BOTUCATU, Brazil – After striking the city of São Paulo, the crack epidemic is spreading to the state’s interior.
Crack is the most-consumed illegal narcotic in the municipalities of São Paulo state, according to a 2011 survey by the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo (ALESP) with the participation of mayors from 325 of the state’s 645 cities.
Crack, which is present in 31% of the participating cities, was second only to alcohol – the legal drug present in 49% of cities.
The situation is worse in medium-sized cities, with populations between 50,000 and 100,000, where crack and alcohol are tied, with both cited as the most-consumed drug in 38% of these cities.
“During the last 10 years, crack became more accessible and affordable,” says State Representative Donisete Braga (PT), coordinator of the ALESP Parliamentary Front Against Crack and Other Drugs.
In addition to being cheaper and more potent than other narcotics, crack is being brought to São Paulo’s smaller cities by drug traffickers migrating from the capital, Braga adds.
“This is happening due to the needs of the market and the need for capital. It is basically a business decision, based on profit, like any other company,” says Naiara Martins, who studies social sciences at São Paulo State University (UNESP) and works as a researcher at UNESP’s Public Safety Observatory.
Taubaté has 18 minicracolândias
Located 140 kilometers (87 miles) from the city of São Paulo, Taubaté is one of the municipalities suffering the most from the crack epidemic.
City officials have identified 18 minicracolândias (mini-cracklands) – the name given to small-scale areas of crack consumption. Many of them sprang up after São Paulo police began dismantling the cracolândia (crackland) in the downtown area of the city of São Paulo.
The National Confederation of Municipalities (CNM) has identified high crack consumption in Ribeirão Preto, in northern São Paulo; Cananeia, in Vale do Ribeira; Guaratinguetá, in Vale do Paraíba; and Bauru, in mid-western São Paulo, among other cities.
Concern among residents
Crack is also spreading into cities that are viewed as models of public safety, such as Botucatu, located 235 kilometers (146 miles) from São Paulo.
In 2010, Botucatu was named by the Secretariat of Public Safety as the safest city with more than 100,000 residents in São Paulo state. The municipality has 127,000 residents and a relatively high Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.822, an indicator based on life expectancy, literacy, education and standard of living.
Located in a region with a strong agricultural base, the city is home to São Paulo State University (UNESP) and an Embraer factory, among other industries.
Infosurhoy.com went to Botucatu, where the residents expressed concern over the increase in crack consumption.
“It used to be hidden, but now the consumption is out in the open,” says a local teacher, Isabel Donida, 43. “Crack is the drug of the moment in Botucatu.”
“The city itself is quiet, but recently it seems that it’s gotten easier to buy crack,” says local clerk Valquíria Antunes Bartolli, 29, who lost a friend to the drug. “He grew up with me and gave himself over to crack. He was high all the time.”
The spread of the drug has not yet reached downtown Botucatu, which was revitalized three years ago. To keep narco-traffickers out, the Municipal Civil Guard (GCM) monitors the city’s plazas and other meeting spots for young people with surveillance cameras 24 hours a day.
“We don’t have a cracolândia [like the one in São Paulo] here,” says Adjair de Campos, the local Public Safety Secretary. “But there is crack consumption in the city’s outskirts.”
Accompanying a GCM patrol in Jardim Brasil, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Botucatu, Infosurhoy.com spotted crack users wandering the streets in broad daylight.
That was the case with Elisabete, who did not reveal her last name or age. She is very thin and has difficulty standing as she pointed to the unfinished house with broken windows where she lives with other addicts.
Nearby, Bruno Fabrício da Silva, 26, wanders aimlessly. He says he lives with his mother, but spends most of the day walking through the streets of Jardim Brasil.
Silva began smoking marijuana when he was 13 and discovered crack seven years later.
“It’s been two days since I’ve eaten or slept,” says Silva, who has been arrested three times for attempting to steal items to trade for crack. “I wanted to change my life, but I don’t have the strength.”
After three stints in rehab, Silva is back on the streets.
He smokes about 10 crack rocks a day.
Prevention and enforcement
The city of Botucatu is having problems with its prevention and enforcement in its fight against crack.
In order to avoid the emergence of slums and areas of consumption, a 2003 law requires lots for sale to include exterior lighting and paved driveways and sidewalks.
Last year, some bars had their permits modified, forcing them to close at 10 p.m.
Thirty percent of the 65 GCM officers are dedicated to combating narco-trafficking. They patrol the outskirts daily, providing support for the actions carried out by the Civil and Military Police. In 2011, the GCM helped arrest 170 criminals, including 34 involved in drug trafficking.
The GCM officers also give talks at local businesses and schools in order to raise awareness of narcotics.
Recently, the entity received R$388,000 (US$224,095) from the federal government to modernize its equipment and technology.
“The hardest part is catching the drug dealers at the time of the sale,” says inspector Weber Plácido Pimentel, who heads the GCM’s Special Preventive Actions Group. “We know who the dealers are and the drugs are probably hidden in some vacant lot, but we can’t make arrests without evidence.”
Many of the municipalities are unable to engage in the fight against crack because of a lack of funding, said Donisete Braga, the state representative.
“The survey we conducted showed that 95% of [municipalities] don’t receive financial assistance from the state in order to deal with the problem,” Braga points out. “The federal government only provides help to 12% of these cities.”
With 68 Psychosocial Care Centers (CAPs) and 482 hospital beds offering specialized care for the entire state, 37% of the local governments enter into agreements with rehabilitation clinics to provide treatment for drug addicts, Braga said.
In order to improve this situation, São Paulo State Gov. Geraldo Alckmin announced last month the addition of 700 new beds, in clinics owned or contracted by the state, during the next two years.
During the first half of 2012, 247 beds will be introduced, including 72 at a clinic being built in Botucatu.
“At the end of last year, the federal government released R$500 million (US$288 million) to São Paulo for the fight against drugs. We hope that the municipalities benefit from this,” says Braga, who is working on creating a statewide drug policy.
Santos receives mobile health units
In the city of Santos, the local government started an anti-crack Caminhos da Cidadania (Paths of Citizenship) program through a partnership with the Ministry of Health.
On Feb. 3, the city introduced its first mobile health unit, which will target homeless alcohol and drug addicts.
“We offer comprehensive care, with a focus on prevention and accessibility,” says Dorian Rojas the mental health coordinator at the Santos Ministry of Health. “Since these situations involve abuse, many people lose their social ties and their status as citizens.”
Offering comprehensive care means evaluating the clinical status of each patient prior to tackling his or her addictions.
“Often the person hasn’t eaten, they might have an STD (sexually transmitted disease) or show symptoms of tuberculosis. We’re going to approach them from that angle and not talk directly about the drug use,” Rojas says. “After that, yes, we can have a conversation and offer them the treatment they need.”
While the health unit was being implemented, the team of health professionals comprised of an occupational therapist, nurse, social worker, five harm reduction specialists and a driver, already was traveling through the streets of Santos, offering help.
“For example, we’ve realized that in some regions it’s best to make contact around noon because the majority of them are still under the influence of drugs in the morning,” Rojas says. “When we see pregnant women, they become our priority.”
During one of these trips, the team of health professionals found a user who had a talent for painting.
“We were able to gain access through his talent – at no point did we discuss drugs,” Rojas says. “But in the middle of the conversation, he asked for help in getting out of that situation.”
The vehicle, which is fully adapted to serve as a mobile health unit, will carry out testing for syphilis, hepatitis and HIV, and will collect a sputum sample for tuberculosis testing.
- Cristine Pires contributed to this report from Port Alegre, Brazil.