Wall Street Journal - January 21, 2012
-- Hampered in the U.S., Drug Traffickers Find a Replacement;
Skeletal 'Zombies' Rule Sao Paulo's Cracolandia After Dark
SAO PAULO, Brazil - A crack cocaine outbreak reminiscent of the
one that devastated U.S. inner cities in the 1980s is starting to
take hold in this South American nation, as drug traffickers
facing more difficulty selling into the U.S. are pioneering
In Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city, what to do about the
hundreds of zombielike addicts who by night wander a downtown no
man's land known as Cracolandia, or Crackland, has become a key
issue for local elections this year. But mayors from Rio de
Janeiro to outposts in the Amazon lament that dangerous
cracklands are sprouting in their cities as well.
Underscoring the difficulty of a controversial bid to remove
crack use from Sao Paulo's downtown, police units Friday
descended on dozens of users who had returned overnight to a
desolate city block that had been cleared in a previous raid.
Among the arrests: a 15-year-old boy carrying 1,500 crack
"rocks," cash and cellphones.
Rio's mayor said this month he would create a special crack
police that could be deployed to the hardest-hit slums. In
December, President Dilma Rousseff said the nation will spend
around $2.5 billion by 2014 to combat crack nationwide.
Brazil illustrates a global trend. Cocaine traffickers are
successfully exploring new markets to offset steep declines in
U.S. cocaine use in recent years. Though the U.S. is still the
world's biggest cocaine market, its share is shrinking as the
result of greater domestic spending on prevention, stronger
enforcement, and users switching to other drugs, authorities say.
As the illegal cocaine business recalibrates to U.S. progress in
fighting it, cocaine production is migrating from Colombia, a
close U.S. ally in combating drugs, to Peru and Bolivia, where
populist leaders have less interest in combating it. As much as
80% of cocaine in Brazil comes from Bolivia, Brazilian police
say. Brazil's national police now works closely with the U.S.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents to develop strategies for
slowing the flows.
Users in the U.S. consumed some 165 metric tons of cocaine in
2008, down from 267 metric tons in 1998. Traffickers offset these
declines mainly by expanding markets in Western and Central
Europe, where cocaine use grew to 126 metric tons in 2008
compared to 63 metric tons in 1998.
Traffickers are reaching increasingly down to emerging-market
countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, where
consumption is also rising. In the case of Brazil, the country
has doubled as a transit route to the growing markets of Europe,
adding to the quantities of cocaine moving through the country.
Brazil's 900,000 cocaine users makes the country one of the
world's biggest markets for the drug. For dealers, the profits
are smaller, but the risk of prosecution and jail is also much
lower than in the U.S., experts say.
"Drug-trafficking organizations seek the path of least
resistance, and Brazil is becoming a replacement market," said Bo
Mathiasen, a senior United Nations drug official based in
U.N. drug officials say the most recent trend is a push to ship
cocaine east to a growing population of users in South Africa, as
well as west from Bolivia, through Chile and on to potential
growth markets in Australia and New Zealand, said Mr. Mathiasen.
The rise of crack is an ominous development in the trend.
Powerfully addictive and sold in cheap nuggets to users who can't
afford powdered cocaine, crack's inroads may stress creaky
public-health systems and exacerbate already-high crime rates in
Brazilian cities, experts say. In Sao Paulo, robberies are up
Dealers in Rio, which will host the 2014 soccer World Cup finals,
appeared to be trying to tap Brazil's love of the game to market
their wares. Police raiding a favela, or shantytown, in Rio on
Jan. 11 confiscated crack rocks in packaging emblazoned with the
face of Ronaldinho, one of Brazil's most prominent stars.
Studies conducted in the U.S. linked crack use with rises in
violent crime and HIV infection in U.S. cities such as Washington
and New York in the 1980s. U.S. crack use declined sharply in the
1990s, and a debate remains as to whether law enforcement caused
it to fall, or whether the brutal toll crack takes on its users
led the epidemic to burn itself out.
To be sure, crack cocaine has been in Brazil for years, and the
rundown blocks around Sao Paulo's Victorian-era Luz train
terminal - the area now called Cracolandia - have been a skid row
for longer. But by all accounts, both the local population of
users and the supply of crack are exploding.
Before the military police moved in, radio traffic reports
occasionally noted when throngs of crack users were overflowing
into nearby thoroughfares and blocking transit. Nearby shop
owners rue the garbage strewn on most street corners, a sign of
users sifting for something to eat or sell.
"They are people who are dying on their feet, like zombies," says
Angelo Jose Odines, an underwear wholesaler in the area for four
decades who doesn't plan to move. "The key is leaving this
district before nightfall."
On a recent night, mobs of skeletal figures ambled in darkened
streets. Some draped filthy blankets over their shoulders or
heads in the drizzly chill. They swarmed when a dealer arrived.
Flames flared from crack pipes in the darkness. Police cars
patrolled slowly but didn't intervene.
The experience of Washington Pereira Ramos, a rail-thin
40-year-old user with sunken cheeks, underscores crack's pull. He
said he usually spends several days awake using the drug,
stopping to beg for the $2 he requires for a hit. When he sleeps,
he does it for a day straight under a highway overpass. He eats
from the garbage, or an occasional soup served at a church, to
save all his centavos for crack.
"Crack is like my wife, and I've loved it since my first taste,"
Mr. Ramos said.
A campaign to clear Cracolandia began on Jan. 3. Police arrested
dozens and recovered large quantities of crack. Workers
demolished some buildings used as crack dens and bricked in
others. But critics note that Mr. Ramos and other users simply
spread out along the edges of the operation. The simple reason is
they have nowhere to go: Most treatment centers are full, and
others are yet to be built. Dealers, many of whom are users
themselves, arrive to make sales unimpeded.
The "pyrotechnic" intervention only "dispersed groups of
homeless," Marta Suplicy, a former Sao Paulo mayor from Ms.
Rousseff's Workers Party, wrote in a major Sao Paulo daily
newspaper earlier this month. Analysts say the drug issue will
feature in this year's Sao Paulo mayoral race - a key test for
parties ahead of the 2014 national election.
Activists for the poor and homeless have blasted heavier policing
as inadequate for dealing with the problem if treatment for
addicts isn't part of the mix. Police officials defend their
action as the beginning of a long-term effort to provide
security. Officials note that more treatment centers are due to
come online soon and that a police presence must be part of any
Some local business owners suggested police action had more to do
with real-estate speculation than stopping drug use. The crack
problem is simply being relocated to make way for development
plans around the train station, says Gilson Vieira da Silva, who
runs a business selling used computers a few blocks from the
Inside the Hotel Imperial, one of a string of downtown
establishments notorious for crack-related prostitution, the
burned odor of crack smoke hung in the air. A group of young men
with gold chains and gelled hair hanging around the front desk
said business was as usual.
At Cristolandia, a crack outreach center set up by an evangelical
church, business is booming. The group has opened three new
centers in the past year, says Jose Roberto Souza, who manages
"Because the drug epidemic is so new, people aren't ready for
dealing with crack addicts, which is a whole different game from
dealing with people hooked on other drugs," he said.
Write to John Lyons at email@example.com