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Recent Government Efforts to Tackle Drug Trafficking Across Brazil and the Amazonas Region

Executive Summary

Brazil continues to tackle its biggest security threat – the drug trade.Largely as a result of the drug trade, Brazil’s prisons are vastly overcrowded and has become one of the most violent countries in the world.Over the last decade the government’s ‘War on Drugs’ approach has done little to effectively tackle the issue.Recent efforts have aimed at disrupting the supply and demand of illegal substances across the region.Growing forward, technology along with the continued disruption of supply and social-educational policies will likely be progressed.


Brazil, the largest nation of Latin America boasts the 8th largest economy in the world yet is still crippled by its biggest security threat – the drug trade. It encompasses the world’s third largest land border behind only Russia and China, with a total length of 16,145km which it shares with ten other nations. This vast area is over five times that of the USA-Mexico border and makes Brazil extremely susceptible to drug trafficking, accentuated by sharing this border with the top three cultivators of coca in the world; Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Additionally, not only is Brazil the world’s second-largest consumer of cocaine and largest consumer of crack, it serves as an important strategic transshipment country for Colombian, Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine destined for Europe and afar [4], illustrated by Figure 1.

Figure 1: Map showing the flow of cocaine from/to countries or regions, obtained from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2016. Available at: http://www.unodc.org/wdr2016/field/9.2.9_Cocaine_trafficking_flows.pdf

Largely as a result of the adverse consequences of this illegal multi-billion-dollar industry, Brazil has become one of the most violent countries in the world with a national homicide rate of 27.1 per 100,000 people [15], with other sources quoting up to 32.4 per 100,000 [23]. As drugs are smuggled through the Amazon wilderness violent crime has soared across the region with Amazonas cities such as Manaus recording homicide rates four times that of São Paulo, a city already notorious for its violence [1]. After passing through cities like Manaus, the drugs spread throughout the nation reaching as far as the North and South-Eastern corners of Brazil accompanied by the violence which comes with them. A 2012 United Nations report revealed a number of murders in Brazil between 2011 and 2015 which rivalled the Syrian Civil War – and these figures show no immediate signs of slowing down [11]. Indeed, over the past seven months Intelligence Fusion has mapped over 400 incidences of drug trafficking or murder across Brazil, with many of the latter related directly to the drug trade (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Incident Map obtained from Intelligence Fusion (Filters: Brazil; Drug Trafficking; Murders; 01.06.2017-16-01-2018). Available at: www.intelligencefusion.co.uk


The consequences of this issue have not only increased violence but have a profound effect on the economy, healthcare and wellbeing of the citizens of Brazil. As the effects of the drug trade spills onto the streets it also harms Brazil’s tourism sector, particularly in Rio De Janeiro [19]. As trafficking and violent crime figures have significantly risen over the past few years, the government struggles to tackle the drug trade.

Government Efforts to Tackle the Drug Trade

In 2006, the government introduced a new drug law aimed at clearly distinguishing between drug users and traffickers in order to tackle the issue, with both acts remaining a crime but with users facing social-educational obligations and only dealers and traffickers facing incarceration [17]. Although this law is still the basis of the juridical system today, it has received criticism over the years for its vague criterion which fails to effectively state what exactly constitutes personal use and therefore leaves the law open for manipulation and irregular discretion [15]. It has been argued that the lack of clear specification, combined with a historically tough on crime approach on top of public demands to tackle the issues of the drug trade has resulted in a highly repressive ‘War on Drugs’ approach which has failed to adequately balance a criminal justice and social-educational response [15]. Subsequently, as the government effectively adopted a mass incarceration policy and convicted ever more people as traffickers rather than users, this created an environment which in itself has derived its very own unfavourable consequences.

Since the introduction of the new 2006 drug legislation Brazil’s prison population has grown 66.7% from 401,236 to 668,914 people (December 2017), within a system built only to deal with an official capacity of 404,509 [24]. Of those incarcerated in Brazil’s underfunded and vastly overcrowded prison system, just under a third are convicted of drug-related offences representing a 350% increase from 2005 [16]. Therefore, aside from the direct consequences of a stretched prison system this has also created an environment behind bars which is dominated by criminal organisations and drug cartels who simply continue to run their illegal enterprises from the inside. Effectively, the government may have been rather successful in catching and incarcerating numerous traffickers, but once inside they control the prisons, still continue to send commands and essentially, as Brazil’s former State Secretary of Prisons Pedro Florêncio put it; “transform their cells into offices of crime” [2].

In addition to having seemingly little effect on the supply and demand of illegal substances, this prison environment has resulted in extreme violence between rival cartels who continue to clash inside prison over the lucrative trade-routes available outside [6]. Over the past few years a prison war has ensued between three of the largest drug-cartels in the country; the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) which ironically, was created inside prison due to repressive incarcerating policies, against the Comando Vermelho (CV) and their ally the Família do Norte (FDN) [13]. Though clashes between the cartels and prison riots are commonplace in Brazil, recent events have stressed the continued bloodshed stemming from the drug-trade. In the first eight days of 2017 nearly 100 prisoners were murdered when two prison riots took place over the control of the profitable trade routes in the Amazonas region [6]. The first took place on January 1st at the Anísio Jobim Penitentiary Complex in Manaus where 56 were killed with many being decapitated or burnt [9], and in retaliation four days later Boa Vista saw a second riot with 33 prisoners murdered and mostly decapitated [5]. Just over a week later in Alcaçuz prison located in Rio Grande do Norte a further 26 prisoners were murdered by the PCC in a related incident [18].

As recent as January 1st, 2018 nine inmates were murdered and 106 escaped during a prison riot in Goiás after gang members invaded three cellblocks which held rivals of another group, exactly one year after the massacre in Manaus [14]. Although these incidences are only a small number of drug-gang related violence that have occurred over the past few years, evidence would suggest the government efforts of mass incarceration have done little to tackle the drug trade and may have instead inadvertently ignited further adversities across the nation.

In an attempt to challenge the supply of drugs into Brazil the government has placed roughly 1,500 soldiers split between 24 garrisons along the Amazon border, and since 2011 two supporting operations ‘Sentinela’ and ‘Ágata’ supervised by the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence respectively [22]. Operation Sentinela is an intelligence-building effort and Operation Ágata conducts tactical missions along the border, though along with other security forces attempting to tackle the drug trade across this vast jungle region their resources are greatly stretched [19]. President Michel Temer has vowed to improve surveillance along the border, increase its patrols along the Solimões river (one of the main smuggling routes), and progress intelligence sharing with its neighbours, which has recently enjoyed some notable success (See Figure 3).

Figure 3: Incident Map including incident description obtained from Intelligence Fusion (Filters: Brazil; Drug Trafficking; 16.09.2017-16-01-2018). Available at: www.intelligencefusion.co.uk


Although the security forces are carrying out some substantial seizures they are still widely understaffed and large amounts of illegal drugs are continuing to pass through into Brazil. Many have argued that owing to its immense area thousands more police officers are required to deal with drug trafficking and that sporadic surveillance simply won’t work [12]. Marcos Vinicius Menezes, Police Chief in Tabatinga at the tri-border area has previously stated they are “thirty officers overseeing an area the size of France”, who are not only attempting to tackle the drug-trade but also protect the world’s largest tropical rainforest [19].

Brazil’s sea ports also play a vital role in drug trafficking, particularly those destined for the Western market and so authorities have continued to improve port screenings. These advances have led to recent noteworthy seizures such as over one ton of cocaine being discovered inside pineapple boxes at the port of Navegantes, and in Belém 300 barrels containing liquid-cocaine diluted in bitumen to disguise the substance [22]. Again, although these are significant results for law enforcement there continues to be a substantial number of successful trafficking efforts. These incidences also highlight the innovative methods traffickers will go to in order to adapt and evade authorities – in December 2015, Federal Police seized a small submarine in the Amazon which was destined to smuggle cocaine to Europe and the United States [21].

Technology continues to play a crucial part of the government’s effort to tackle the drug trade, especially in the Amazonas region where officers are putting their hopes to infrared and drones to assist them. As of 2017 Defence Minister Raul Jungmann stated plans to double their budget in order to finance a new border technology programme [19]. The six billion-dollar Sistema Integrado de Monitoramento de Fronteiras Terrestres (SISFRON) is an Integrated Border Monitoring System which was initiated in 2014 but is not expected to be fully functional until between the end of 2019 and 2021 [20]. The system has been described as a “true barrier of electronic surveillance” and is designed to constantly monitor the entire border from the State of Rio Grande Do Sol to Amapá and target crimes such as logging, smuggling and drug trafficking [10]. When fully operational the project will aim to optimise existing systems using radar, infrared, magnetic sensors and satellites, whilst incorporating various agencies with appropriate communication to deliver a rapid threat response to crimes along the border [3].

In recent years the issue of demand has also began to be addressed with Brazilian authorities actively promoting awareness and treatment programmes, including “Crack: It’s Possible to Beat It” Which includes a 24/7 call-in helpline which has registered thousands of calls since it’s been in operation. Other various projects have been launched such as the São Paulo de Braços Abertos (São Paulo with Open Arms) initiated in 2014 aiming to encourage the social reintegration of drug addicts, especially those located in the neighbourhood notoriously referred to as ‘Cracolândia’. The project provides employment, healthcare and accommodation for user’s and although currently only on a relatively small-scale, has shown promising results as a demand-reduction initiative which many hope will be replicated on a larger scale to tackle the drug-use epidemic [15]. Conversely, there are some who criticise the programme as it provides work and money to addicts who are not required to immediately give-up using, which critics argue simply puts the money back into trafficker’s pockets [7].

Concluding Remarks

As the Brazilian government continues in its efforts to tackle the drug-trade the evidence so far suggests a ‘War on Drugs’ approach has been ineffective and the high violence rates indicate there is a clear need for change. Going forward, many have demanded the prison and criminal justice system be reformed and that drug law legislation needs precisely define a universal guideline between users and traffickers, as to alleviate overcrowding and limit the quantity of potential prison recruits available for cartels inside. President Temer has recently stated he aims to build another 30 prisons yet a combination of this plus reforming will likely be required as to not simply strengthen the criminal gangs already operating on the inside. Others have also called for the decriminalisation of personal use of marijuana, though there appears to be a clear division of opinion regarding this issue.

In relation to supply, the use of SISFRON and increased law enforcement presence in the border regions may prove vital in the governments continued efforts to tackle the drug trade, though we must expect traffickers of this multi-billion-dollar industry will look to adapt and therefore domestic and international cohesion between agencies will remain fundamental. The recent use of demand-reduction programmes also highlights the need to tackle this issue from all fronts, hence we would expect more systematic research into the effectiveness of these schemes and for them to be implemented on a wider scale. The drug trade continues to be a considerable security threat for the government of Brazil, and their efforts to tackle it are paramount to challenging trafficking across Brazil, Europe and afar.


[1] Anderson, J. L. (2017) The New Yorker, ‘The Toll of the Drug Trade in the Brazilian Amazon’. Accessed on 13/01/18. Available at:


[2] Arnold, C. F. (2017) Foreign Policy, ‘Brazil Has Become a Gangland’. Accessed on 05/01/2018. Available at:


[3] Caiafa, R. (2017) Diálogo Digital Military Magazine, ‘A Look at SISFRON, Brazil’s Integrated Border Monitoring System’. Accessed on 08/01/2018. Available at:


[4] Central Intelligence Agency, The World Fact Book. Accessed on 18/01.2018. Available at:


[5] Clarín World (2017) ‘Another riot in a Brazil prison leaves 33 dead prisoners’. Accessed 14/01/2018. Available at:


[6] Clavel, T. (2017) InSight Crime, ‘Brazil Starts New Year with Series of Brutal Prison Killings’. Accessed on 13/01/2018. Avaliable at:


[7] Cowie, S. (2016) Al Jazeera, ‘São Paulo Strategy to Help Drug Addicts in Cracolândia’. Accessed on 11/01/2018. Available at:


[8] Cowie, S. (2017) Al Jazeera, ‘Brazil’s Prisons: A battleground in the Drug Wars’. Accessed on 12/01/2018. Available at:


[9] Cowie, S. (2017) Al Jazeera, ’56 killed, many beheaded in grisly Brazil prison riot’. Accessed on 11/01/2018. Available at:


[10] Defence-Aerospace (2012) ‘Brazilian Army’s ‘SISFRON’ Border Surveillance Program Provides Increased Security’. Accessed on 11/01/2018. Available at:


[11] Global Security (2017) ‘Favela War’. Accessed on 11/01/2018. Available at:

< https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/favela-war.htm>

[12] Maisonnave, F. (2017) Folha de S. Paulo, ‘Peruvian cocaine route attracts factions to the Amazon and generates a billion-dollar profit’. Accessed on 08/01/2018. Available at:


[13] Martinez, R. (2017) Vice News, ‘Prison Drugs Wars’. Accessed on 10/01/2018. Available at:


[14] Meixler, E. (2018) TIME, ‘Nine Inmates Dead, Dozens Escape as Riot Erupts in a Brazil Prison’. Accessed on 15/01/2018. Available at:


[15] Miraglia, P. (2016) Foreign Policy at Brookings, ‘Drugs and Drug Trafficking in Brazil: Trends and Policies’. Accessed on 12/01/18. Available at:


[16] Muñoz, C. (2016) Human Rights Watch, ‘Ten Years of Drug Policy Failure in Brazil’ . Accessed on 09/01/2018. Available at:


[17] Presidência da Republica (2006) ‘Law 11343/06 of August 2006’, accessed on 11/01/2018. Available at:

< https://presrepublica.jusbrasil.com.br/legislacao/95503/lei-de-toxicos-lei-11343-06>

[18] Simões, E. (2017) Reuters, ‘Brazil police separate gangs in prison where 26 killed’. Accessed on 12/01/2018. Available at:


[19] Soto, A. (2017) Reuters, ‘Deep in the Jungle, Brazil struggles to battle drug trade’. Accessed on 09/01/18. Available at:


[20] Szklarz, E. (2014) Diálogo Digital Military Magazine, ‘SISFRON Technology Helps the Brazilian Armed Forces Secure Border Regions’. Accessed on 08/01/2018. Available at:


[21] Telesur (2015) ‘Drug Submarine Caught in Brazil’s Amazon’. Accessed on 10/01/2018. Available at:


[22] United States Department of State (2017) ‘International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Volume 1 – Drug and Chemical Control’. Pp. 114-118.

[23] World Health Organisation (2012) ‘Violence Prevention Map. Accessed on 10/01/18 Available at:


[24] World Prison Brief (2017) ‘World Prison Brief Data: Brazil’. Accessed on 12/01/2018. Available at:



Report written by Matthew Fletcher

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