Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

SOUTH AMERICA: “Drug Addicts Are Sick, Not Criminals”

Fabíola Ortiz

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 22 2011 (IPS) - Drug dealers in the favelas of this Brazilian city are doing the same brisk business as before the installation of the “Police Pacification Units” (UPPs) in those poor neighbourhoods, authorities and experts admit, while they acknowledge the difficulties in combating the problem.

“The UPPs are not going to fix all of Brazil’s, or Rio de Janeiro’s, problems, but the areas that have been ‘pacified’ today have already seen a decline in the various indicators of crime,” said police Major Eliécer de Oliveira, coordinator of UPP training and teaching in the military police.

The UPPs are a new community policing strategy that is complemented with social programmes, such as bringing running water, sanitation, education and other services to the favelas – part of the public security and crime prevention plan launched in 2008 by the Rio de Janeiro government to establish a sustained police and state presence in the shantytowns and drive out drug trafficking gangs.

The plan is aimed at forging ties of trust between the local population and the police, and the UPPs are based in police stations built in favelas once controlled by drug traffickers or paramilitary militias.

So far 17 UPPs have been established, mobilising nearly 3,500 members of the military police. By 2016, the authorities plan to install a total of 40 UPPs, deploying 10,000 to 12,000 police.

Rubem César Fernandes, director of Viva Rio, the biggest NGO active in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, discussed the plan in a break from the meeting that drew some 30 police officials and anti-drug trafficking experts from various countries to the city this week to analyse the question of public security, share their experiences, and propose prevention strategies.


“The prison and law enforcement system has become the main instrument for dealing with the problem of drugs,” Fernandes told IPS. “That is a perversion of the system, and the police have already admitted that the war on drugs has not been working for the last 30 years.”

According to Fernándes, a sociologist, the community policing or “pacification” plan is an innovation in Latin America that sends out a promising signal, because “it broke with the idea that the police must always burst into the favelas shooting.”

He also said the anti-drug policy adopted by the government of Portugal that decriminalised personal possession and consumption of drugs and focused on treatment instead of jail could serve as a model, adapted to conditions in Brazil.

“The focus should be that consumption is not a crime,” Fernandes said. “And if Portugal, a conservative society, was able to reduce drug addiction by means of that policy 11 years ago, why couldn’t Brazil do so as well?”

Portugal modified its anti-drug legislation in 2000. Although drug dealers and traffickers are still arrested and imprisoned, people possessing small amounts – less than the equivalent of 10 days of personal use – are referred to panels made up of a lawyer or judge and a health care professional or social worker, who determine whether to recommend treatment, a fine, or no sanction.

The director of Portugal’s Department of Criminal Investigation, Flávio dos Santos Alves, said “The difference is that the consumer is not considered a criminal.”

He reported that the policy has been successful, leading to a significant reduction in drug abuse. He also applauded Rio de Janeiro’s UPPs, which he said were a first step on the path taken by Portugal.

João Goulão, a former president of Portugal’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction (IDT), added that his country’s anti-drug policy is focused on a “humanistic approach” that sees the addict as someone who is sick, rather than as a criminal.

“The main concern is to offer them all of the tools so they can receive treatment and free themselves from their addiction,” Goulão told IPS.

The IDT, a branch of Portugal’s health ministry, has a nationwide network of around 70 treatment centres that are currently treating some 50,000 drug abusers, most of whom are men between the ages of 30 and 40, from all socioeconomic levels.

Goulão says Brazil still lacks “sufficiently solid” links in the health system to achieve that kind of success.

For his part, Milton Romani, a former secretary general of Uruguay’s National Drugs Council, talked about the situation in his country, which is facing “serious problems” in terms of drug use, like the rest of Latin America.

“Public security is not only a police problem,” he said. “In countries like Brazil and Venezuela, the state has been absent for a long time. The responsibility is everyone’s,” said Romani, who is now Uruguay’s ambassador at large to international drug and human rights institutions.

A law passed during the country’s 1973-1985 dictatorship decriminalised possession for personal use, although the judge has discretion to decide “whether the person under investigation is or isn’t a dealer,” Romani said.

“Judges have to substantiate their decisions. A person can be arrested with a brick of marijuana, but if they don’t have a criminal record, they won’t be sentenced, although someone can be arrested just for carrying a small amount. It’s the police who have to prove before the judge that the person is a dealer.”

But while Romani defends the decriminalisation of drug possession, he said circumstances vary widely, the outcome depends “on the judge’s consideration,” and it is difficult to distinguish between a drug user and a dealer.

The system “still has major advantages, despite the abovementioned risk,” the Uruguayan expert said. He added that “drug consumption is never a problem for the penal system,” and that criminalising personal drug use can fuel violence.

The focus taken by Uruguay is “to humanise and move away from the ‘war on drugs’ paradigm,” and to follow a harm reduction strategy instead.

 
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