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What if technology could undermine drug violence in Brazil?

A debate in Rio de Janeiro focuses on how access to information and technology among low-income youth might weaken the drug trade and empower young people in favelas.

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / September 6, 2012

A police officer patrols during an operation to take control of the Morro Sao Joao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Jan. 6, 2011.

Felipe Dana/AP

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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

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Al Jazeera and the Associated Press recently reported on drug dealers who’ve decided to stop selling crack in two large favelas of Rio de Janeiro. One of the many questions this unusual news brings up is the actual state of drug trafficking in Rio. The question is a central one, as we approach the mega-events [like the World Cup and Olympics], as the number of police pacification units mounts (up to 26 as of this week), and as journalists make statements such as:

Let’s stop kidding ourselves: Rio will never be safe. The violence can only be contained, and only through random good fortune. I’ve seen it from both sides: with the cops in body armor and with the drug traffickers who control the favelas, blowing the life expectancy graph if they pass 20.

How solid is the business, really?

We often think of the drug trade as monolithic bad guys who are just there, who may fight among themselves, and change addresses with the arrival of a police pacification unit, but whose methods and overall grip are an urban constant. But, according to a former top police commander [Mario Sergio Duarte, cited by the AP], ”dealers turned to crack when their other business started losing ground within the city”.

The story continues: “Police started taking back slums long given over to the drug trade as Rio vied to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. The plan disrupted trade, and the factions began hemorrhaging money, said Duarte. Crack seemed like the solution, and the drug flooded the market.”

Some specialists say the traffickers’ grip was weakening long before the advent of pacification. One analysis points to the rise of synthetic drugs such as ecstasy, sold by middle class dealers – driving lucrative cocaine out of favelas – as the real reason crack-selling (and thus using) spread here.

There seems to be no consensus narrative for the carioca (Rio) drug trade, and many unanswered questions.

For example, how are the capos now swearing off crack making a living? Are they earning more from marijuana? Has marijuana increased in price? Is demand for it growing in favelas, as residents’ disposable income has (presumably) increased? Is it growing in the formal city as well, for the same reasons? What’s the effect of pacification on drug prices?

Please, someone study this!

And then there are the actual people involved, aside from the traffickers themselves. If before pacification thousands of young people in favelas spent time working in the drug trade and/or using drugs, how are they spending their time after pacification? Police pacification units now serve 600,000 cariocas.

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