All photos taken by Hugo Ropero (pictured above).
Hugo Ropero sat in his parked car, eyes fixated on the man in the rearview mirror. He stared vacantly at the hollow, sunken eyes and gray, lifeless skin drooping off the man’s face. He didn’t recognize him. It had been a year since the monster had entered his system and he no longer knew his own reflection.
Ropero tells me his story six years after rehab, his hands and feet fluttering from tremors, a side effect that will probably last his lifetime. He is the former photo editor for Noticias, one of Argentina’s leading culture magazines, and a recovered addict of “the drug of extermination” also known as paco. It is a dangerous, highly addictive, and toxic drug that first swept through the slums of Buenos Aires after the country’s devastating economic crisis in 2001 and has become a growing problem in the middle and upper classes.
Made from the residue of coca leaves, paco is widely considered by Argentines the most dangerous and addictive drug on the market—more so than heroine or crack. It’s a potpourri of cocaine waste, rat poison, kerosene, and various industrial solvents. The effects from one hit lasts from 5 to 10 minutes, but the initial intensity of the drug (often described as an “orgasm”) lasts for only a few seconds. Afterwards, your muscles tense and your body craves more, plunging the user into a deep state of depression and desperation.
It started appearing in shantytowns during the worst period of Argentina’s economic collapse. Between 2001 and 2005 paco use increased 200 percent, with drug dealers selling a dose for one peso (the equivalent to 25 cents then), compared to ten pesos for cocaine. Over a decade since the collapse, the country’s economy has remarkably recovered, but paco still grips the nation.
Just before the economic collapse, Ropero was at the height of his photography career, shooting celebrities by day, and living the Tara Reid lifestyle by night, smoking doobies and snorting lines at the numerous parties he frequented. But drugs were something he had control over—or so he thought.
When Ropero was first introduced to paco he was in a dark depression. In 1997, his best friend and fellow photographer, Jose Luis Cabezas, was kidnapped, tortured, and his corpse was set on fire in a rented car. The devastating loss and subsequent investigation, which linked police and business moguls to the crime, sent Ropero into a deep state of grief.
“After Jose died, things started going downhill. I didn’t get along with my boss, I was going through a divorce, all of my relationships were falling apart. I was very vulnerable,” Ropero tells me in Spanish, as his eyes begin to water.
As Ropero watched the world around him collapse, he soon discovered a new one. At a bar one night in Buenos Aires, a group of attractive young girls asked him to use his phone and then invited him to join them for a beer. They ventured on the topic of drugs and told him about this new thing on the streets called paco.
After a few more rounds, the girls invited some friends and ended up having a party back at Ropero’s home. He had taken a liking to one of the girls, who convinced him to try a puff of paco. “I took it from her and said, 'Give me that, I want to try that shit.' It felt like an orgasm.”
He began dating the girl who introduced him to paco. And after smoking three more times, he knew there was no turning back.
“I knew I was addicted the day I woke up and all I could think about was paco.” In a domino effect, Ropero quickly lost everything to the drug life: his apartment, job, friends, and ultimately his health. In the beginning, Ropero could balance smoking the drug and going to work. But eventually the side effects of the drug caught up with him. His looming paranoia fits sparked fights with coworkers and his boss. After using paco everyday for three years, Ropero had become one of the walking dead, the term used to label paco addicts who roam the streets in search of their next hit.
“One day I saw myself in the mirror and shook my head, I didn’t want to be this guy,” Ropero says. He decided to check himself into a hospital for recovery and embarked on a very long and painful process. During his recovery, he was also inspired to write a book about his addiction and the ominous paco epidemic in Argentina. His book Maldita Droga: Una Historia Del Paco was published in 2009.
“I lost everything. It was very difficult to start over alone, but I’m not worried about relapsing. It’s over now,” he says, fidgeting with the thick silver rings on his fingers.
Ropero is one of the lucky few to have escaped the drug’s enslavement. Its wrath grips children now as young as six years old. Lidia Rigoli, also a former paco addict took much longer than Ropero to realize she needed help. “When you use coke or Marijuana you’re looking for pleasure. When you use paco there is no pleasure, but you can’t stop,” she explained.
During the deepest, darkest days of her addiction, Rigoli consumed up to 200 doses a day. It was a perverse cycle that continued for several years until she discovered that her 14-year-old daughter was also an addict. The gravity of her addiction’s impact on her family had finally sunk in. It was painful for her to realize she couldn’t help her own daughter because she couldn’t even help herself.
While still an addict, Rigoli joined Madres del Paco, the anti-paco organization aimed at helping young users in their neighborhood fight their addiction. Her decaying life saw new light when the founder of the group Marta Gomez reached out to her and helped put her life back together.
Today Rigoli roams the dangerous streets of her colorful La Boca neighborhood looking for young addicts and listening to their stories. She has discovered that listening is a far better medicine than pressuring addicts to quit. But La Boca is just one of the many neighborhoods hit by the paco monster.
The worst is Villa 21, the largest slum neighborhood in Buenos Aires, with a population of around 50,000. It is also the site that houses the parish Nuestra Señora de Caacupé. Among the decaying buildings and swarms of lifeless paco addicts, the parish is a light in the darkness. Guided by Father Pepe, the church has organized a recovery system for paco addicts in their surrounding community, using a two-step process.
The first step is prevention; the chapel organizes weekly activities, sporting events and entertainment to keep youths off the streets and engaged. The second step is rehab; a team of volunteers roams through the barrio looking for kids made homeless from their paco use. Volunteers aim to find the youngest kids, starting as early as seven or eight years old. Then willing addicts are placed in rehab. The program has a 50 percent success rate.
According to Father Pepe, a main issue in prevention is lack of police control. Paco drug deals happen right out in the open, even in front of police. Today the drug is decriminalized and its use and sale has no penalty. “There were people from the government immersed in researching the field, but the people in power are so far removed they don’t enact change. They maintain their distance,” he says. At the moment, the streets of the Villa 21 go unpatrolled and police cars can no longer enter through the “gates” of paco hell, according to Pepe.
But that hell is not eternal, as Ropero and Rigoli’s rare success stories have become beacons of hope. Now when Ropero looks in the mirror he is different. He is recognizable and proud of the man he rebuilt. But he is of a minority, as the walking dead continue to wander the city’s crumbling shantytowns, once familiar faces are no longer recognizable and the monster’s appetite has never been hungrier. As Argentina continues to recover from its economic collapse nearly a decade ago, what will it take to extinguish the drug of extermination?