FROM THE FAVELA TO THE SERTÃO:
YOUTH, NARCOTICS TRAFFICKING AND INSTITUTIONALISM
Paulo Cesar Fraga
The carioca favelas are largely made up by peoples from the Northeast, particularly from the Sertão. During the 1990s a new tie arises between these two scenarios: the young people living in these favelas become involved in the illicit drug business and the youth from Sertão enter into marihuana crop growing, and subsequent delinquent activities; homicide rates noticeably increase in both cases. This however involves only a minority of the youth in both sectors.
In Rio de Janeiro, cannabis sales start off as a minor illicit activity and not as large networks, only to go on to become a larger business upon their penalization when the Penal Code is passed. Towards the end of the 1960s, trafficking is subjected to more intense police persecution since the military dictatorship considers this activity as a "national security" problem and also incriminates consumers. Between 1968 and 1988, period which encompasses the transition from authoritarianism to political liberalization, left-wing militants, previously considered the terrorists by the military dictatorship, cease to be considered an "internal enemy" as traffickers of illicit drugs take their place when cocaine becomes part of the national and international market. Police, who associate youth, poverty and illicit traffic, now persecute young people living in peripheral urban zones. During the 1970s, increased cannabis and cocaine use make this a more profitable business than robbing banks. Its impact on urban violence is felt with even greater impact as of the 1980s when the narcotics traffic network structure acquires the form of an oligopoly accompanied by bribing of the authorities and a symbiosis between police corruption and criminal violence. Capitals thus amassed are then transferred to licit activities such as taxis, housing, hotels and commerce, among others. The period following 1986 is the most violent and a greater number of young people join the narcotics trafficking networks.
Likewise, during the 1990s both violence and homicide rates rise among youth from the Sertão pernambecano. This is an area marked by enormous social inequalities and historical conflicts where the resurgence of violence ties in with activities related to cannabis crop growing, that which includes police repression as in the case of forced crop eradication without the benefit of alternative economic and social means of subsistence. In other cases, it is related to the bands formed as of the narcotics business networks, tied not only to cannabis planting but particularly to assassinations and assaults against trucks. Furthermore traditional feuds between important families over power now extend to exercising control over cannabis plantings and salaried employees.
Some of the causes that tie these young people from the favelas to the narcotics trafficking networks are: the desire to reduce the gap between their consuming power and the social pressure to consume; the need to make their social mark; their early entry into the work market; and the call for even very young children to contribute to family earnings. Many of these young people previously participated in diverse working activities with low salaries, under unhealthy conditions, suffering humiliation, and an absence of legal protection. There they discovered that the work assigned to them is not an element which dignifies human condition and that it does not allow them to access the consumer goods they covet. Furthermore, they also consider that the school they attended, seen as something quite distant, did not prepare them to compete in the difficult work market in a globalized world.
Nonetheless, as opposed to those young people tied up with the narcotics trafficking networks, the majority of the favelas’ young people continue to believe in existing social institutions. Thus, subjecting themselves to undignified but honest labor −just like working in a dishonest job, which is dangerous but profitable− seem like the two sides of one same reality. Fraga, however, does want to trace a profile of the adolescent who enters into trafficking. We do not believe, he says, in the existence of personal characteristics which make one young person more susceptible than another to go into the drug business nor in invariably defining social elements. Working at an early age does not necessarily mean that this young person will become a delinquent since a delinquent is formed by a social relationship and it is not an a priori characteristic but the fruit of a process of "subjectivation". Illicit traffic is also presented as a component which produces subjectivity by submitting these young people to its rules and hierarchies and compounding the elements already present in the life of these young people such as social promotion as of consumption.
In the rural areas, young people live a situation which is similar yet different from that of the young people of carioca favelas, full of external inequalities. One often sees that these young people are disillusioned with the possibility of living off of the land or as salaried workers. Migrating to other regions of the country is almost the only option they have. They see that their father's lifelong dedication to the land did not improve their quality of live but more likely led to degraded life standards, as is currently the case of many small farmers and salaried rural workers. Official policies never come true, adding to their feeling of abandonment.
In such a scenario of extreme inequality and poverty, narcotics’ trafficking finds the perfect terrain to incorporate young people into its ranks, reproducing the same conditions of exploitation, violence and concentration of riches inherent to agrarian relations in Brazil, in particular, and to the Brazilian society in general. In such an atmosphere of poverty where life is extremely difficult, turning to the growing of these crops can come as a lifeline to subsistence.
Translated form Spanish by MM Moreno,
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