organized crime

The Brazilian Drug Trade in Maps

Map by Addicted04 at
Map by Addicted04 at

I am currently working on a research project comparing the drug trade in Mexico with its counterpart in Brazil. I have an outstanding undergraduate student, Tony Zamoro, working on this project with me. It has been a great deal more difficult to find information on Brazil’s drug trade than Mexico’s, but he has managed to locate a wide range of maps -from Insight Crime, Newsweek and other sources- that display the drug trade and cartels visually. Here are some links to these maps.

Homicides in Brazil

Mexican Prisoners in Latin American Countries

Drug Routes in the Amazon

Favela Pacification in Rio de Janeiro

Areas of PCC Influence

Olympic Zones and favelas in Rio de Janeiro

What I find most interesting about the maps is that they often focus on favelas, rather than individual states. Of course, the PCC has influence throughout most of Brazil. The Mexican drug cartels also often overlap. For example, the situation in the state of Guerrero is complex, while even in Sinaloa -the home of the Sinaloan cartel- the drug cartels still compete. There are also areas in Mexico -such as Juarez- where competing cartels seem to have fought each other to a state of exhaustion, as the falling death rate in this city suggests. My point here is that there are similarities between the nature of drug cartels in the two countries. Still, the Brazilian drug trade is much more defined by the control of small urban environments, rather than broad swathes of territory, as is the case with Mexico. My question is: how has the differing character of the two countries’ borders shaped the geography of the drug trade and the character of the drug cartels?

The Brazilian drug trade is also driven by the diverse mix of drugs used within Brazilian urban areas, unlike in Mexico where rates of drug use have been lower than in the United States. In 2005 I interviewed drug traffickers and users in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The drug market there was stratified by age. Older users were more likely to inject drugs, including cocaine, whereas younger users more commonly used crack. It was also the case that people often varied the drugs that they used, even within a single day. The Mexican drug cartels also have diversified, but the Mexican drug market internally is perhaps not as large or as complex as Brazil’s.

If you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Video Review: the Knot: a deliberate human act

"Part Of A Globe With Map Of South America" by digidreamgrafix at
“Part Of A Globe With Map Of South America” by digidreamgrafix at

In an earlier post, I talked about what appeared to be a case of bioterrorism in Brazil, in which someone deliberately introduced a fungus, called “Witches’ Broom” into the cacao growing region of northeastern Brazil. Dilson Araujo posted a comment, in which he talked about the documentary he had made on the topic, which had kindly posted to Youtube. I’ve watched the video, which seeks to describe the immense impact that this event had, and to explore why there the Brazilian state failed to appropriately investigate the crime. More than just a documentary, this video represents an important historical document, which contains eyewitness evidence about events during that terrible period from 1989 through the early 1990s. The film is sub-titled in English, and makes for gripping viewing, in particular in the final twenty minutes.

One of the common beliefs about Witches’ Broom was that if it had been introduced deliberately, the reason likely was a political one, to undermine the power of the great landowners. This idea seems to concern the film-maker, because the documentary began with a fairy-tale history of witches’ broom, in which a female narrator described how this event freed rural workers from the oppression of the northeastern countryside; at the end of this story, the narrator was revealed to be a witch. Paired with the following scene, in which President Dilma Rousseff announced a Truth Commission in Brazil, I at first feared that the documentary might be a polemic. Instead, the director wanted to make the point that in Brazil there are many truths. Sadly, because of the inequality and rural oppression that did exist in Brazil at the time of the crime, those who were victimized seemed at times almost defensive. One of the points that an interviewee made was that the majority of cacao producers were not people of great wealth, as over 90% had fewer than a 100 hectares. …

Falling Demand for Mexican Marijuana

"Seeding Poppy Heads" by Simon Howden at
“Seeding Poppy Heads” by Simon Howden at

In an earlier post, I talked about the move to decriminalizing marijuana in the Americas. What struck me last August how quickly this idea has gained political momentum, both within the United States and internationally. In the United States, medical marijuana is legal in 40% of states, while the next state to fully legalize the drug for recreational use may be Alaska. A recent article in the Washington Post examines the impact that this trend is having both in the United States and in Mexico. On the positive side, in Sinaloa the demand for marijuana has collapsed, with current prices just a quarter of what they were five years ago. Nick Miroff quotes one Mexican farmer about this economic transformation: ““It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.’” While this economic change should weaken the power of the major drug cartels, it has also had an unintended consequence: Mexican farmers are transitioning to opium, which is used to produce heroin. According to the article, Mexican cartels have adopted heroin as their key product, and they are pushing near treatment centers in the United States. …

The Dangers of Nuclear Energy: Japan, France and the US

"Nuclear Power" by xedos4 at
“Nuclear Power” by xedos4 at

There have been some intriguing articles recently about nuclear energy, which demonstrate the challenges entailed with obtaining power from this resource. An article in Reuters described how homeless people are being recruited to work in the nuclear cleanup in Fukushima, Japan, because few other people are willing to take on such a dangerous task for minimum wage. The people recruited for this work are not the highly trained and motivated, but rather the most vulnerable. Sadly, major criminal syndicates appear to be involved in the recruitment process, which has meant that there are serious failures in oversight and record keeping. Another article has described how the farmer Masami Yoshizawa illegally entered the forbidden zone around the nuclear power plant to save cattle abandoned when people were forced to flee in the aftermath of the disaster. He described a horrible scene of neglect, in which cattle died with their mouths in their feeding troughs, as they waited for their farmers to return and care for them. The government does not know what to do with Masami, and so he is not officially recognized as living there, even though (my favorite detail) he still has his electricity and his telephone turned on. The nuclear disaster continues to have a major economic impact on the country; for example, South Korea still refuses to buy Japanese seafood. …

Cicada 3301

"Cicada" by thawats at
“Cicada” by thawats at

I have covered many international mysteries on this blog, such as the strange story of the Arctic Sea, the puzzle of the Vela Incident,and the peculiar case of the ghost ship the Baltimore.  I’ve noticed that these posts usually are among the blog’s most popular. I don’t think, however, that any of these mysteries perhaps is as strange as the new puzzle of Cicada 3301. If you are curious, you will want to read Chris Bell’s account in today’s National Post. Bell describes how amateur cryptographers and hackers were enticed by a message in an internet forum called 4chan in January 2012, which appeared to contain hidden information encoded in the form of steganography. Those who tried to solve the problem soon walked through a door into an Alice of Wonderland world, with multiple cryptographic challenges. This puzzle was posed by an organization (almost certainly not an individual) with eclectic interests, which ranged from Mayan numbers to a British occult figure. How many groups would include references to medieval Welsh literature and King Arthur in the midst of an advanced cryptographic mystery? What was most staggering about this project was not the skills of the individuals involved -although they were prodigious- but rather the fact that their motive and identity both remained unknown. They appeared to be recruiting for some secret organization. Guesses about its identity have ranged from the NSA to the hackers group Anonymous. It could be a government agency, organized crime or a private firm. Some people even argued that this was an alternative reality game. But if so, it would have taken a group with immense resources (or that was very skilled at mass collaboration) to pull it off. …

Decriminalizing drugs in the Americas

Map of America by Stuart Miles at
Map of America by Stuart Miles at

I’ve talked before in this blog about the idea of decriminalizing drugs as some European countries, such as Portugal, have already done. What is surprising is the rapidity and momentum behind this idea throughout the Americas. In November 2012 both Colorado and Washington decriminalized marijuana possession. Indeed, in Washington State the police recently handed out Doritos (along with a new marijuana legal fact sheet) at a public pot smoking event. But events in these states represent only the vanguard of a much larger movement. …

The Zetas: a Flawed Victory in Mexico’s War on Drugs

Earlier in this blog, I’ve discussed the Mexican drug war and the narco-blogs that have covered it. Calderon will leave Mexico’s presidency at the end of the year, but the drug war appears to continue unabated. As someone who began his career studying the Latin American military I have followed events closely. One of the aspects of the conflict that has struck me has been the extent to which the Mexican armed forces have relied upon the navy in the conflict, likely because the drug cartels have extensively infiltrated the army. Indeed, perhaps the most powerful cartel, the Zetas, emerged from within the armed forces itself. Now we have truly remarkable news coming out of the Mexico, that marines managed to kill the head of the Zeta cartel, Heriberto Lazcano. If true, this represents a striking victory for the government. Or it would, except that heavily armed members of the cartel promptly stole the body from the funeral home. If the armed forces cannot even provide security for this body, how can they impose order on society? Still, despite this strange loss, the Zetas have suffered from a series of deadly blows over the last year, and their power is waning. Lazcano’s death would surely accelerate this process. Still, this victory seems unlikely to change fundamentally the dynamic of the drug war, which grinds on. In the meanwhile, check out this excellent piece by the New York Times on Lazcano’s death, and the disappearance of his body.

The Mystery of the Arctic Sea

"Sea Victim" by Evgeni Dinev at
“Sea Victim” by Evgeni Dinev at

In July 2009 the world was fascinated by the mystery surrounding the cargo ship the Arctic Sea. American owned, Canadian operated, based in Malta, and with a Russian crew, the ship had taken on a load of timber in Finland, which it was delivering to Algeria. It never arrived. After passing through the English channel, its tracking system was shut off, and the ship disappeared from the world. It was amazing enough that in an era of satellites and modern navigation systems an entire ship could disappear. But then came the remarkable announcement that in July the ship had been taken over by pirates in the waters off Sweden. The men had approached the ship, and -in English- claimed to be police. They took over the ship, and interrogated the crew, before leaving hours later. But first they allegedly had disabled communications equipment and confiscated the crews’ phones. This was unusual enough, as there had been no pirates in the Baltic in living memory, or for centuries for that matter. The ship was in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Even stranger, however, was what happened next- the ship continued on its way without stopping for authorities to investigate the crime (for a timeline of events, click here). …

Narco Blogs: Following Mexico’s Drug War

In an earlier post, I talked about Mexico’s drug war. Because the cartels have murdered journalists, and infiltrated news organizations, it can be difficult to follow the conflict using the main-stream Mexican press. For this reason, Mexicans themselves have increasingly turned to blogs that cover the conflict -so called Narco blogs- to gain information that may be difficult for conventional reporters to print. At the same time, some of these blogs clearly play to people’s interest in sensationalism, and most sometimes contain videos or photos that are disturbing and violent, or even have been filmed by the cartels themselves. The bloggers are also facing pressure, although sometimes it is unclear from whom the threats are coming.  In particular, Mexico’s Blog del Narco has had trouble remaining accessible, which has attracted media coverage in the United States. Still, for students interested in Latin America, and what is happening in Mexico, these blogs are a useful resource, particularly if they speak Spanish, so I wanted to list a few here. …

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