Opinion Brazil’s racist wave of mass incarceration

Clothing hanging from the overcrowded cells at a prison in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in November 2015. (Felipe Dana/AP)

Fausto Salvadori is a reporter for the news site Ponte Jornalismo in Brazil.

A few days ago, my son-in-law told me that he was on a walk with my daughter and grandson in the center of São Paulo, the most populous city in Brazil, when a group of police officers approached them. My 2-year-old grandson didn’t understand why the officers were pointing a gun at his father. I am 40 years older than him, and I don’t understand it either, much less accept it, although I know that situations like this are frequent in Brazil. Unlike my son-in-law, I don’t usually go through this. But I’m White. He’s Black.

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In a country that for so long has lied to itself by asserting that it is a “racial democracy,” I can say that the police have rarely approached me on the street, but my son-in-law says that at one point, he was accosted 20 times in a single year. This situation represents a real lethal threat for Black people: They constitute 56 percent of Brazilians but account for 79 percent of those killed by the police. There’s also the fear of being detained; 67 percent of the prison population is Black.

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The Anti-Drug Act, approved in 2006, accelerated a mass incarceration process that mainly affects Black and poor people and that the Brazilian government had been promoting since the 1990s. Following this law, the number of people incarcerated for drug crimes increased by 156 percent, according to research by Una guerra adictiva. Now, 1 in 3 prisoners is in jail because of this law. In the case of women, that percentage is over 60. This kind of incarceration — carried out in the name of the War on Drugs — is part of the reason Brazil is the country with the third-largest prison population globally. With about 750,000 inmates, it’s behind only the United States and China.

Intended to protect public health and Brazilian families, the Anti-Drug Act has instead served to promote the opposite. According to the Public Ministry National Council, an average of 1,550 people die each year in Brazil’s overcrowded prisons. In 80 percent of cases, magistrates do not allow imprisoned mothers to serve their sentences at home, which violates national and international standards. Pregnant women used to be handcuffed during childbirth, a practice that was only banned recently, in 2017.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. The Anti-Drug Act, enacted by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a center-left president, was intended to be more tolerant and less punitive by eliminating prison sentences for drug use and hardening them only for drug traffickers. However, in the absence of clear criteria to differentiate users from traffickers, the law allowed this distinction to be made, in practice, by police officers on the streets. And true to racist traditions, they began adopting race and class criteria: White people from wealthy neighborhoods caught with drugs were classified as users and released; Black people from poor communities were considered traffickers and therefore detained.

Black people make up 56 percent of Brazil’s population, but account for 79 percent of those killed by the police.

Prosecutors and judges are complicit with the use of this drug law to criminalize Black and poor communities. Surveys found that in 74 percent of drug trafficking convictions, magistrates rely solely on the police officers’ statements. If the defendant is in an impoverished and predominantly Black neighborhood, that alone is usually accepted as “evidence.”

This occurs even when the volume of drugs seized is minimal: In São Paulo, half of those arrested for marijuana trafficking didn’t carry more than 1.4 ounces. Sometimes, drugs are not even needed. In 2019, Ponte Jornalismo told the story of a Black candy vendor detained for 28 days for allegedly carrying a substance that looked like cocaine.

The ease with which the police can validate the arrest of any poor and Black person in court, based on the accusation of trafficking, has stimulated corruption through “flagrant kits”: drugs carried by some officers in their cars to be “planted” on anyone Black or poor who refuses to pay them a bribe.

In recent years, advocacy groups such as the Black Initiative for a New Drug Policy and the Brazilian Drug Policy Platform have fought to reform drug policy. However, any proposal clashes with the opposition of the far-right politicians who have taken over the country, led by President Jair Bolsonaro. A lawsuit seeking to fully decriminalize drug use has been stalled in the Supreme Federal Court since 2015.

At times like this, I can only think of my grandson and the world he will find when he grows up. I hope it’s a different one, where the drug wars are a thing of the past, and no one is humiliated or imprisoned because of the color of their skin. A world where he never has to tell me stories like the one his father recently told me.