raise in deaths by gunfire of 250 percent,” in a country where, “in 2001, eleven thousand illegal arms were apprehended.”

Heroes or Bandits?

After these presentations, the microphone was passed again to those who attended the forum. Many issues to be discussed in such a short time: but the support for the proposals was clear.

Fábio Mesquita
Photo D.R. 2003 by Adriana Veloso
Minc resumed with a phrase that reflected the sentiment in the hall: “The only option to end narco-trafficking is legalization. We have to end the drug economy!” Dowdney quoted a social worker named Rita: “The police are like the cancer of drug-trafficking.” The foreigner, who represented the voice of the hillsides, clarified that according to his 300 interviews, “ninety percent of the police are involved in one way or another with the trafficking.” He stressed that, “it is common for police to kidnap youths in the labor market of cocaine and ransom them for money. That’s why we have to involve the police in this debate.”

Fábio Mesquita, diplomatically, presented a solution to be applied in such a large country: “A National Observatory is fundamental to exchange experiences and integrate them.” The political orientation toward consensus, of listening to all those affected by a situation, which was being applied here in the hall of the ALERJ,” needs to be applied nationwide,” he said. And that is how the question of drugs must be treated: “from a multi-lateral point of view, that includes the police, not only through repression, but also through perspectives of health, education, planning, and justice,” he proposed.

Now is the Hour to Comply

The suggestions by Civil Society gave force to the legislators and public officials to continue to fight for a more humane and democratic drug policy. “The war on drugs in Rio de Janeiro kills twenty times more people than cases of overdose,” said Minc, saying: “The war on drugs IS a drug!”

Dowdney added that, “drug trafficking exists all over the world,” and, “the local character must be the basis of the work to confront the problem.” In the favela slums of Rio de Janeiro, “crime has become the only alternative,” he explained, observing also that “sports, professional training, valorization of education, citizenship classes and rehabilitation of youths involved in trafficking” are some of the areas that his organization, Viva Rio, is involved with.

Fábio Mesquita, who suggested the creation of an Observatory, brought a wealth of local experience from his office, and the speech by Dowdney brought that of his book, “Children of Trafficking.” The doctor of Harm Reduction knows that “to address the drug issue it is necessary to widen our vision beyond the militarized point of view that we have today in the SENAD.”

Carlos Minc, who presided over the session, declared “now is the time for law 4074 to be complied with, guaranteeing the rights of drug users.” The forum closed with the passage of two motions: The first, sent to President Lula, demands the immediate execution of the Government plan: the change in the SENAD’s location within the government toward the Justice Ministry, and changing the name, “and consequently the content,” as Mesquita said, of the agency.

The second motion demanded the withdrawl of the propaganda by the Rio de Janeiro state government in which, according to Mesquita, the Partnership Against Drugs “wages campaigns against drug use financed by businesses and led by bureaucrats from São Paulo.”

This second motion that, in fact, defends the rights of users, guaranteed by state law 4074, represents the voice from below, brought to the legislature by Célia Szterenfeld of the Brazilian Harm Reduction Association (ABORDA).

The common view expressed from the forum, concluded Minc, was that, “this meeting between legislators and the populace has been productive.”

Postscript: Days later, it seemed, the meeting had indeed been productive. According to the daily Folha de São Paulo on Friday, May 23rd, in a report by Fabiane Leite and Iuri Dantas:

“Attorney General Thomaz Bastos confirmed in recent days to various health specialists that the structure and command of the Senad (the National Anti-Drug Secretary) will be transferred under his control, in the Justice Department…

“Thomaz Bastos had said that, with this, the Lula government complies with its campaign promise… the transfer of the Senad is “a question of time.”

The daily also said that the name of the Senad would be changed – precisely as Civil Society, most recently in the meeting in Rio, has demanded.

“According to information obtained by Folha, the change has not been made official because President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has not found time in his agenda to personally inform the current secretary, General Paulo Uchôa, of the decision…

“General Paulo Uchôa said, during an event in São Paulo about the use of crack, “Ah, is that so? That’s what you are saying. I don’t know anything.”

Well, General: now you know.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America