“Here, the problem is grave, with lots of drugs crossing constantly,” said Alexandre Barbosa, one of 35 federal police officers assigned to this sector in Rondonia state in far western Brazil. “You see this region, where the frontier is separated by a river. So there are many ports. Every 100 meters, or sometimes less, you see a port. So you can move from one port to the other very fast.”
The tide is not favoring Brazil, which is facing the newest big trend in the transnational drug trade in South America.
Law enforcement and health officials say demand for cocaine and its highly addictive derivative, crack, is on the rise in Brazil just as traffickers are seeking new markets to take up the slack left by falling consumption in the United States. The challenge Brazilian policymakers face is like no other for a big consuming country: Brazil shares half of its 10,000-mile-long border with the world’s three biggest cocaine producers, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.
With somewhere between 1 million and 2 million cocaine users, Brazil has for years been the world’s No. 2 market, drug experts say. And the country offers cocaine traffickers an increasingly alluring market because of the huge growth potential spurred by a fast-expanding middle class.
“Brazil is being flooded,” said Bo Mathiasen, a senior United Nations counterdrug official who studies trafficking across the continent. “If you’re trafficking cocaine, and you know there’s a big and growing market, that’s where you want to go.”
A country that once saw large-scale drug trafficking as an American problem with little impact here is now squarely focused on carrying out a strategy that relies heavily on reinforcing the porous frontiers it shares with 10 countries.
Since announcing a strategic border plan in 2011, President Dilma Rousseff has deployed thousands of soldiers to the border, many of them with special police powers. The government also has moved to increase the number of law enforcement officers, which until recently numbered only one for every 10 miles of frontier, according to a federal auditor’s report. A fleet of aerial drones will be used to help monitor the most remote regions of jungle bordering Bolivia and other countries.
“We see this as a problem of security and, at times, a problem of national defense,” said Regina Miki, national secretary of public security at the Ministry of Justice. “It’s a problem of sovereignty.”