The film, “Tropa de Elite”, is enjoying fantastic box-office success in Brazil. Whether or not it was José Padilha’s (the director’s) intention, the audience are presented with a defense of the theory that in order to rid society of a criminal, only another criminal is up to the job. Thus, to end the war between drug traffickers and the corrupt police force, the “caveiras” – professional torturers with the BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) – enter the scene.
The tradition of purging through the horror spectacle harks back to the ancient Greeks, but whilst the Greeks believed that our fate was in the laps of the gods, Padilha bases his film on the premise that it is circumstances that make the man.
If this is the case, then why do people act differently under identical circumstances and faced with the same incentives? Consider the following example (in Tyler Cowen’s new book): until 2002, UN diplomats enjoyed immunity from parking violations in New York. Between the end of 1997 and 2002, these diplomats accounted for 150,000 violations. On one extreme were those who parked in illegal spaces and failed to pay their fines. Kuwait had 246 unpaid tickets per diplomat, whilst Egypt, Sudan, Mozambique, Angola, Senegal and Pakistan all had hundreds of unpaid tickets. On the other hand, some diplomats always paid their fines. They came from Norway, Sweden, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, England and Japan.
The diplomats were all in the same circumstance of having the immunity to park where they wished and to decide whether or not to pay any resulting tickets. The differences stemmed from the values and culture each brought from their home nation. Diplomats hailing from countries where corruption leads to irresponsible behavior generally failed to pay their fines.
Perhaps Padilha is not simply alluding to more immediate conditions and incentives, but to the entire cultural stew in which we find ourselves. He suggests that consumers of drugs are responsible for the violence in Brazilian cities. Well, a world free of drugs has never existed and never will. For millennia, people have consumed alcohol and cultivated opium, cannabis and coca, and the influence resulting from punishing users is minimal.
The UN estimates the global value of trade in illicit narcotics of US$ 400 billion, which is equivalent to 6% of all international trade. Incredible profits bring wealth to criminals, terrorists and corrupt politicians and police. Numerous cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, harbor real States within the State; comprising a situation that would shock even a Godfather from the 20s, when Prohibition in the US provided an incentive for crime and led to the collapse of order in Chicago.
Since 1933, when the US ended Prohibition, it became clear that the experience had been a disaster – a real source of crime and violence. On the other hand, legalizing alcohol led to it becoming regulated and causing fewer mortalities than it had when it was sold on the black market or came from home-made methods.
Today, the illegal status of narcotics is an even bigger disaster than Prohibition during the 20s. The legalization of drugs would lead to drug use being treated in the manner it deserves: as a health problem. Responsible consumers should not be the subject of a public nature and legalization would reduce both the risks associated with unregulated products, as well as mortalities caused by overdosing. Furthermore, it would eliminate the need to obtain the products from criminals and would allow the treatment of addicts as dependents, and not as criminals themselves.
Would legalization open the gates to drug abuse? Well, we already live in a world where alcohol and psychotropic substances of every kind are available. The poor resort to sniffing gas or glue, a habit that is more devastating than the use of any narcotic. In addition, the government would gain another source of revenue, as is the case with the sale of alcoholic beverages, and it could use this revenue to sponsor educational campaigns and treat the illnesses resulting from drug use. The legalization of drugs is a necessary step in the reduction of criminality in Latin America.