Drug policy and violence on the program at Latin America’s biggest literary festival
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Drug policy and violence on the program at Latin America’s biggest literary festival

Mexican drug cartels, human rights crises and the collusion between criminals and the state: these are not topics one might expect to hear about at a literature festival. But Flip Festival in Brazil is a literature festival with its finger on the political pulse.

The 13th Paraty International Literary Festival, or “Flip” in Portuguese, took place in the picturesque beach town of Paraty in Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil, in early July. Latin America’s biggest literature festival brought together writers from the continent and further afield to bring an international perspective to big themes in contemporary writing.


Flip Festival poster.

“Big themes in contemporary writing” don’t get much bigger than the international ‘War on Drugs.’ One of the highlights of the festival program was the panel discussion entitled “Guerrilla Journalism”, which saw Ioan Grillo, British journalist and author of “El Narco: the Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels” (2011) speak alongside Mexican journalist Diego Osorno, whose latest book Contra Estados Unidos. Crónicas desamparadas, (Helpless chronicles against the United States) was published in 2014.

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Ioan Grillo and Diego Osorno at Flip Festival.

The panel was hastily arranged after the last-minute cancellation of the headline Flip guest, Italian writer Roberto Saviano, due to security concerns. Saviano has lived under heavy police protection since he published the international best-seller “Gomorrah” (2006), which exposed the workings of the Italian mafia.

“White petroleum,”

Saviano was due to speak about his latest book, “Zero Zero Zero” (2013), on the international cocaine trade. In an exclusive video message to Flip recorded by the author and watched by over 75,000 people when shared on Facebook, Saviano spelled out his book’s Brazilian connection.

“The book’s heart is in Latin America. And Brazil plays an important role in the global cocaine trade.” Brazil, home to approximately half of the population of South America, is used as a bridge country for cocaine trafficked to Europe, and is one of the world’s largest cocaine consumers too.

Saviano explained why the cocaine trade, which he labels “white petroleum,” is so lucrative and consequently causes so much violence. “If you invest $1000 in cocaine, after a year you would have $82,000. It’s this huge amount of money that justifies all the violence that, for example, you Brazilians and we Italians know well and see on the streets.”

Mexico has also suffered dramatically from the consequences of the global ‘War on Drugs,’ which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Mexicans since 2006.

Grillo and Osorno both stressed that the War on Drugs is more than just a crime issue. “It’s about the economy, it’s about health, it’s about politics,” said Osorno.

Osorno linked the rise of violent drug cartels in Mexico to the period after the country’s transition to modern democracy in 2000. “The (drugs) war finished with the idea that we had that the country had entered into a democracy in 2000, not just because Institutional Revolutionary Party returned to power (in 2012) but also because soon afterwards we went back to considering that having the army patrol our cities was normal, in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Chihuahua.” He described the feeling of an occupied state. “For long periods you didn’t just have the police taking care of cities but the army too. This seemed to me to be a step back for a democracy.”

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Diego Osorno at Flip Festival.

He described the disastrous consequences that drug-related violence has brought to his country. “Thousands of people executed, thousands of people disappeared, thousands of people tortured, thousands of people detained arbitrarily,” he said. “And the only thing that is visible on the international level is the Iguala massacre, the disappearance of 43 students last year. But this is just a small example of a much deeper hidden human rights crisis.”

A model in crisis?

However both Grillo and Osorno agreed that the global conversation around drugs is changing. “The debate has transformed massively. For most politicians it was impossible to even mention legalization four or five years ago,” said Grillo, speaking after the panel.

“The global model of combating drugs is collapsing; it no longer functions,” said Osorno. “And it finally seems that the international elite, through the UN Assembly that will happen next year, is increasingly aware of this failure,” he added, referring to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, due to take place in April 2016. “What we need to do is come to an agreement about how to go about decriminalizing some of the heavy drugs that are producing huge violence.”

The two journalists spoke about the risks of their profession, especially in Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practise journalism. Grillo said he thinks journalism has been made riskier by the democratization of media. “The cartels think they no longer need the media, as they can make their videos and put them online, making journalists more vulnerable.”

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Saviano speaking at Flip. Photo: Youtube

Saviano, under constant threats to his life, reminded those watching his message that in many respects he is lucky: his voice has not been stifled. “There are many of us living in these conditions, and I am one of the privileged ones. Because I know that I can speak out. For many others this is not possible.”

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