As Brazil Booms, So Do New Drug Routes

As Brazil Booms, So Do New Drug Routes

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Photo: Sao Paulo harbor

SAO PAOLO, Brazil--In this, the financial capital of the largest economy in Latin America, the current economic boom is fast transforming Brazil into the new transport point for the drug trade.

As Mexico’s War on Drugs takes its toll on the organizational structure of the drug cartels straddling the U.S.-Mexico border, the Narcos are shifting their operations closer to the source of the cocaine that fuels the global drug trade.

It is no coincidence that the escalated conflict with the drug cartels launched by Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who took office in 2006, has contributed to the new axis emerging in Brazil.

Drug Seizures Up 10 Fold

There, as the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports, seizures of illicit drugs in Brazil have climbed 10 fold, from 25 tons in 2005 to more than 260 tons in 2009. (See World Drug Report: 2011.)

This dramatic increase heralds the emergence of Brazil’s organized-crime syndicates as the emerging powers in the illicit drug trade. They are using Brazil’s history and geographic proximity to Africa to create new transshipment routes.

Brazil in South America and Angola in Africa are both former Portuguese colonies, sharing language, culture and historical ties that lend themselves perfectly to closer cooperation between Narcos in Brazil and their counterparts in the West African nations of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s economic boom is proving to be an embarrassment of riches for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. “The world is going through economic and financial turbulence,” Rousseff said last September. “But we’re living through a great moment.”

In this Bloomberg News article, reporter Alexander Ragir wrote that Rousseff “inherited just about everything a president could want from her mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva: an economy growing at a 7.5 percent annual pace and unemployment, at 5.3 percent, that was the lowest since at least 2001. Brazil’s Bovespa stock market index rose six-fold during Lula’s eight-year tenure, as iron ore, soybean and sugar exports boomed, driven in large part by demand from China.”

Routes Shift Through Costa Rica, Angola

It is this exuberant economy that encourages the emergence of Brazil as the new drug-link between South America and the world. Consider the two principles trajectories: Mexican cartels move their regional operations to Costa Rica to shift some trade routes; and Brazilian crime syndicates align themselves to open up new routes to Europe via West Africa.

As the Drug War in Mexico breaks down the cartels, Mexican Narcos have moved into Central America, recently settling in Costa Rica.

"I do not remember in our whole history a menace [like] this menace with organized crime," Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, told NPR’s Nick Miroff in December.

She continued, "During the '80s, you had forces fighting in the region, but they have a structure, they have an ideology, they were fighting for different ways of conducting the society — the problem was a political problem. This has to do with the survival of the institutions. It doesn't matter if it is from the left or the right; it doesn't matter what kind of ideology your government has."

The arrival of Narcos in Costa Rica is aimed at protecting the routes that deliver South American cocaine to consumers in the United States.

In Brazil, though, the booming economy provides a cover for expanding routes.

Brazil’s trade with Angola, for example, has tripled from $520 million in 2005 to more than $1.5 billion in 2009. In fact, Brazil opened the first Business Centre Apex-Brazil in the Angolan capital of Luanda in December 2010 to promote increased trade.

In this booming market, the drug trade has expanded exponentially. Last summer, for instance, the arrest of 23 Angolan “mules” at Sao Paolo’s international airport surprised no one.

As Angolan Airlines has increased its number of flights between Sao Paolo and Luanda, so have the number of arrests at Sao Paolo’s airport. But the rewards – and expanding air and sea routes between Brazil and Africa--are far greater than Brazil’s ability to patrol its airports and seaports.

To this equation, officials are now forced to factor another development: Narcos are wealthy enough to have assembled their own fleet of shipping containers and airplanes.

Narcos, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah

In an alarming development, financing for a fleet of aircraft, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports that Brazilian Narcos are working with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Hezbollah, primarily on air shipments from South America to Guinea-Bissau and Mali. From there, the drugs continue to Europe, where proceeds from drug sales fund both terror organizations.

The fear among security officials is the emergence of “narco terrorism,” where the drug trade fuels terrorism.

"When you have this high capacity for transporting drugs into West Africa, this means that you have the capacity to transport as well other goods, so it is definitely a threat to security anywhere in the world," said Alexandre Schmidt regional representative for West and Central Africa for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, of al-Qaeda’s emerging aviation network.

For Brazilian officials, one frustration is the porous nature of its borders. In June 2011, Brazil’s President Rousseff announced the Strategic Border Plan, aimed at allowing the Brazilian Army to send troops to key trouble spots.

The problem is that Brazil has almost 11,000 miles of borders, most of which run through jungles, and it is not clear whether the 30 warplanes designated to fly over border crossings with Argentina and Paraguay are sufficient.

Despite perceptions in the U.S., more people die violently in Brazil than in Mexico. The illegal trafficking of arms goes hand-in-hand with the emerging Narco culture in Brazil.

“Brazil has more gun deaths than any other country in the world, and so the phenomenon of arms trafficking is a major concern,” journalist Hannah Stone reported last July.

Drugs and Arms

Stone wrote, “According to a study on arms trafficking by the NGO [Non-Governmental Organization] Viva Rio, in collaboration with Brazil’s Justice Department, almost 20 percent of guns seized in the country are foreign produced, while others which cannot legally be sold in the country are legitimately produced in Brazil and then exported, before being smuggled back in.”

The flow of drugs and arms has begun to unsettle Brazilian officials, who are loathe to admit that their country is being swept up in the global drug traffic.

When the Strategic Border Plan was announced last summer, Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo told reporters, “We are creating a central coordinating body, the Joint Operations Center, where it will be possible to monitor operations online.”

In the meantime, as Mexico’s President Calderon--who will become a lame duck this July when Mexicans elect a new president--has vowed to intensify his War on Drugs.

Calderon hopes to have made it almost impossible for the Narcos to use Mexico as their operational base. That strategy, bloodied and violent, appears to be working--to the detriment of other nations, from Costa Rica to Brazil.

As many other nations have learned, Brazil is beginning to realize that as long as demand for illicit drugs in the U.S. and Europe exists, any nation can fall victim to becoming a transshipment point. This holds true for Brazil, the largest and wealthiest nation in South America, which is well on its way to becoming the new theater on the global War on Drugs.