A woman walks down the street in the area of São Paulo, Brazil, known as Crackland. Photo by Rafael Tognini
Since the 90s, downtown São Paulo, Brazil, has been home to a roving open-air drug market christened Cracolândia, or Crackland, and it’s easy to see where the name came from. Addicts smoke drugs in the streets, beg passersby for spare change, and guard parked cars for money. An estimated 400 people live within Crackland’s current boundaries, and more than 2,000 travel through the area every day looking for crack, which is easy to find and cheap—a big crack rock goes for about four dollars, though, with the high lasting only a few minutes. Some users buy and smoke more than ten rocks a day.
Over the years, the government has made several attempts to clean up the area, including a 2012 effort that involved the cops storming into the shantytown and firing rubber bullets and gas bombs. Nothing has worked—the addicts would move and reassemble their shanties, and Crackland would rise again.
In January, the city government made another attempt, this time with what’s being called “Operation Open Arms.” Instead of being imprisoned or kicked out of the neighborhood, a few hundred Crackland residents were given the chance to be resettled into modest hotel rooms, offered free food, and paid about $6.50 a day to clean the streets. Controversially, they wouldn’t be required to give up drugs to get these jobs.
“We wish we could aim for abstinence [from drugs],” said Flávio Falconi, a psychiatrist who is working with the Open Arms project. “But it doesn’t work that way. Substance-dependence treatment is always a long process… This is just one more attempt.”
It’s unclear whether this will really help these hardcore addicts transition to stable jobs and lives, but it’s certainly more humane treatment than what they usually experience.
I recently visited some of these 300 or so users in their hotel rooms, where the floors are cold, the beds are simple, and there are no televisions or fans. Couples are allowed to stay in the same room, while single people are roomed together based on gender, like college students.
Roberto Nascimento, one of the users in the hotel, wasn’t optimistic when I spoke to him. “Everything will stay the same. Nothing is going to change,” he said. “We have always slept in the streets and we didn't die. The hotel means nothing to us. Today is Friday, payday. Today is party day in Crackland.” He added that the main difference between sleeping in the shacks and in the hotel is that it doesn’t rain in the latter, though the food on the street is better than the meals offered by the program.
As the users began working their government-funded jobs, photos of them and headlines claiming “Users Smoke Crack on Their First Day on the Job” appeared on the covers of São Paulo’s newspapers, and most of the city’s residents seemed primed to believe the worst of Cracklanders. No matter how humane or effective the Open Arms program is, to many it smacks of giving away drugs to drug addicts.
If it’s hard to believe that Operation Open Arms represents a kinder, gentler drug policy in São Paulo, there’s an alternate explanation: The authorities have to clean the city up before the gringos get here for the 2014 World Cup, in June. Streets are being paved, long-abandoned green areas are being hastily fertilized, and airports are being renovated.
The police are also trying less humane methods to eliminate Crackland. A few days after the Open Arms program started, ten police cars surrounded the area and attempted to drive people away with teargas bombs. Some users later showed the press injuries that they claimed were caused by rubber bullets, while the DENARC—the Brazilian equivalent of the DEA—claims that they didn’t use any of those projectiles, that the fighting in question took place after police cars were damaged by rowdy Cracklanders, and that they will keep doing their work as usual in the area.
Whether or not Open Arms will be successful, helping people make those steps out of addiction should be something Sao Paulo does more often, and not just for the World Cup—a survey commissioned by the federal government released in September estimated that around 370,000 Brazilians smoke crack on a regular basis. Talk about Crackland.