At street level the consequences of addiction are dramatic: murder, robbery and destruction of families
Past a roadblock, improvised from charred tree trunks and concrete sewer pipes, sits a muscle-bound man in flip-flops, with an AR-15 assault rifle cradled in his lap.
“Crack is the devil in rock form,” he says baldly. “If one of my employees started smoking crack I’d confiscate his gun and kick him out of the gang.”
The man is a drug boss from one of Rio de Janeiro‘s three main drug factions. He sells crack from his shanty town on the city’s western edge, in the latest scourge to afflict Rio.
Until recently the city’s gangsters largely refused to sell crack, fearful of the effect it would have on their clientele. But over the past few years economics have trumped good sense. The floodgates have opened.
“The use of crack is growing at a terrifying rate. In the last four years it has grown a great deal,” says Julio Cesar Pereira de Oliveira, the director of a dilapidated civil police jail in northern Rio, where 10 damp and overcrowded cells are now packed with more than 360 prisoners, many of them addicts.
“The majority are in here because of drugs,” he says, reeling off a list of the most common drug-related crimes, according to their numbers in the Brazilian penal code: “155. 157. 121. 33.” Theft. Armed robbery. Homicide. Drug trafficking.
Rio is one of the last parts of Brazil to experience the crack epidemic, which now stretches from remote Amazon towns to the country’s more affluent south and south-east.
According to recent reports in the Brazilian press, police in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco have seized the equivalent of 6.8m rocks of crack this year alone.
Before her historic election win last year, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, appeared in a televised campaign, telling the nation: “Crack is a crime against people, a crime against our youth and a crime against Brazil.”
A £155m anti-crack plan was unveiled by the federal government last year and in February Rousseff announced nationwide plans to train nearly 15,000 health agents to deal with crack addicts. But at street level the scale of the challenge becomes clear.
“Crack is terrible. It just makes people kill, rob and destroy other people’s families,” says Rafael Barbosa dos Santos, a 22-year-old father of two and one of dozens of addicts detained by police after a dawn raid on one drug market in the Morro do Cajueiro favela.
“I’d been there since Saturday,” he says. “Today is Thursday. I was taking drugs. Your money runs out and you still want to smoke more, so you have to go on to the streets to steal, to beg. It’s dog eat dog – either you make it work or you die trying.”
A few miles away, in the hilltop Jorge Turco favela, a police operative pulls back a filthy bedsheet and steps into the area’s crack house – an abandoned, redbrick shack at one of the slum’s entrances. “We come and burn it down and they clean it up again,” he complains. “We come here frequently. We come here and kick them out. But when we leave, they come back.”
Inside, two addicts lay on sofas, oblivious to the police presence. Melted plastic cups, used to smoke the drug, littered the floor. A sudden volley of automatic fire signals the demise of one local gang member, gunned down by police further up the hill. Still the addicts snooze.
“Crack is the church’s biggest challenge at the moment,” said Claudio Ferreira, a 33-year-old preacher who conducts his own “spiritual” raids in Rio’s crack dens, searching for lost souls. “But the Bible teaches us that what is impossible for man is not impossible for God. I believe that out of every 100 addicts, five will hear the word and manage not to use crack any more. That is a victory. Society is lost. Society thinks these people have no future. In saving five lives we are victorious.”
In Rio, a growing public outcry over the spread of crack has prompted action. Since late May, authorities have conducted almost weekly raids on the city’s cracolandias, the name given here to open-air crack markets that operate in and around several of Rio’s most notorious favelas. Those detained are, controversially, being forced to undergo compulsory detox treatment in four rehab centres.
But preachers remain unconvinced that the cleanup will work. “Unfortunately, society will not do anything. Society takes them to recovery centres for treatment … but it doesn’t work. One month or two weeks later they are back on the streets,” says Ferreira during a midnight incursion into a crack den, deep inside a favela.
“The only way for a crack addict to recover is through the word of Christ.”
- Crack cocaine epidemic sweeps Brazil from the Amazon to Rio (guardian.co.uk)
- In booming Brazil, crack strikes late but hard (sfgate.com)