Dispatch

New Jack Rio

Six years ago, crack cocaine was virtually unheard of in Brazil. Now it's out of control.

VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO — An adult man with dirt clods on his face stares silently at the perforated tinfoil lid on his plastic juice cup, a makeshift crack pipe. Behind him, Rio de Janeiro’s postcard-green hills shimmer above this battered favela slum, a 15-minute motorcycle ride from Brazil’s iconic Maracana soccer stadium. On a weekday afternoon, you can see young boys riding horses bareback next to a trashed former soccer field, now home to pigs, chickens, and hundreds of crack addicts clutching their own cups with tin lids.

Two decades after the United States saw urban centers like New York and Los Angeles devastated by the spread of crack, Rio de Janeiro and cities across Brazil are facing their own crises, threatening the gains against poverty and organized crime that have spurred Brazil’s recent sense of optimism and growth. A comprehensive study in the works by the government-linked Oswaldo Cruz Foundation has offered early estimates that Brazil has 1 million crack cocaine users, far more than was expected (this in a country with just under 200 million inhabitants).

The first and largest success story of the region — a third of Latin America lives here — Brazil has become a majority middle-class country that recently got a vote of confidence from risk agency Standard & Poor’s at the same time the United States’ assessment was lowered. Quality of life in Brazil is on the rise by nearly any measure — be it the expanding middle class, the government’s plan to eradicate extreme poverty through the much-touted "Bolsa Familia" cash-transfer program, a zooming currency that is allowing middle-class Brazilians to travel abroad like never before, or impressive public-works projects as the country prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. In Rio de Janeiro, its second-largest city and beating cultural heart, a new policing program slated to spread to other Brazilian cities is garnering praise for apparently achieving the unthinkable — beginning to place the hundreds of favelas long controlled by drug traffickers back under state control. Both Brazil’s and Rio de Janeiro’s staggering homicide rates have began to edge downward in recent years (though the national murder rate still puts the country in the top 5 percent worldwide).

But the rapid rise of crack use could turn these gains on their heads. The drug, virtually nonexistent in most Brazilian cities before 2005, has captured hundreds of new users in Brazil’s cultural capital ever since Rio’s largest drug-trafficking faction ended a de facto ban on selling the cheap cocaine derivative six years ago. While users are still concentrated in crime-ridden favelas like Jacarezinho, Coreia, Mandela, Morro do Cajueiro, and the Complexo da Mare, they are increasingly visible in Rio’s wealthy "asphalt" neighborhoods, like the downtown Centro and Gloria. Arrests related to crack jumped fivefold between 2009 and 2010 in the state of Rio de Janeiro, according to the state’s public safety ministry.

The drug has meanwhile infiltrated other Brazilian cities, such as the capital, Brasilia, and Recife in Brazil’s coastal northeast, where the state governor claims that 80 percent of murders are linked to drugs, mostly crack. It predominantly affects the young: A recent analysis by Rio de Janeiro’s Institute for Public Security estimated that, based on crime reports, 57 percent of users are under 24.

And where crack use has spread, violent crime has followed. In Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state neighboring Rio de Janeiro, a recent study linked crack to a quadrupling of the percent of drug-related homicides in the decade leading up to 2006. Belo Horizonte’s murder rate more than doubled between 1998 and 2008.

The study’s author, Luiz Flavio Sapori, says the lethal violence surrounding crack use comes from both dealers and users. In his Belo Horizonte case study, for example, he found that homicides stemmed from drug trafficking more than any other motivation, such as crimes of passion, revenge, or bar fights. He writes that crack’s particular danger comes not from the physical sensation the drug provokes but from its extreme addictiveness, which creates a habit of continual use and a cycle of urgent need and debt, leading to robberies and conflicts with dealers if a user can’t afford to pay.

If one visits Jacarezinho and Manguinhos, two of Rio’s cracolândias, it’s easy to see how debilitating the drug is to both users and a community. Almost one in five adults in the communities of Jacarezinho and Manguinhos have either used or are associated with the drug trade. The area is locally called the "Faixa de Gaza" (Gaza Strip) after the constant battles between traffickers and police. The influence of the drug’s short high is obvious in the public spaces here: Whereas a cocaine user would buy from a dealer and bring the product back to his home, crack users come from all over the state of Rio de Janeiro to huddle in parking lots and street corners to continually use the drug, causing increased tension between residents, traffickers, and police in these favelas. On a Friday evening in Jacarezinho and Manguinhos, between 500 and 1,000 users congregate on the sidewalks and soccer fields of the two small neighborhoods.

Within the cracolândia, with its soccer field and lines of addicts, are multiple bocas de fumo — literally "mouths of smoke," the colloquial term for where drugs are sold — guarded by young men with firearms, covered with tarps to shield them from the sun and helicopter view and lined neatly with thumb-sized bags of marijuana (selling for 10 to 100 reais, or $6 to 60), cocaine (5 to 50 reais), and crack (5 to 50 reais). Crack users will split smaller rocks for as little as 50 centavos each. A female crack addict with a concave stomach and a fresh black eye rushes toward a neighborhood nurse. Kids in blue and white public school uniforms pour out of a crowded grade school nearby as a crowd of anxious parents waits to walk them home past exhausted groups of users on the sidewalks. Easy access to drugs at gang-organized dance parties — called "baile funks" — gives young children the chance to experiment and become addicted. Drug-addicted children as young as 10 meander through the bailes on the hunt for crack, willing to prostitute themselves to get it.

With the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games looming, the Brazilian government has fought back — though many accuse the government of simply stamping out addiction when it gets too close to the stadiums and infrastructure projects that will host the upcoming games, not treating the underlying problems. The country has historically been progressive on drug reform, recently taking steps to legalize marijuana and generally prescribing an educational rather than a penal response to drug users. Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso leads the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which promotes a debate on drug legalization.

Crack, however, has inspired more hard-line solutions on a national level: police opening fire against drug gangs in the middle of densely populated favela neighborhoods and rounding up dozens of underage crack users to intern them in shelters (actions the Brazilian Bar Association has called unconstitutional), and a new fleet of unarmed drones monitoring the long western border with the Andean countries where cocaine originates, something President Dilma Rousseff has touted as a crucial tool for tracking drug shipments.

Pro-reform experts say the country’s police response to crack users and sellers has been too heavy-handed across the board. Even Rio’s innovative and widely praised "Units of Pacifying Police" program, which stations human rights-oriented officers in underserved favelas, has been criticized for only covering the slums that border on wealthy "South Zone" neighborhoods like Ipanema and future international games sites. With the rise of crack, "we’re seeing today a sort of backlash, a return, we’ll say, to a more repressive model with respect to this issue," says Leonardo Pecoraro Costa, a technical advisor on drug treatment and research in Rio de Janeiro’s state ministry for social assistance and human rights.

"We are still repeating practices that are not good, that lead the users farther from the state," says Rita Cavalcante, a professor at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro’s School of Social Service who works with drug users. She argues that Brazil’s policy toward addicts, despite including promising elements like Rousseff’s plan to train 15,000 new health professionals this year focused on treating addiction, is too heavily weighted toward law enforcement and public safety. For Cavalcante and others in her field, the "harms reduction" approach to drug use — which seeks out users to offer help proactively, rather than waiting for them to check into clinics — is the most effective method of countering the disease and malnutrition that follow drug use. Harms reducers can claim a victory with Brazil’s creative 1990s needle-exchange program, which was credited, among a host of other measures, with subduing what threatened to be a national HIV epidemic. A similar program in Portugal has implemented drug decriminalization and harms reduction programs with many signs of success: The number of hard drug and intravenous users has dropped by half since 2001. The United States banished its own crack problem by focusing on health-related interventions in addition to tough drug-sentencing laws. At the drug’s peak in the middle of the 1980s, the number of U.S. crack and cocaine users was close to 6 million, but it dropped by 75 percent over the following 10 years.  

Harms reducers in Rio distribute condoms to counter unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases and teach addicts to keep pipes to themselves in order to prevent passing communicable diseases like tuberculosis. But the Brazilian government doesn’t yet offer broad funding and support for this approach, which is still viewed as experimental.

At an early September meeting in Brasilia of the parliamentary Special Commission on Public Policies to Combat Drugs, policymakers and specialists said Brazil’s new focus will be fighting crack and that new legislation to counter drug use will be drafted in the coming months. But both the commission and the ruling government give little indication they will expand harms reduction programs or turn away from the more repressive stance the administration has adopted.

Brazil is maintaining the status quo with drug policy — combining repression and traditional care — rather than looking for creative approaches, according to psychologist and drug policy researcher Fabiana Lustosa Gaspar of the Rio de Janeiro-based social services NGO Viva Rio. "Politically, it is not easy. Many prefer to maintain the conservative side that’s always been done rather than innovate," says Gaspar.

Back in the favela, however, it’s clear that solving Brazil’s crack problem is going to take more than an evolution in drug policy thought. A psychologist interviewed users for a study at the nearby clinic to assess which state services addicts would willingly utilize. One group included two mothers, each of whom said they prostituted themselves to pay for the drug and used during their pregnancies; a trash-picker; and an out-of-work motorcycle deliveryman. 

The interviewer began the session: "The last time that you used crack, did something happen that you didn’t like?"

"That it ended!" several shouted in unison. Another added: "It’s the hour of sadness."

Taylor Barnes is freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. She tweets at @tkbarnes.

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