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

Police pressure on Crackland, the open-air drug market in downtown São Paulo, one of the largest and oldest in the world, has pushed drug dealers and consumers into adjacent neighborhoods.
Police pressure on Crackland, the open-air drug market in downtown São Paulo, one of the largest and oldest in the world, has pushed drug dealers and consumers into adjacent neighborhoods. (Gui Christ for the Washington Post)


SÃO PAULO – Fatima Mendes tightens her grip on her dogs’ leashes as she crosses a street in the largest city in the hemisphere. The narrow sidewalks here are filled with people wrapped in blankets, many lying down. Addicts rummage through trash cans for items they might sell for a few royals, enough to secure the next solution. They take away a hissing boombox, worn tennis shoes, broken combs.

Dawn is breaking over Crackland.

It’s been two months since hundreds of drug addicts poured into the Mendes neighborhood and her morning walks have been tense ever since. Now, when she goes to the gym, the retired tourism manager he just takes his key. Absolutely avoid going out at night.

“You become a prisoner,” says Mendes, 58. “You cannot take your cell phone with you when you are out, even if you are on your way to work. You have to be constantly on alert ”.

Brazilians call it Cracolândia: a 30-year-old colony of hundreds of drug addicts and drug dealers under the control of the First Capital Command, the most powerful gang in the city, in more than two dozen blocks in downtown São Paulo. It is one of the oldest and largest open-air drug markets in the world, moving around $ 37 million worth of products annually.

Since crack cocaine engulfed São Paulo in the 1990s, nearly every city government has proclaimed victory over Crackland, only to see it rise again, whack-a-mole style, in a different place, to the horror of residents and entrepreneurs affected. Successive governments have tried approaches ranging from tear gas and rubber bullets to freeing up housing and care.

In 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a law to allow police and security to forcibly admit dependent people from hospitals. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is challenging Bolsonaro in the October elections, says he would consider limiting prison sentences for consumers and redefining definitions of drug trafficking to exclude smaller quantities.

Now Crackland is on the move again. The latest in a decade-long series of police crackdowns this year is pushing squatters beyond their longstanding borders and into adjacent neighborhoods.

“It’s an impressive social and economic phenomenon,” says Mauricio Fiore, a researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning. “It is more than a dilemma: it is unsolvable”.

The only way to dismantle Crackland, he says, is to increase the cost of living for users and retailers, by populating the area with other more desirable people, or by making life so difficult for them to leave.

Elbio Marquez walks three blocks into the heart of Crackland, passing people with open wounds and crutches, to open the heavy iron gates of the Cristolandia church. His bright yellow uniform is printed with “Jesus transforms”.

“Coffee? Shower? A change of clothes?” offers to the gathered people.

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

Across the street, a line of armed and grim police officers order the rally to disperse. As people run, a tear gas bomb explodes.

Chaos screeches in the architecture of downtown São Paulo. Crackland is located next to Sala São Paulo, the extravagant theater that serves as the headquarters of the city’s symphony orchestra, a few blocks from the Pérola Byington Women’s Hospital and close to the Pinacoteca, one of the country’s foremost modern art museums . It’s not just a public health nightmare, but a real estate headache as well.

Until a few months ago, the smugglers had full control of the region. But since the beginning of the year, the police have launched a series of invasions to arrest traffickers and disperse users. Police say the operations led to the arrest of several major traffickers.

“We have eradicated the problem. We have broken the business cycle of Crackland, “says Alexis Vargas, head of police strategy for the city of São Paulo.

The approach reduced Crackland from a height of 4,000 people in 2017 to a few hundred today. But as people disperse, residents in neighborhoods who have never been affected close their doors and shut down their businesses.

Police are urging neighbors to be patient as the Cracklanders move around town. “There has to be resilience,” says Vargas. “Organized crime is resilient, so the public must be too.”

In Cristolandia, 16 men and two women agree to attend a function in exchange for food, a bathroom and new clothes.

“The first time you use crack, that’s all. Your life is over, “says Alan Felipe, 32. He says he hasn’t used it for five days. Before he quit, he says, he stole electronics and items from the local market to sell them for crack. But life has gotten bigger in recent months. more difficult: “They send us from place to place. You are hit by rubber bullets, pepper spray.

Agitated and anxious, he says he will seek help from a government care center after the service ends. With a 9 month old daughter, he is determined to stay clean. “It’s a battle. You have no idea how difficult it is. “

Valdomiro Sousa Lima, 54, says he has been using crack for 13 years. He takes out a homemade tube, made from a car antenna, from a bag. “Now there is no place to stay. We have no room to gather. Everyone is spaced apart “.

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

The newcomers, he says, stole cables and metal from outside his shop. Clients have stopped passing – some, frightened by addicts; others said they worked from home until they dispersed.

Maria Inês Sene, 61, was leaving her home. Sene has lived near Crackland since the beginning. Until this year, she says, she could walk and cycle here without fear.

Now the noise of the drug market keeps her awake at night. Before leaving the house in the morning, she looks out the window to judge her mood. If users seem calm, she says, she leaves. If you see fights or chaos, you wait.

In May, she was walking home from the supermarket at dusk when four men blocked her way and asked her to pack. “What should I do at that point?” she asks. “It’s hard to explain what I was feeling, a mixture of panic and fear. Sure, I see the human being in front of me, but I also felt so vulnerable being surrounded by four men. “

Now, he doesn’t leave the house after 5pm

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

“I’ve never had any problems with users,” he says. “The problem is the clashes. My problem is with the police. ”During police operations, the school is canceled, bullets fly, and she closes the doors of her apartment to keep the tear gas out.

But users give their children cookies and toys and don’t smoke in front of them. Once, when her kids were playing outside and got lost, a user took them home. “If people saw them closely, they would have a different view,” he says. “Before being drug addicts, they are human beings”.

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