Crackolandia: Symbol Of A Plague Ravaging Brazil, Argentina, And Uruguay

By Dialogo
December 11, 2009

I'm looking for information that's more relevant in Argentina and Uruguay. Ragged, shoeless, and dirty, the drug addicts wander like directionless ghosts through the run-down historical city center of São Paulo, begging for coins to buy another rock of crack (cocaine base paste), eating occasionally, and sleeping wherever exhaustion overtakes them. This new and devastating drug, which has been wreaking havoc in the countries of southern Latin America in recent years, is at its height in São Paulo and its “crackolandia,” a district in the historical city center where the drug’s consumers cluster, giving the area a look of somber neglect. On weekdays, sitting on the steps of the cathedral or in the plaza, the addicts fade from view among the office workers in jackets and ties. But when night falls and on weekends, their mattresses on the sidewalk, their clothes, and their shoeless feet become more evident. “I smoke, I eat, I drink all day long,” Jean Janzy tells the municipal social workers who have just woken him up from a night spent on the grass in a public square, laughing as he talks. Eighteen years old, although his small build makes him look younger, Jean does not seem to care whether he has a safe place to sleep. “I’ve gotten used to sleeping in the street,” says the youth, who takes in around 200 reales (114 dollars) a day begging for coins from drivers, money that is spent on crack. Jean is entirely alone in this large city of more than twenty million inhabitants. He rejects the possibility of a bath and a meal, but he gives the social workers the name of his mother, whom he would like to see again. “There are many people dying in the street (...) they gave up, they don’t have anyone to support them” in getting off drugs, laments Carlos Alberto da Silva, a fifty-year-old homeless man who has watched how his refuge under a bridge has become crowded with drug addicts and their suppliers of late. “This is a drug that causes dependency very rapidly, and its devastating effects on the user’s health are also very rapid,” psychologist Wagner Abril Souto, the coordinator of the Adolescent Program at the Reference Center for Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs (Cratod) in São Paulo, explains to AFP. In addition, the fact that the drug is cheap and easily accessible complicates the panorama, he adds. Base paste or crack is a mixture of cocaine paste (unprocessed cocaine), ground glass, and chemical products (paraffin, benzine, ether, and sulfuric acid, among others), which lowers its price. Twenty-two-year-old Sandro Duarte Ribeiro’s girlfriend left him because of drugs. Covered by some pieces of cardboard, dressed in the same clothes he has been wearing for days, he “wakes up happy” at the social workers’ offer of help. “I want to get out of this situation,” have proper identity documents, and have food to eat, he recounts. But not all the addicts are inclined to give up their vice. “The crack itself makes them very crazy, and it’s difficult to approach them,” AFP is told by twenty-four-year-old sociologist Andrei Chikhane Massa, a participant in the municipal outreach program for the homeless to decrease the incidence of drug addiction and revitalize the center of the provincial capital. Being observed by someone else makes crack addicts very uncomfortable, and they shout at any stranger who enters their territory. Tense, aggressive, and paranoid as it is, they become even more nervous in the presence of the police. A heavily pregnant woman leaps up from the ground with great agility and hurls insults at the presence of an AFP photographer. She throws stones until military police personnel intervene to disperse the crowd that has gathered right out in the middle of the street. Her unborn child will probably have serious respiratory problems and suffer from abstinence syndrome, AFP learns from psychologist Fernanda Haedo of the Montevideo branch of the Manantiales Foundation for drug treatment, an institute which also has branches in Argentina and Brazil. The usual scenery in “crackolandia” is made up of groups of suppliers and addicts clustered against the walls, running figures when the police arrive, and unmoving bodies on the ground. “Wherever they get sleepy, they lay down and sleep,” says twenty-four-year-old social worker Erika Cristina Rodrigues. Sometimes “they are so fast asleep that however much you shake them, they don’t manage to wake up,” she tells AFP. The “cleanup” work being carried out by the São Paulo municipal government proceeds bit by bit, and although there has been progress, much still remains to be done. Men and women addicted to crack (known as ‘base paste’ in Uruguay, ‘paco’ in Argentina) continue to wander through the neighborhood, while vendors and residents, used to them, pass them by, picking up their feet so as not to trip.