MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – Rodolfo Sosa is burly, neat and serene, but when he looks at the mirror, he knows he hasn’t always looked this way.
For four years he used cocaine base paste and, by his own account, he was a complete mess.
“I look back and I can’t believe what I did, I don’t recognize myself as that person,” says Sosa. “It was unreal, like a nightmare.”
But Sosa, 30, has been clean for about two years after his addiction to cocaine paste caused him to neglect his family, his work and his life.
Sosa smoked cocaine paste for the first time when he was 24, introduced to the narcotic by some friends in his neighborhood on the outskirts of Montevideo.
“I tried it once and every once in a while I would use it again,” he says. “I started to use it more frequently, until the time came when it was what I lived for.”
For Sosa, the cocaine paste became a “jealous girlfriend” who “wants you all to herself.”
Cocaine base paste is an intermediary step in the cocaine preparation process, and it has been sold in Uruguay since 2002 as a stand-alone product. The sale of cocaine paste was due, above all, to the economic crisis unleashed that year in the country, as well as to increasing international restrictions on the chemicals used to turn the coca leaves into cocaine, according to the country’s National Drug Board (JND).
Unlike cocaine, which is white and primarily is inhaled through the nostrils, cocaine base paste is a semisolid, yellowish mass that is smoked in home-made pipes. It is sold in small doses which cost around US$3 apiece, but some dealers accept food, clothes and home appliances as payment. This does not occur with other drugs, such as cocaine, which in Uruguay costs about US$10 per gram (0.03 ounces), according to the United Nations.
“I never sold anything from my house that didn’t belong to me for drugs,” says Sosa. “I had my guitar to go out and sing with and I would get high on that money.”
Sosa studied carpentry for two years and worked in a factory, but his passion and income for the past dozen years has been singing popular Uruguayan music on public buses. His addiction, however, caused him to fight rage or panic attacks during performances.
“His mood was terrible, he stopped being affectionate and he never had enough money, he was always asking [for money],” says Carmen Gadea, Sosa’s mother. “He would say that someone had robbed his bike [or] stolen two or three cell phones – and that’s when I began to understand. On top of that, you would go into his bedroom and see strange packages and papers.”
Sosa lost more than 40 kilograms (88 pounds), since he was able to go three or four days without eating because of his addiction. He spent all of his money on drugs and when it ran out, he used his belongings for currency.
Repeated consumption of cocaine paste “produces anorexia, antisocial and violent behavior, psychoses and hallucinations,” according to a 2010 report published by the Clemente Estable Biological Research Institute (IIBCE), an entity overseen by the Ministry of Education and Culture.
The stimulating effect of cocaine paste is quick, taking between five to eight seconds to reach the brain, but the high generally doesn’t last for more than 10 minutes.
“This feature is what gives it a higher potential for addiction,” IIBCE researchers José Pedro Prieto and Cecilia Scorza state in the report.
“You fall into a state of indifference, you don’t realize that things are falling apart, at that point I was all alone,” Sosa said.
In the midst of his loneliness, he met Rosario Da Rocha, a woman 10 years older than he who lived in a “mouth,” a nickname given to the place where drugs are sold.
Sosa said they fell in love and went to live in the back of his parents’ house.
Cocaine base paste consumption in Uruguay
Uruguayan officials began seizing cocaine paste in 2004, and the amount of the narcotic confiscated by authorities has multiplied six times in five years, from 29.5 kilograms (65 pounds) to 184 kilograms (405 pounds), according to the JND.
But the amount of cocaine paste confiscated is far less than other drugs. In 2009, for example, local authorities seized 549 kilos (1,207 pounds) of marijuana and 2,467 kilos (5,427 pounds) of cocaine.
Likewise, the number of cocaine paste users is lower than that of users of other illegal substances, as about 0.8% of Uruguay’s about 3.4 million residents use cocaine paste, according to the National Home Survey on Drug Use conducted by the JND. This number is close to the number of ecstasy users (0.7%) and is much lower than the number of marijuana (12.2%) and cocaine users (4%).
But the number of cocaine paste users rises to 8% in the poorest areas of Montevideo, according to the survey.
“People think that cocaine paste is the drug of the poor, the icon of exclusion,” says Juan Triaca, member of the clinical team of Yellow Portal, a state-run addiction treatment center that opened in 2006.
Sosa and Da Rocha went to this free clinic after Sosa’s mother confronted them.
Gadea, 61, wrote her son a letter.
She was tired of confronting them about their problem without receiving an answer.
“I told him he had two roads to choose,” Gadea says. “One was jail, the graveyard or [the psychiatric hospital] Vilardebó, if he kept on this way. And the other was a very long path, very hard, full of difficulties, pain and tears. But in the end, he would come out just fine, and as a family we would always protect him and be by his side.”
Sosa said the letter told him he needed help.
“I didn’t feel bad about what I was doing until the moment I saw the suffering I was causing to my mother, my father,” he adds.
Sosa and Da Rocha have not used drugs since Dec. 2, 2008.
The road back
Gadea already had the address and clinical schedule of Yellow Portal well before she wrote the letter.
It was at Yellow Portal where Sosa’s path to recovery began. He went through days of withdrawal symptoms, endured weeks of being unable to go outside alone, and months without handling money.
“Everything was a disaster,” he said.
But the worst part was not singing for three months.
“It is very spiritual, from the depth of my soul,” he says. “And I had a huge weight on top of me.”
For about a year, Sosa’s treatment consisted of spending seven hours every weekday at the clinic. He received individual and group therapy, played sports and participated in artistic and entertainment activities on his road to sobriety.
His rehabilitation paid off.
Sosa has returned to singing on buses after serving as the director of the center’s band, “The Rescued One,” before he was discharged from Yellow Portal.
Since the start of the year, he had been attending treatment at the Yellow Portal one day a week before completing the program last month.
His progress will be tracked by Yellow Portal’s staff after three, six and 12-month periods. Da Rocha still is undergoing treatment.
A study published in 2008 by the institution indicates that 9 out of 10 cocaine paste users who come to the center are men, and their average age is 23. At the same time, 60.6% of those surveyed said they have been arrested and 53.7% have had legal problems.
Of those who previously have gone through treatment, 33.9% said they have finished it, which means they returned to the center after a relapse.
Sosa is trying to join the other 66.1%.
Yellow Portal has registered 2,500 clinical records since 2006. But officials estimate they’ve offered treatment to more than 4,000.
Gadea went to her son’s last session to thank every clinician who treated Sosa during his nearly two-year treatment.
Gadea and her husband are planning to move to the department of Treinta y Tres, where they are from, and leave their home in the nation’s capital to their son and Da Rocha, now his fiancée.
“I think I am ready and I trust the clinicians,” said Sosa, who aspires to record his first album. “I needed to be released to be able to work more, achieve something and close a chapter.”