Brazil’s Crackland: Sao Paulo drug market under police pressure

Police pressure on Crackland, an open-air drug market in the world's largest and oldest city, So Paulo, has pushed dealers and users to nearby areas.
Police pressure on Crackland, an open-air drug market in the world’s largest and oldest city, So Paulo, has pushed dealers and users to nearby areas. (Guy Christ for The Washington Post)

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SAO PAULO – Fatima Mendes tightens her grip on her dog’s leash as she crosses a street in the Hemisphere’s largest city. The narrow sidewalks here are filled with people wrapped in blankets, many of them lying down. Drug users sift through the trash looking for items they can sell for something real — enough to secure the next fix. They carry a wheezing boombox, worn tennis shoes, busted combs.

Dawn is breaking down over Crackland.

It’s been two months since Mendes’ neighborhood spanned hundreds of drug addicts, and her morning commute has been stressful ever since. Now, when she goes to the gym, the retired tourism manager Takes only his key. She avoids going out at night at all.

“You become a prisoner. You can’t bring your cellphone with you when you’re out, even if you’re going to work. You have to be constantly on the alert,” says Mendes, 58.

Brazilians call it Krakolandia: a 30-year-old colony of hundreds of drug users and dealers under the control of the First Capital Command, the city’s most powerful gang, more than two dozen blocks from downtown So Paulo. It is one of the world’s oldest and largest open-air pharmaceutical markets, carrying an estimated $37 million of products each year.

Since crack cocaine engulfed So Paulo in the 1990s, almost every city administration has declared victory over Crackland, only to place it in a different location, in a different location, for affected residents and business owners. To see the resurgence of terror, whack-a-mole style. Successive governments have tried methods ranging from tear gas and rubber bullets to free housing and treatment.

In 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a law to allow police and security to forcefully admit people with drugs to hospitals. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who challenged Bolsonaro in October’s election, says he wants to limit prison terms for users and redefine the definition of drug trafficking to exclude smaller amounts. Will consider

Now Crackland is on the move again. This year is the latest in a decade-long series of police crackdowns pushing squatters beyond their long-standing boundaries and into nearby areas.

“This is an impressive social and economic phenomenon,” says researcher Mauricio Fiore from Brazil’s Center for Analysis and Planning. “It’s much more than a dilemma – it’s not solvable.”

The only way to break up Crackland, they say, is to increase the cost of living for users and dealers, either by populating the area with other, more desirable people or by making life so difficult that they leave.

Albio Marquez walks three blocks through the heart of Crackland, passing people with open wounds and crutches to open the heavy iron gates of Christolandia Church. His bright yellow uniform is stamped “Jesus the Transfiguration”.

“Coffee? Shower? Change clothes?” He provides to the gathered people.

Suddenly, people get up to move. Run, run, they whisper. “Where to run?” One man asks, confused.

Across the street, a line of police officers armed and with serious faces, orders the gathering to disperse. As people run, a tear gas bomb explodes.

Chaos jars amidst the architecture of the city of So Paulo. Crackland sits next to the Sala So Paulo, the extravagant theater that serves as the headquarters of the city’s symphony orchestra, blocks from the Perola Bington Women’s Hospital, and the Pinacoteca, one of the country’s most important museums of modern art. is close. This is not only a public health nightmare, but also a real estate headache.

Until recent months, smugglers had complete control over the region. But since the beginning of the year, the police have launched several attacks to arrest smugglers and disperse users. Police say that several prominent smugglers have been arrested in this operation.

“We have rooted out the problem. We broke the economic cycle of Crackland,” says Alexis Vargas, head of strategy for the city police force of So Paulo.

The outlook has reduced Crackland from a height of 4,000 people in 2017 to a few hundred today. But as people disperse, residents of neighborhoods that were never affected are closing their doors and closing their businesses.

Police are urging neighbors to be patient as Cracklanders walk through town. “There needs to be flexibility,” Vargas says. “Organized crime is resilient, so should the public.”

In Kristolandia, 16 men and two women agree to attend a service in exchange for a meal, a bath, and new clothes.

“The first time you use Crack, that’s it. Your life is over,” says 32-year-old Alan Felipe. He says he hasn’t used in five days. He says that before leaving the job, They stole electronics and accessories from the local market to sell them. But life has gotten more difficult in the last few months: “They send us from place to place. You get hit with rubber bullets, pepper spray.” Is. “

Irritated and worried, he says he will seek help from a government treatment center after the service is over. With her 9-month-old daughter, she is determined to stay clean. “It’s a fight. You have no idea how hard it is.”

Valdomiro Sousa Lima, 54, says he has been using the crack for 13 years. He pulls a homemade pipe made from a car antenna out of a bag. “There is no place to live now. We don’t have a place to gather. Everyone has been kept separate.”

Aldino de Magalhães runs a restaurant that has been in his family for generations. But sales have dropped by 50 percent since the day in May, without warning, addicts walked into his block. “It was worse than the pandemic,” he says.

He says the newcomers stole cables and metal from outside his store. customers have stopped coming – some are afraid of addicts; Others asked to work from home until they dispersed.

61-year-old Maria Innes Sene was leaving her home. Sene has lived near Crackland ever since it began. She says till this year she was able to walk and bike here without any fear.

Now the noise of the drug market keeps him awake at night. Before walking out her door in the morning, she looks out the window to judge the mood. If users seem calm, she says, she walks away. If she sees fights or chaos, she waits.

In May, she was returning home from the supermarket in the evening when four men blocked her way and demanded her bag. “What should I do then?” she asks. “It’s hard to explain what I was feeling, a mix of panic and fear. Of course, I see the human in front of me, but being surrounded by four men also made me feel so vulnerable.”

Now, she does not leave the house after 5 pm

As night falls, Livia Pereira da Silva sits on a park bench, watching her son climb a tree. Unemployed and pregnant, she has been sitting in Crackland with her five children for years.

“I’ve never had a problem with users,” she says. “The problem is with the conflict. My problem is with the police.” During police action, school is canceled, shots are fired and she locks the doors of her apartment to stop the tear gas.

But users give cookies and toys to her kids, and they don’t smoke in front of them. Once their children were playing outside and got lost, a user brought them home. “If people looked at them closely, they would have a different perspective,” she says. “Before they are drug users, they are humans.”

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