Inside Crackland: The Open-Air Drug Market That São Paulo Just Can't Kick

“It’s a horrible life. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. Any money you can get goes on crack,” says Felipa Drumont.


Drumont is 26, trans, homeless and addicted to crack. For the last four years, she has lived on the streets of an area of central São Paulo that has become infamous: Cracolândia, literally “Crackland”.

Here, hundreds of people sit in the middle of the street, wrapped in blankets, and smoke crack openly. Others wander, wild eyed, looking for tin cans and other recyclables to sell. Most are skinny and gaunt, faces contorted from years of drug abuse. There is garbage everywhere and a thick smell of body odour.

Police patrol the perimeter, just metres away. They keep an eye on things but don’t intervene with the drug-taking or dealing. Instead, they mostly watch for other crimes, such as robbery. Municipal officers and NGO workers hover nearby.

Even more surprisingly, on weekdays, there are also workers with backpacks and suited office types, who scurry past on the opposite side of the street. Despite being a scene of intense urban degradation, Crackland in fact sits on prime real estate.

It is next to Luz, the city’s biggest and busiest train station. Less than 100m away is a neoclassical style concert hall that last year hosted a performance by American jazz legend Herbie Hancock. There are private technical colleges nearby, and a leisure centre. The office of South America’s biggest newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, known sometimes as the New York Times of Brazil, is a few blocks away.

None of it makes much difference to the addicts. Some exchange jokes or handshakes with each other, but most just look bewildered and lost.

It is unlike nearly anything in any city in the world. To some, including the current mayor, João Doria, that makes it an embarrassment.

After taking office in January, the business mogul declared war on Crackland. Early on a drizzly Sunday morning in May, Drumont watched as helicopters appeared overhead, and a veritable battalion of 900 armed police and security agents descended on the addicts. She says the police used rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the crowd.

“The police turned up throwing bombs at everyone,” she recalls. “Thank god I wasn’t injured, but I was terrified.”

Drumont and hundreds of other addicts scattered. Many took refuge in a nearby gas station; others checked themselves in for treatment at government programmes, or were accompanied by city social services to packed homeless shelters.

After breaking up the crack market, police raided local properties, seized drugs and guns, and arrested dozens of suspected traffickers.

Local government officials heralded the operation a success. Doria, triumphant, declared: “Crackland is over and won’t come back.”

Six months later, Crackland continues, just metres away from where it was cleared.

Hamsterdam, Brazil

For readers familiar with the American TV series The Wire, Crackland looks like “Hamsterdam” – a section of vacant city blocks where, in an attempt to bring down street crime, Baltimore police set up a “free zone” for drug dealers and addicts.

There are, however, two key differences. First, Cracolândia isn’t located in vacant land, but right in the middle of the bustling downtown core. The area has been gentrifying, and an ambitious revitalisation is planned for 2018, including 1,200 new apartments.

The second difference is that this brazen drug scene has been a stubborn fixture of downtown São Paulo for more than two decades.

After Cracolândia first appeared in the 1990s, when the highly addictive smoked form of cocaine entered the city’s narcotics market, a succession of governments have tried – and failed – to end it, mostly via repressive policing.

Since then, the fluxo (“flow”), as the concentration of users is known, has moved around the neighbourhood, chased from street to street by heavy-handed police operations.

In 2008, mayor Gilberto Kassab sent police to disperse the addicts, just as his successor Fernando Haddad would nine years later. Kassab, as Doria did, declared: “Crackland no longer exists.”

In 2012, the city’s then-justice secretary said the same thing, this time in relation to a crackdown dubbed “Operation Pain and Suffering”.

Both times, the addicts simply regrouped down the street.

After the raid in May, Cracolândia re-formed just 400m away, in a park. Drumont followed: the raid didn’t dissuade her from taking crack. “I used even more drugs because I was nervous and scared,” she says.

Nevertheless, for those who say Crackland must go, the tactics enjoy broad approval. Supporters consider Crackland a menace, arguing that it gives power to organised crime, degrades the city and perpetuates a cycle of drug addiction and misery.

Exact data is scarce, but it is thought Brazil is home to the highest number of crack users in the world. According to the last national crack survey in 2014 by the Fiocruz medical institute, there are around 370,000 regular users in 27 city state capitals and the federal district. 

Brazil shares porous borders with all of the main cocaine-producing nations: Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

São Paulo is also the base of Brazil’s most powerful drug trafficking gang, the PCC (“First Command of the Capital”). Authorities say the PCC plays a controlling role in supplying Crackland.

According to them, the crackdown was necessary to break the hold of drug trafficking in the neighbourhood.

“With the [May] operation, the state retook territory that was dominated by drug traffic, facilitating the work of health and social workers,” says Floriano Pesaro, social development secretary for São Paulo state government.

As evidence for the success of their strategy, they point to a study – commissioned by the state government – showing that Crackland has got smaller: from 1,861 users before the operation in May to 414 in July, a reduction of 77%.

Clarice Sandi Madruga, coordinator of the survey, says there are many reasons for the drop. Some addicts have sought help, she says; others used the opportunity of the operation to flee from debts with drug dealers.

What’s more, she says, as many as one third of current Crackland residents are new arrivals who come for the services, such as health treatment and meals (provided by City Hall), and the relative safety. (Drumont corroborates that claim: for junkies, she says, there is a certainly safety in numbers, providing you don’t break the rules, such as stealing from others.)

For Madruga, notwithstanding the fact that Crackland still exists, the combination of a bit of carrot and a lot of stick has worked. “Something needed to be done,” she said.

Addicted and abandoned

But if many Paulistanos supported the raid – 60%, according to a poll by Datafolha – many others did not.

They argue that Crackland is symptomatic of the city’s wider problems: of poverty, homelessness and inequality. They say Cracolândia, for all its problems, acts as a refuge for the city’s addicted, downtrodden and abandoned.

“The effort by the São Paulo government is a classic example of the ‘war on drugs’ approach that for decades has failed to reduce drug use, driven people who use drugs away from essential health services, and given rise to widespread human rights violations,” says Cesar Munoz, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Even inside government, some officials are irate, seeing in the raid the same old discredited tactics.

“The traffickers they arrested are just small-time dealers,” says Arthur Pinto Filho, a senior official of the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Human Rights in Public Health of the state of Sao Paulo.

“The traffic continues,” he adds. “It was a huge waste of public money: they are in the same spot. It was a step backwards. This is the same thing that has been done for years and never worked.”

Although everyone agrees Crackland is smaller than it was at its peak, many are sceptical of the government’s explanation, and say it’s probably due to a simple fact: police violence.

“Even if there was a reduction of this size, it’s not because of treatment, stopping to use or quality of life,” says Thiago Calil of the NGO É de Lei, who has worked in the region for 13 years. “[Addicts] are leaving the centre because there is huge police repression.”

City Hall employs more than 150 health workers in the Crackland area. Two of them, not authorised to speak on record, said that the police raids had increased mistrust and made it more difficult to approach addicts to help.

Yet another criticism is that raids merely disperse users into “mini-Cracklands”, of dozens rather than hundreds of addicts. At least 22 of these have been identified across the city.

“We understand from our teams that users have gone from the centre, and are using crack in other scenes, more on the outskirts of the city,” said Calil.

Better 22 mini-Cracklands than one big Cracolândia, argues Felipe Sabara, secretary of social assistance at São Paulo city government. He claims it’s easier to provide social assistance to users if they are less concentrated.

“The more people there are, the bigger density the crowd, the harder the approach,” Sabara says, blaming organised crime and the connection that users establish with their turf.

Sabara says his team is expanding outreach services across the city to deal with the dispersal, and disputed the accusation that City Hall merely wants to sweep Crackland under the rug in order to help gentrify the neighbourhood.

“We are doing the opposite,” he says. “We are resolving the problem.”

Still, Pesaro is under no illusions that Crackland has easy solutions. “We know that it will be a difficult and long process,” he adds.

Even Doria has backpedalled, now noting that Crackland is a historic problem, and saying the focus should be “to reduce it sensibly and end the 24-hour drug shopping mall”.

Redemption

Six months since the raid, Drumont is now two months clean. She lives in Tent 2, a structure set up by City Hall in the heart of Crackland, where she gets a bed and meals as part of a programme called Redemption.

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