Crackland in Brazil: The drug market in Sao Paulo is under police pressure

Police pressure on Crackland, the open-air drug market in downtown São Paulo that is one of the largest and oldest in the world, has pushed dealers and users into neighboring neighbourhoods.
Police pressure on Crackland, the open-air drug market in downtown São Paulo that is one of the largest and oldest in the world, has pushed dealers and users into neighboring neighbourhoods. (Guy Krist 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 full of people covered in blankets, many of them lying down. Drug users select litter boxes for items they might sell for a few riyals — enough to secure their next fix. They carry a burr box, worn tennis shoes, and broken combs.

Dawn is breaking over Krakland.

It’s been two months since hundreds of drug addicts flocked to the Mendes neighborhood, and her morning walks have been strained ever since. Now, when you go to the gym, retired tourism manager He just takes her key. She avoids going out at night at all.

You become a prisoner. You cannot bring your mobile phone with you when you are out, even if you are going to work. You have to always be on the alert,” says Mendes, 58.

Brazilians call it Cracolândia: a 30-year-old colony of hundreds of drug users and dealers is under the control of First Capital Command, the city’s most powerful gang, across more than two dozen buildings in downtown São Paulo. It is one of the oldest and largest open drug markets in the world, moving an estimated $37 million in products each year.

Since crack cocaine swept São Paulo in the 1990s, nearly every city administration has declared victory over Crackland, only to see it resurrect again, in mole-hit fashion, in a different location, to the horror of the affected residents and business owners. 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 allowing police and security forces to forcibly admit addicts to hospitals. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is challenging Bolsonaro in the October elections, says he will consider limiting prison terms for users and redefining drug smuggling tariffs to exclude smaller amounts.

Now Crackland is on the move again. The latest in a series of police crackdowns this year in decades is pushing occupiers beyond their old frontiers and into neighboring neighbourhoods.

“It’s an impressive socio-economic phenomenon,” says Mauricio Fiori, a researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning. “It’s more than a dilemma – it’s unsolvable.”

The only way to break up Crackland, he says, is to increase the cost of accommodation for users and merchants, either by filling the area with other desirable people or by making life so difficult that they leave.

Elbio Marquez walks three blocks into the heart of Crackland, bypassing people with open wounds and crutches, to open the heavy iron gates of Cristolandia Church. His bright yellow outfit is printed with “Jesus Transforms”.

“Coffee? Shower? A change of clothes?” he presents to the assembled people.

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

On the other side of the street, a row of police officers, armed and with grim faces, orders the assembly to disperse. While people are running a tear gas canister explodes.

Chaos jars amid the architecture of downtown São Paulo. Crackland is next to Sala São Paulo, the extravagant theater that serves as the home of the city’s symphony orchestra, blocks from Pérola Byington Women’s Hospital, and near Pinacoteca, one of the country’s most important museums of modern art. Not only is it a public health nightmare, it’s also a real estate headache.

Until recent months, traffickers were in complete control of the area. But since the beginning of the year, the police have launched a series of raids to catch traffickers and disperse users. Police say the operations have led to the arrests of several prominent smugglers.

“We solved the problem. We broke the economic cycle in Crackland,” says Alexis Vargas, head of strategy for the São Paulo City Police Force.

This approach has shrunk Crackland from its 4,000-person height 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 urge neighbors to be patient while Kraklander residents move through town. “There has to be flexibility,” Vargas says. “Organized crime is resilient, so the public must be as well.”

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

“Your life is over,” says Alan Philippi, 32. He says he hasn’t used it in five days. Before he quit, he says he stole electronics and stuff from the local market to sell for crack. But life In the past few months it has become even more difficult: “They send us from one place to another. I was hit by rubber bullets and pepper spray.”

Troubled and worried, he says he will seek help from a state treatment center after service. With his 9-month-old daughter, he is determined to stay clean. It’s a fight. You have no idea how difficult it is.”

Valdomero Souza Lima, 54, says he’s been using crack for 13 years. He pulls a domestic tube, made from a car antenna, from a bag. “Now there is no place to stay. We don’t have space to gather. Everyone is far away.”

Aldino de Magalhães runs a restaurant that has been in his family for generations. But sales have fallen 50 percent since May, when addicts moved into his compound without warning. “It was worse than an epidemic,” he says.

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

Maria Ines Ceni, 61, was leaving her home. Sene has lived near Crackland since its inception. Until this year, she was able to walk and bike here without fear.

Now the noise of the drug market keeps her awake at night. Before she walks out her door in the morning, she looks out the window to judge the mood. She says that if users seem calm, she leaves. If she witnesses fights or chaos, she is waiting.

In May, she was returning home from the supermarket at dusk when four men blocked her path and demanded her bags. “What should I do at this point?” She asks. “It’s hard to explain what I was feeling, a mixture of panic and fear. Of course, I see the human in front of me, but I also felt very weak because I was surrounded by four men.”

Now, don’t leave the house after 5 PM

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 squatting in Crackland with her five children for years.

“I haven’t had any problems with users,” she says. The problem is the clashes. My problem is with the police.” During police operations, the school is canceled, bullets fly and the doors of her apartment are closed to prevent tear gas.

But users give her children cookies and toys, and they do not smoke in front of them. Once, when her children were playing outside and getting lost, a user brought them home. “If people saw them up close, they would have a different view,” she says. “Before they do drugs, they are human.”

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