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Drug money to die for

By Harry Throssell - posted Monday, 16 July 2007

During Brazil’s traditional Carnival time early this year a six-year-old boy was caught in his seatbelt and dragged beside his mother’s car for 7km through Rio de Janeiro’s streets. He finished with head, knees and fingers torn from his body.

The horrific death of little Joao occurred during a botched carjacking blamed on “cocaine trafficking and the growing firepower of drug gangs”, according to a McClatchy-Tribune report in the Brisbane Courier-Mail.

When 25-year-old Australian Van Tuong Nguyen was hanged in Singapore in December 2005 for his involvement in the illegal transporting of heroin to Australia there was a huge national outcry about the death penalty. There was, however, little said about drug trafficking itself, why people like this popular young man choose to take such huge risks.


Australian Schapelle Corby was arrested in Bali, Indonesia, found guilty of carrying into the country an illegal substance, cannabis, and in 2005, at the age of 28, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. There was considerable controversy about her guilt or innocence, but little said about the drugs market.

After the Australian “Bali Nine” were arrested in 2005 for possession of heroin in Indonesia, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were sentenced in February 2006 to death by firing squad, and life imprisonment was imposed on Renae Lawrence, Scott Rush, Michael Czugaj, Martin Stephens, Matthew Norman, Si Yi Chen and Tach Duc Thanh Nguyen.

In April 2006, the sentences of Lawrence, Nguyen, Chen and Norman were reduced to 20 years. Then in September 2006, while the sentences of Chan (death), Sukumaran (death), Czugaj (life), Stephens (life) and Lawrence (20 years) remained the same, the sentences of the others (Rush, Norman, Chen and Nguyen) were changed to the death penalty. Unlike the Singapore case there was no national outcry in Australia about the death penalty imposed on six Australians, and no comment about the origins of the money supply for which they were risking these fates.

Australian Carl Williams, 37, is currently serving a jail sentence, which may not see him released before he turns 70, for murders connected with wars between criminal gangs in Melbourne’s drugs trade.

These deaths and long prison terms are part and parcel of the ongoing struggle between dealers, gangs and the police because of the huge sums of money to be made from selling illegal substances. But little is said about the customers who provide these funds.

Back to Brazil, where in December alone gang attacks, some in Rio’s richest neighbourhoods, left 19 dead. “Scores have died in the crossfire between gang members and illegal off-duty-police militias fighting for control of the city’s slums. Brazil has the world’s highest rate of firearm deaths and one of the highest homicide rates. Criminal gangs are in virtual control of large parts of the country.” The murder rate in Rio state is 62 for every 100,000 residents compared with less than six in USA.(McClatchy-Tribune).


David Busch of ABC Radio National’s Encounter program described the 600 favelas (slum districts) of Rio as communities characterised by overcrowding, poverty, unemployment, sickness, teenage pregnancy, violence, and crime, particularly drug trafficking. Rio’s 12 million inhabitants “live in one of the world's most violent and economically divided cities”.

In Rocinha district fireworks are set off to signal where the police patrols are operating. “As we make our way through the maze of back alleys and open drains of Rio's largest favela, it's not unusual to see even teenagers sitting by their back doors holding a hand-gun”, Busch reported.

A resident of Rio's most infamous slum Cidade de Deus (ironically meaning “City of God”) reported, “At night when we come home from work we have to dodge gun fire in the streets”. A television documentary showed teenage boys bringing out their rifles and handguns to take pot shots at a rival gang for their evening’s entertainment.

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First published in the Australian Fabian News as "Consumer Responsibility in Ilegal Drug Wars" in the March-June 2007 issue.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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