Crack epidemic hits Brazil


Sao Paulo, Brazil

Glassy-eyed, rail-thin and filthy, hundreds of addicts emerged from doorways and alleys as dusk came to the once-grand Luz district in the heart of this city.

After quick transactions with crack dealers, they scrambled for a little privacy to light up their pipes and inhale tiny, highly addictive rocks that go for about $5 each. The image was reminiscent of Washington or New York in the 1980s, when crack cocaine engulfed whole neighborhoods and sparked a dizzying cycle of violence.

But this time, the crack epidemic is happening in Brazil, alarming officials and tarnishing the country's carefully cultivated image ahead of two major sporting events to be staged here, soccer's 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

In cities all over Brazil — from this gritty metropolis to the crown jewel of Rio de Janeiro and smaller places in the middle of the Amazonian jungle — nightfall brings out swarms of desperate addicts looking for their next fix in districts known as "cracolandias," or cracklands.

And like the crack wave that slammed the United States, the result here is the same — lives destroyed, families upended, neighborhoods made uninhabitable.

"Crack is an incurable illness," said Paulino, 50, a wiry, fast-talking addict who wouldn't give his last name as he explained his daily appetite for the drug. "I need crack in my blood. My sickness is like a serpent. What's the medicine for a serpent?"

With an estimated 1 million cocaine users, Brazil is being whipsawed by a problem that some leaders here once thought of as solely an American one. The trend carries worrisome ramifications for the country, whose population of 200 million includes a booming, new middle class, offering a promising market for traffickers, drug-control experts say.

"In Brazil, we have a similar situation to what happened in the United States in the 1980s," said Eloisa Arruda, who as secretary of justice for Sao Paulo state coordinates the region's anti-drug policies. "There's a big growth in crack use in public and people permanently in the streets consuming drugs day and night who are constantly supplied by traffickers."

There are key differences: Crack hit U.S. cities that were in decline, buffeting minority communities. The battle over the drug trade also led to a record number of homicides in American cities, as some districts became virtual war zones.

The U.S. response to crack involved locking up addicts and dealers alike, a strategy that filled up American prisons and later led some states to moderate their sentencing guidelines.

Brazilian officials, well aware of the U.S. experience, take great pains to explain that their response to the crack epidemic is different. Although crack is illegal, Brazilian officials view the problem as a public health matter in which the state has a paramount role in helping break addictions.

"We don't put drug users in prison," said Leon Garcia, a senior expert on mental health and drugs at the federal Health Ministry. "We have alternative penalties for these people because we don't believe prisons are the best places to treat them."

Out in Sao Paulo's cracolandia on a recent night, emaciated men, and a few women, crowded around pipes, the soft glow of burning rocks lighting up the darkness. Some huddled under blankets, guarding their precious rocks. Others walked the streets in a frenzy, looking for someone to sell them the day's ecstasy.

Although police have used sweeps to clear away addicts, on that night, teams of bored-looking officers stood on street corners, watching hundreds of addicts as they got their high.

"This is how it is all day long," said Isabel Campos, one of several health workers at the site who tried to persuade addicts to seek help. "They smoke all day, use crack all day. And the distribution takes place all day, too."

On one sidewalk, a man in a red baseball cap and dirty black windbreaker lighted up. He uttered his name, Washington, as one of the outreach workers told him that she wanted him to seek help.

"We are always here if you need us," she told him.

But he had nothing to say, going back to lighting his pipe, two other addicts at his side.

The reason for crack's fast spread here remains hard to pinpoint, but law enforcement officials talk of aggressive marketing by drug dealers and of Brazil becoming increasingly appealing to traffickers because of the long, porous borders it shares with the world's top three cocaine producers.

It is also a country far richer than it was even a decade ago. Thirty million Brazilians joined the middle class, and the country's solid economy has weathered the worldwide economic crisis. The affluence is everywhere — construction cranes dot urban landscapes, sleek new restaurants open constantly and apartments with bird's-eye views go for millions of dollars.

"Brazil is a big consumer of cocaine and its derivatives, among them crack, and that's also due to the buying power of Brazilians in recent years, a growth that's more apparent in the lower classes," said Arruda, the Sao Paulo state justice secretary.

Still, even as officials work to showcase the sophisticated new Brazil abroad, the drug underworld in this country has never seemed far.

A potent drug gang in Sao Paulo, the First Command of the Capital, has executed dozens of police officers in recent months. Authorities say drugs are flowing in from Bolivia and Peru, and the national homicide rate remains one of the world's highest, fueled in part by drug money, said Garcia, the Health Ministry official.

Officials devising anti-drug strategies say Brazil moved too slowly. Crack appeared here in the early 1990s, drug policy experts said, but it was only since about 2006 that illicit open-air markets began to proliferate.

"This wasn't given the weight that it should have, but instead was viewed as a small problem," said Rosangela Elias, who coordinates the city of Sao Paulo's health programs for crack addicts. "This wasn't talked about in a serious manner."

Last December, though, less than a year after taking office, President Dilma Rousseff announced a $1.9 billion prevention and addict-outreach program. The Health Ministry has played a key role.

Thousands of beds are being offered at Psychosocial Attention Centers, of which there are 80 in Sao Paulo, nearly twice as many as in 2005, Elias said.

On a recent afternoon at one of the centers, Antonio Sergio Goncalves, a psychoanalyst who has been working with addicts for 27 years, watched over roomfuls of addicts who had voluntarily come in. Some started out as alcoholics, he said, then moved to ever-stronger drugs before consuming crack.

"The rock works fast, gives them seconds of ecstasy, but it's seconds, just seconds," Goncalves said. "The effect passes, and that creates a situation of continued use. These people are easy prey."

Addict Marcelo Cordeiro, 39, said the feeling is much more intense than when using cocaine.

"Crack gives you euphoria, with morbidity. You know?" said Cordeiro, who was once a chef. "There are intense, intense feelings."

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Furyon London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam