Brazil is currently the second biggest consumer market for cocaine and its derivatives in the world, after the United States. Coca paste and crack are sold in bulk and at a very low price in the so-called “cracklands” of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The Dromomanos collective, winner of the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Awards, brings us into the darkest corners of the country that consumes 18 percent of drugs produced globally.

The store was open 24 hours a day. Three armed youth dressed in shorts and sandals worked there. The place was a kind of old, abandoned washroom made of stone, which had been turned into a store. The counter had been built out of some laminated folding tables. On top of them sat some plastic bags. In each one there was a different kind of drug: cocaine, marijuana and crack, or “rock.” To the side there was a cart with more merchandise that was guarded by a man dressed in a sleeveless shirt and with a rifle in each hand.

The person in charge, who was essentially the manager of this open-air store located behind a train station, was just 20 years old and was playing with a kite. There were no clients yet. Some kids — known as “fogueteiros” — kept a lookout from the rooftops of the favela with binoculars, in order to give warning if the police were coming. On the ground and along the walls, there were all kinds of rifles.

This article originally ran in Domingo El Universal and was translated and reprinted with permission from the authors. Read the original here.

The employees spent the whole afternoon playing cards, flying kites and drinking beer as they told the story of the last time the police came. Occasionally a client arrived, bought their product, and left. Nobody stayed for more than five minutes in that “boca de fumo” drug sales point — which was one of the many that exist in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

At 3:15pm, everything changed. As soon as the vendors heard the train arrive, they left their cards lying there and prepared to receive a wave of some 100 men, women and children who came running out of the cars of the train and crossed the streets, headed to the store. There were only two ways to arrive: climb over the bridge used by the favela residents, or come in through the back, through a kind of secret passageway, where only the drug buyers and the sex workers walked. There, armed men waited to direct them to the store, where the sellers began to shout: “Crack 2 reais, marijuana 10, cocaine 20 [crack 87 cents, marijuana $4.38, cocaine $8.78]!” The manager kept playing with his kite.

The clients gathered into a crowd and started buying. They held their money out in their hands and joined the shouting. There were also others prices for people who wanted a larger quantity. The transactions didn’t last more than a minute. The vendors took the drugs out of a bag and stuffed the money into another. In no time, their bags were full of reals (or “reais” in Portuguese) that other men silently guarded with their rifles.

In less than 20 minutes, the people began to disperse. Far away, the sound of the train returning to the center of Rio de Janeiro — a couple of hours away from this favela in the outskirts of the city — could be heard. The train is like a transporter that goes from one city to another without leaving Rio. It carries people from the violent, marginalized periphery to the Rio de Janeiro of post cards, with its beaches, its hills and thousands of tourists drinking caipirinhas. But at that store it was another scene. Some clients smoked crack as soon as they bought it, without waiting for the train. Others stashed it for later and left without looking up.

One skeletal woman with pronounced features and dark hair approached the vendors and clients in search of crack. The men with the rifles made fun of her: “Get out of here, crack-head, go sell your body somewhere else,” they shouted at her, laughing. The woman, dressed in a miniskirt and dirty, torn belly shirt, was desperately looking for some drugs in exchange for sex. But amid the whirlwind of purchases, nobody paid attention to her.

When the train arrived, the clients disappeared. The vendors returned to their card game and waited for the next arrival, which would occur in a few hours. Vagabonds and drunks, who occasionally peered out into the street that led to the store, returned to their bars. The manager, a young, dark-skinned man with broad shoulders and a hat tipped to the side, ran out to see how far his kite had flown.

A Top Consumer

Brazil has become the second biggest consumer of cocaine and its derivatives in the world after the United States. Some 18 percent of cocaine products produced globally enter the nearly 20,000 kilometers of maritime and terrestrial borders that this country shares mainly with Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil and Paraguay, according to the most recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In total, 2.2 million people — that is to say, 1.4 percent of the Brazilian population — consume nearly 92 tons of cocaine and its derivatives each year.

“The lowest quality product is the one that is most consumed on the Brazilian market. In the major cities cocaine is consumed, but the bulk of the market is in the favelas. There it is like McDonald’s — you sell it more cheaply, but in greater quantity,” Cesar Guedes, the former UNODC representative in Bolivia, told us in 2013.

A couple of years ago, the UN body began to become concerned about the vulnerability of Brazil, a country that contains half of South America’s population.

“It has become an important transit country, particularly for cocaine trafficked to Europe through countries from Western Africa. Additionally, with the dynamic nature of the drug markets, coupled with the economic growth of recent years, it has become a destination [in and of itself],” said Rafael Franzini, director of UNODC-Brazil.

The favelas, particularly in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, illustrate this. For various decades, they have been points of drug sales and consumption, dominated by the country’s criminal groups: the Red Command (CV), the First Capital Command (PCC), Friends of Friends (ADA), the Pure Third Command (TCP) and the militia — a paramilitary group formed by ex-police and ex-soldiers that has become a kind of cartel that fights for territorial control and is mainly involved in extortion.

SEE ALSO: Red Command Profile

The PCC now has an international presence and its operations are similar to those of a drug cartel. In Brazil, there are so-called “cracklands” – abandoned streets, houses, stores or lots where the crack addicts hide out and spend their days.

Five years ago, the Rio de Janeiro government implemented a so-called “pacification” program to recover territorial control of the favelas, particularly the most central ones. During the first phase of the program, elite groups like the Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) — known on a global level thanks to the film Elite Squad — together with military police and the army occupy the favelas. The drug traffickers are either arrested or escape to areas controlled by their criminal group. After the initial occupation, a Police Pacification Unit (UPP) is put in place, which theoretically prevents trafficking and looks to recover social control of the community in a less violent manner, without using arms and through the use of dialogue.

The most recent operation, in Complexo da Mare, located on the route between the airport and the southern part of the city, led to various protests over the violence used by the BOPE during the occupation, which caused at least nine deaths. Bira Carvalho, a photographer whose house was raided by authorities searching for drugs, said: “Pacification is not meant to bring peace. This began in the southern zone because it is touristic, but the drug trafficking continues. The police know it, and everything is going to stay the same.”

During each pacification attempt, favela residents and various non-governmental organizations have reported serious human rights violations. In another police operation to combat drug trafficking on the city’s west side, in the Coreia favela, a helicopter shot at the civilian population in order to stop a famous trafficker known as “The Mathematician,” who months later was found dead in the trunk of a car. Currently, there are 38 UPPs in the 968 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, according to the most recent census from the Pereira Passos Municipal Institute of Urbanism.

“The UPPs do not reach [even] 10 percent of the favelas, even though the propaganda makes it seem like they do. In reality, their location illustrates the idea the Rio de Janeiro government has in mind for the city,” said Representative Marcelo Freixo, a former mayoral candidate, who says the authorities are focused on improving security in the southern region and points connecting to places like the airport and the port.

“In areas like the Baixada Fluminense, which has the highest levels of criminality, there is not even one UPP,” said Freixo, the person responsible for uncovering one of the biggest corruption scandals in the city by linking local congressmen to the militia. For months, Freixo had to leave the city due to death threats he received. His story was an inspiration for one of the characters in Elite Squad.

“Pacification is a controversial subject, but the truth is that thanks to the project, public areas have been recovered, the residents no longer hear gunshots every night, they do not live in fear, and do not have to pass through drug sales points in the middle of the street,” said Major Priscila de Oliveira, who has coordinated the majority of the pacifications and now directs the UPP in Rocinha, the biggest favela in Rio. This post was assigned to her after it was discovered that police from this UPP were responsible for the disappearance of Amarildo, a fisherman from Rocinha who was murdered and tortured last year and whose body never reappeared.

The “unpacified” favelas, particularly in the northern and western regions of the city, continue to be controlled by criminals. Rodrigo, whose name has been changed, is one of the men who guide the clients that arrive on the train to the drug sales point that we visited on the outskirts of the city.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Microtrafficking

“You are journalists, aren’t you? They told me you were here,” he said, as he held his AK-47 and munched on a snack.

Nothing happens in the favela without the permission of “the dono do morro,” that is to say, the leader of the favela, in this case a 30-year-old man who only greeted us from afar and wore a vest with two ammunition belts slung over it, as if he were at war. This boss authorized our entry on the condition that we did not reveal anyone’s true name or our location. He almost never spends time there.

The entire favela was fenced in. There were “fogueteiros” guarding all the entrances, and everyone knew we were there. The residents were not perturbed by the arms. They are accustomed to exchanges of gunfire, particularly with the militia, which occupies the neighboring favela on the other side of the train tracks.

“Today the BOPE came, closed the schools, and everyone took off running. We are like rats that hide when the cat comes,” said Rodrigo as he smoked a cigarette and listed by memory the types of arms he had owned in his life. This man, who hid his eyes under dark glasses, remembers perfectly the moment when he began trafficking. He was 13 years old and he was leaning on an M-16 rifle that at that time was approximately the same size he was. He has been sent to jail a number of times, for a total of eight years, but he always returns to the favela to continue his work. He was first a fogueteiro, then a manager, then a hit man…

“I have already killed and cut up so many people… Now I want to be more relaxed,” he said.

The night before, João had made a deal with a crack head who offered him a belt in exchange for drugs. Another person exchanged a stolen watch for crack. João is 27 years old, has two kids and makes 3 thousand reals ($1,350) a month for taking care of the boca de fumo.

“When the police come, we give them something. When the BOPE comes… we have to escape,” said João.

João divides the drugs by price. He offers three bags of crack for 40 reals ($18), but sells doses for just 2 reals (88 cents). Marijuana is sold for 88 cents, $2.19, $4.38 and $8.75, while cocaine can be bought for anywhere from $1.31 to $21.88. He also sells drops of LSD. “You get into this business by necessity; there’s no other way,” he said as he took care of another client.

During the night, crack addicts appear intermittently and, like ghosts, disappear again after they receive their dose.

The Addicts’ Defense

Flavia Piñeiro runs her modest office in the center of Rio de Janeiro wearing stiletto heels, a miniskirt and a black suit jacket that shows off her generous cleavage. She has bleached blonde hair and full lips painted a pale pink. With this same appearance of an exuberant executive, Flavia comes to the favelas at night, walking between men armed with rifles who sell drugs in the same routine way as the produce sellers at the market stalls. During these appearances, the lawyer stops in front of traffickers and says without qualms: “Sell cocaine, sell marijuana, you’ve made plenty of money, but stop selling crack.”

As many as 12 leaders, she claims, have followed her advice.

Flavia is both a lawyer for drug traffickers and an activist for addicts. For 17 years, various well-known criminals in Rio de Janeiro, such as Fernandinho Beira Mar, the top leader of the Red Command, have been contracting her services.

“In Brazil, over 60 percent of imprisonments are drug-related. That is why I followed this path. It is because of the market,” said Piñeiro as she sat in her office, which is located in a space of about 40 square meters with nearly bare walls.

For nine years, she has also been visiting the favelas to help relieve the misery there and prevent human rights violations.

“I don’t feel I’m in danger because they know that when a policeman knocks down the door of their house, they can come to me. The human rights violations that occur in the favelas have made the criminals respect my work,” she said.

It was during a meeting with one of her clients, a leader of Jacare — which was the most famous “crackland” in Rio — that Flavia had the idea of beginning her crusade against crack. The trafficker told her that he regretted selling the drug that, starting in 2007, inundated the poorest zones of Rio de Janeiro, following an agreement in the federal prisons between the leaders of the CV and the PCC — the criminal organization that controls illegal drug sales in São Paulo, where crack had already taken hold some time before that. Some relatives and childhood friends of the drug trafficker had become addicts.

“He told me they had been reduced to human rags, he couldn’t stand to see what his community had turned into,” said Piñeiro.

Flavia thought that if other traffickers shared his feelings, she could convince leaders from all of the factions.

“Everybody knows people that consume cocaine and marijuana, but you don’t see any crack addicts working. They say crack is misery. But it is also misery that leads to crack,” she said.

According to the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD), 40 percent of crack addicts live on the streets, 14 percent are underage and the possibility of becoming an HIV carrier multiplies by eight. In the “cracklands,” a lot of trash also accumulates and many addicts wander around naked and have sex in the street. There are pregnant women. And, consumed by their addiction, the crack heads break the rules of the favela, such as not stealing within the community, a crime that can be punished with death.

The Brazilian government has invested $1.8 trillion in recent years in combating crack. Many activists believe that that these investments are made “just for the English speakers to see,” a Brazilian expression that means it is done for foreigners, for tourists — a strategy that is in vogue because of events like the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

One of the most famous drug stores was located on the Avenida Brasil, at the entrance to the favelas of the Complexo da Mare, an obligatory route of passage for visitors arriving to the international airport. There is now a fence along the tourist route blocking their view of Mare from the taxi. Until the pacification program occurred there, “crackland” continued to exist. Now it has just move a few more blocks inward into the favela, out of sight of the asphalt inhabitants, as the Rio residents call the rich and middle class city residents.

Victor Lira, a resident of Santa Marta — the first favela that was pacified, occupied or militarized, depending how you view it — expressed his regrets one afternoon as he sat atop the Morro enjoying a panoramic view of the “marvelous city.”

“We already ate the bone, and now we want to eat the meat,” he said.

Lira joined the voices of discontent over the gentrification that, according to them, the city is suffering. The rental prices and utilities in the UPP-occupied favelas have risen and their inhabitants have been forced to move elsewhere.

The drug traffickers, meanwhile, accompany them in their journey. The crack addicts, the lowest link in the social chain, have in some cases been stripped of their freedom. In certain time periods since 2011, various crack addicts have suffered compulsory internment as the result of a mandate that allows authorities to bring them against their will to detention centers.

“This measure could help to reduce the levels of consumption. It was already tried in São Paulo and we want it to be approved at a national level. In Brazil there is an unacceptable quantity of users and many are at risk of death,” said national Representative Fernando Francischini of the Party of the Republic.

The 26-year-old Kleber was one of the addicts confined in such facilities. He was there just 24 hours before he returned to the streets for his next dose. He began consuming crack in the Jacarezinho favela. His cousin was a trafficker.

“Crack gave me the opportunity to get out of my own mind,” he said.

One day, after using crack in Bandera II, another of Rio’s “cracklands,” he somehow found his way back to his house. At noon the next day, when he awoke, his family brought him to the church of Minister Dione Dos Santos, from where he told us his story. Kleber is now able to drink tea and eat cookies together with another twenty addicts. He has been clean for five months. “Forced internment just creates hate and rage,” said Dos Santos, who was a trafficker before he found the cross.

Before snack time, the minister walked around the grounds that he had converted into a center for drug addicts. The boarders work as laborers to add to the modest building, which has a kitchen and one bedroom, in addition to another house to hold more addicts. Dos Santos was dressed in a sky blue shirt and when he smiled, he showed off his braces. This man, who has a broad complexion, strong features and a square face, believes that with the help of God, the will and the work, one can leave drugs behind — the same method he used to get out of dealing.

Between the ages of 17 and 22 he was a treasurer in a favela. The day that they arrested him, he had two kilos of cocaine, a rifle and a .45 caliber pistol on his person. He spent three years in prison. After he got out, he became an evangelical minister.

“The punishment comes from heaven. If you hurt someone, you will get hurt,” said the minister.

If Flavia Piñeiro is respected by the criminals because they can count on her, then Minister Dos Santos won the right to preach to criminals because he knows the rules of the favela.

“Many times they say ‘don’t kill him,’ bring him to the minister.”

Dos Santos was the protagonist in a biographic film called Dancing with the Devil. On one occasion, the police surrounded the house of a drug trafficker. One of the agents was caught by the criminals and taken hostage. Fifty armed members of the Pure Third Command waited to end the life of the police officer, just as the reinforcements were coming into the area. Outside the favela, a BOPE detachment waited to open fire on the traffickers. The minister, in view of the foreseeable bloodbath, went to speak with the head of the favela, who gave him permission to intervene. The minister went to the house, grabbed the rifle from the hand of the trafficker and left together with the police in the midst of these two deadly circles. The agent came out alive and the BOPE withdrew.

At the entrance to Lins, just before it was “pacified,” there were two stores. One closed and the other did not. One was a grocery store. The clientele was sporadic. The other consisted of two plastic deck tables. A twenty year old dressed in a black hat and shorts was the boss. He carried a pistol and a radio. One of the tables contained bags of cocaine and crack. The other held rolls of reals. The rhythm of the sales was dizzying. At the end of the street there was a house that appeared abandoned but was full of people.

The first room of the house, behind the curtain that served as a door, was once a kitchen. There was a bar with plastic cups of water and more bags. The cups were used to make cheap pipes. There was a 12-year-old boy with enormous blue eyes. He wore a Flamengo shirt and his big blue eyes stared unseeingly. The smell of the house was similar to sulfur, sickening.

In the other room there was a man taking a nap on a chair. He was surrounded by trash, food, cups, plates. There was lots of noise and yelling, but he kept sleeping. Four men gambled for a dose in a card game. There were lots of women with belly shirts that showed off stomachs swollen from malnutrition. One of the women posed for the camera as if it were going to be the next cover of Vogue.

“I’m going to be famous!” she exclaimed.

A second later, she returned to her drowsy state, to a conversation of eternal silences, murmurs, monosyllables and vacant looks. Some were residents of the favela. Others were itinerant crack heads that kept changing “cracklands” as the old ones disappeared. All of them had sunken eyes and cadaverous features.

One bearded man with blue eyes entered the house.

“I only come here from time to time,” he said, although some of the residents of the house treated him with familiarity.

There were people that slept there and their breakfast was a dose. The man took out a light bulb, a metal tube and a piece of insulating tape. With nervous but dexterous hands, he constructed a pipe in just a couple of minutes. Then he took out a bag and put the crystals on top of the pipe. He flicked a lighter. A “crack” was heard. It seemed as though we began to blur before his eyes.

*Pablo Ferri contributed to this article. This article was reprinted and translated with permission from Jose Luis Pardo and Alejandra S. Inzunza. Follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at This article originally appeared in Domingo El Universal. See original here.

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