After repeated failed efforts to rout the crack trade in São Paulo, the city is implementing an experimental new program which could provide a model for other drug-plagued cities in the region. But even as the city emphasizes the need for a policy based on harm reduction, police authorities are supplementing this approach with a traditional hardline attitude to drug use.

With micro-trafficking and domestic drug consumption on the rise across the region, local, state and federal governments alike in Latin America are searching for policies to fight low-level drug trafficking and the criminal structures that profit from it. In the northern Argentine city of Rosario, federal security forces recently responded to the booming drug trade there by carrying out a series of raids billed as “the largest-ever” police operation in the country. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos marked the one-year anniversary of his “war on micro-trafficking” early this month by ordering the demolition of some 400 buildings in urban areas throughout the country allegedly linked to criminal activity. Officials in Quito and Lima, among other cities in the hemisphere, have also battled against micro-trafficking networks in recent years. 

Like some of these other cities, Brazil’s São Paulo has been fighting domestic sales and consumption of drugs for years. A run-down area in the city’s center, the neighborhood of Luz, has been the most notorious haven for drug dealing and prostitution over the past three decades. When “crack” cocaine derived from cocaine base paste was first introduced to the Brazilian market in the early 1990s, this problem worsened drastically. Because of the drug’s easy availability and relatively low cost, it quickly became popular among young and poor street-dwellers, and its high potential for addiction drew a steady stream of users, known as the “fluxo” or flow to the area. It was this trend that gave Luz its more commonly-used name today: Cracolândia, or Crackland.

Cracolândia’s Shifting Borders

Since the mid-1990s, several mayors of São Paulo, as well as a number of governors of São Paulo state, have sought to close down Cracolândia. Repeated state and local police operations have been launched, targeting both users and traffickers of the drug. Authorities have closed dozens of hotels, restaurants and bars in the area, accusing them of being drug-dealing fronts. Last year, the state government began implementing a controversial forced treatment law, allowing authorities to order the internment of those deemed to be in the “advanced stages of addiction.”

Yet despite all these efforts, the flow has persisted, with the micro-trafficking epicenter simply springing up elsewhere. As the map below illustrates, the area known as Cracolândia has moved at least twice in response to police repression over the years. The first major operation in the neighborhood was the 2005 “Operacão Limpa” (Operation Clean) carried out as part of a broader effort by the administration of then-Mayor Jose Serra to revitalize the city center. Far from ending Cracolândia, the effort simply pushed the crack trade east by a half dozen blocks.

The second major shift occurred in 2012, under Serra’s successor, Gilberto Kassab. Billed as a final death blow to the city center’s open air crack market, the formidably-named “Operacão Sufoco” (Operation Suffocate) was described by the city’s drug policy coordinator as an attempt to cut the drug supply to users. The goal, he said, was to cause enough “pain and suffering” to force them to seek treatment. Echoing its predecessor, this operation only succeeded in relocating crack use to within a three square block area. This zone remains the heart of Cracolândia today.

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Despite attempts to eliminate it, or perhaps as a result of them, the hundreds of inhabitants and visitors to Cracolândia have developed a kind of unique identity. Bruno Gomes, head of NGO E de Lei, which has been operating needle exchange and other harm reduction programs in the area since 1998, says there are unwritten codes in the area. “It has its own culture,” said Gomes. “You have prostitution, you have the sale of different kinds of merchandise, like a kind of street market. It is a society with a great number of people.” Like any sub-culture, there are bylaws. Smoking in front of children, referred to in street slang there as “anjos” or “angels,” is prohibited, and robbing outsiders is generally discouraged, as it attracts unwanted police attention.

But the culture of Cracolândia has a dark side. According to Gomes, it revolves almost entirely around the “pedra,” or crack rock. “It is used as a kind of currency to buy other things as well. With a pedra you can buy cigarettes, drinks, clothing, electronics and food, whatever is sold there,” Gomes said.

A New Approach: With Open Arms

Partially in response to criticism of the more heavy-handed operations of the past, Mayor Fernando Haddad announced a new program in January, one year after taking office. He unveiled “De Braços Abertos” (“With Open Arms”), a program to provide housing, food and work opportunities to crack users living on the streets in the area.


The program is a joint effort of 13 municipal ministries, including the Ministries of Culture, Labor, and Human Rights, but is being most closely monitored by the Ministry of Health. Inspired by the success of similar programs in the Netherlands and Canada, the roughly 400 participants in De Braços Abertos receive $6.50 USD a day in exchange for four hours of work cleaning parks and other public places. All are given regular meals and housing in local motels.  A field office in the area provides access to medical care, and offers users entertainment and a place to rest.

The most controversial element of the program, at least judging by negative coverage in the local press, is the fact that giving up drug use is not a condition for participating in the program, though participants are encouraged to do so and have greater access to addiction treatment.  

But while this has been criticized, proponents say that such programs bring greater long-term benefits to individuals and drug-afflicted communities than mandatory treatment centers. Providing users with basic living conditions and health care, they say, helps clean the streets while also reducing overdose deaths and the spread of disease. Liz Evans, who helped organize a similar effort to provide housing to drug users in a low-income area in Vancouver in the early 1990s, describes this as “bring[ing] services to the people, rather than expecting people to change in order to receive the services.”

cracklandtwothreeDe Braços Abertos has been well-received by participating locals. According to one woman in the program, who did not wish to be identified, it offered “the first time in years that I’ve been able to sleep straight for more than a few hours.” Living on the streets, she said, forced her to sleep with one eye open, constantly aware of her surroundings. 

Other program participants consulted by InSight Crime said it would be discriminatory to require them to give up crack use in order to receive basic services. One individual, who identified himself as Kayarex, asked: “What is the difference between using the drug in private for me and others doing it? What about the businessman who is using cocaine in his luxury apartment?”

Walking the Streets of Crackland

One of the ironies of Cracolândia is that while press reporting on the open-air drug market often depicts the area as a lawless power vacuum in the city center, this is far from the truth.

InSight Crime visited Cracolândia in early April to assess the reality of the situation, and noted a strong state presence there. On any given day, at least two dozen health workers for the state government’s internment program are stationed at service points around the neighborhood.  In addition to Braços Abertos, the mayor’s office operates a clinic in the area. Law enforcement officers, both from the municipal guard and the state-controlled military police, routinely patrol the streets and police vans have been parked on particularly troublesome corners.  

Lieutenant William Thomaz, head of Military Police operations in the city center, provided a tour of the neighborhood. According to him, there are 120 police in his jurisdiction, the highest concentration of officers per city block anywhere in São Paulo.

Thomaz describes his job as “mobilizing the community as a whole to build security in partnership with the police.” But at the same time, he is aware that the reality on the ground has less to do with ideals and believes it involves a certain military logic.  “Here our strategy is domination of territory, occupation of the area,” he said.

As it happens, the police lieutenant is a staunch supporter of De Braços Abertos. “The program is really working. We used to have some 800-1,000 people on the street. Right now we have just 200-250, though at night it may reach 350-400. The government has reduced the number of people here, it’s far less than it was [before the program began] in December.”

But it is interesting to note that while the harm reduction program has been criticized by those who say it allows participants to benefit from public funds while continuing to smoke crack, the dynamics of drug use in Cracolândia are far more complex.

cracklandthreethreeFor starters, the increase in police presence has limited the space available for open drug use. When De Braços Abertos was launched in December, it was accompanied by a major police operation in which the scores of shanties and temporary structures that local squatters had built there over the years were torn down. Police vans parked on formerly abandoned streets, and users were effectively corralled into a single crowded street corner, situated across the street from the Braços Abertos field office. Curiously, just a few yards away from this corner sits a large surveillance bus, manned by the municipal police force, or Civil Municipal Guard (GCM).

When asked about the concentration of users on the corner, Lieutenant Thomaz was at first coy. “We are aware that the sale of drugs occurs frequently in this area, on that corner, which is monitored by a GCM bus,” he said. In fact, it appears that authorities have more than an awareness of drug use there. Users and health workers in the area confirmed to InSight Crime that police tacitly allow it among those who live in and frequent Cracolândia.

Open crack use is allowed only on this corner, and nowhere else in the city center. While the drug’s sale is prohibited, it is effectively tolerated so long as it occurs discretely. All of this occurs in full view of the camera mounted on top of the GCM surveillance bus. This reporter was even allowed inside, and spoke at length with the GCM officers sitting in front of the half-dozen monitors transmitting live video feed of the huddled mass of users on the corner.

Small-Scale Users vs Traffickers

For Thomaz, the GCM surveillance, which is conducted in coordination with a state anti-narcotics police unit known as the Anti-Narcotics Department (DENARC), has been key to reclaiming the area. This is the official narrative of the Haddad administration as well. The mayor has touted the program for reducing the flow of visitors to Cracolândia by as much as “90 percent,” and claims that 25 drug traffickers were arrested in the first ten days of the program.

But these claims have caused controversy. Those who work in the area assert that while police claim to be going after traffickers, in reality they are arresting small-time users. According to Gomes of E de Lei, the arrangement is another kind of prison. “Users can be arrested at any time,” he said. His organization has counted the arrest of more than 80 small-time users since De Braços Abertos was launched. According to Gomes, the main problem with the police approach is that it overlooks the fact that users frequently sell or exchange small quantities of the drug simply to get by on the streets.

Thomaz, for his part, admits that most of those arrested do not fit the profile of drug traffickers. “But that is what we are fighting. It is not large-scale trafficking or even micro-trafficking, but smaller than that. It is ‘nano-trafficking,’” he says. According to him, it is not uncommon for users in Cracolândia to be “subcontracted” by larger traffickers attempting to mitigate the high risk of arrest by introducing the drug to the area in small quantities. “They are users, who many times have entered into an agreement with traffickers. A trafficker will say, ‘hey, you sell 50 rocks for me, and you can keep five.’ And they will do it because they’re already addicted.”

But who are these larger traffickers? Is there a specific group that profits from crack sales in South America’s biggest open air drug market? Some believe so. According to Rubens Adorno, an anthropologist who has written an in-depth ethnographic study of the area, the crack trade in São Paulo is controlled by the city’s main criminal gang, the First Capital Command (PCC). He believes dealers in Cracolândia are linked to so-called “sintonias” (loosely translated as “tunes”), which are PCC affinity groups. “The number one rule is that they do not appear as leaders,” said Adorno. In his years of studying the dynamics of São Paulo’s drug war the researcher claimed to have met a PCC enforcer in Cracolândia, a fact he only discovered after observing his reaction to a police patrol. “He was a person just like everyone else in the area, except that you could tell that he had a kind of presence, he had a way of maintaining order without any violence.”


Gomes described the PCC presence in Cracolândia as similarly phantom-like. “We know that there is participation of the PCC, but you do not know who is with them,” he said. “Sometimes in the middle of everyone that’s there, let’s say of the 800 people smoking rock, selling, buying and passing pipes, there’s someone who is better dressed, who is not like the others and stands out a little. But not always.” 

cracklandfourIf true, this would raise questions about the purpose of the GCM monitoring. After all, what is the benefit of surveillance if the larger criminal actors are ignored while small-scale users are rounded up like cattle?

But Lt. Thomaz denies that there are any elements of organized crime operating in Cracolândia. “We have no reason to believe that there is any group or criminal faction that effectively dominates the traffic here,” the military police official said. “First because what happens here is small-time trafficking. And second because it is a market that, while it involves the consumption of drugs, is fought by us. It does not have any concentration.”

“Reducing the Harm of Poverty”

In addition to the seemingly disproportionate arrests of crack users, the city’s security strategy in the area has been criticized by some who question its timing. When it was first announced, participants in De Braços Abertos were told that their employment would only be temporary. According to Thiago Calil, a psychologist who works for E de Lei’s field team, they were given six-month contracts. This coincides suspiciously with the end of the World Cup, which convinced many that the program was merely an attempt to hide a blemish in the city center from increased international attention.

But according to Myres Cavalcanti, this is false. Cavalcanti is head of the Municipal Health Ministry’s mental health office, and is one of the authorities most responsible for steering De Braços Abertos. “The project has no set ending time,” said Cavalcanti. “We are including people who have been excluded from society. Once we bring them in, we’re not going to expel them again.” However, she conceded that the terms of the city’s work contract allowed individuals to remain in the program for up to only a year, maximum. In her words, this encourages the “development of autonomy,” and will create space for new participants in the future.

In the meantime, Cavalcanti claims the program has brought real benefits to participants. While roughly 100 quit the program and were replaced early on, there are currently 389 individuals registered in De Braços Abertos. She admits that of these, around 280 have only participated sporadically in the work schedule, while the rest are working regularly. But the main accomplishment of the program is that those who are participating experience an improved quality of life and are not forced to access the drug in potentially violent situations. “Are there people in the program using drugs? Yes, there are. But very few — less and less every day — are going to that corner to use in the street,” said Cavalcanti.


Because of this, she says participants are reducing the intensity of crack use. While they are still users, their improved basic conditions mean that they have less incentive to turn to drug use as an escape. “They themselves say it, and clinical exams show it,” said Cavalcanti. “I can say that only 15 percent have not lessened the intensity of use, which is to say we have 85 percent that have, to varying degrees.”

Marcela Pontes, a doctor who works in a street clinic in the area, is less sure of the program’s concrete results thus far. But she claims that taking crack users off the streets and out of the elements has clear benefits to their health. “In a way, it is a basic kind of harm reduction,” she said. “It is reducing the harms of poverty.” Still, she added that she would like to see more work done to educate participants on safer methods of using, like avoiding sharing pipes to cut the risk of spreading diseases like pneumonia or hepatitis.

The End of Crackland?

Together, De Braços Abertos and the targeted police strategies are a disjointed approach to the small-scale crack cocaine trade, focusing drug use into one concentrated area on one hand, and on the other punishing users seemingly at random.

But it is difficult to argue that this unique combination of forces has not seen dramatic results. The drastic reduction in the number of people who congregate in the area speaks for itself. Ultimately, it seems that the administration of Fernando Haddad could succeed where others have failed.

Lieutenant Thomaz thinks the city may have turned a corner as well. “I believe that we are in fact winning the battle against drug trafficking here. Not in a usual way, by apprehending people, but in a diversified way. By occupying the area and building community spaces,” he says.

Will it last? Will the city’s crackland simply move elsewhere, like it has so many times in the past?

Perhaps, says Thomaz. “I understand what you are saying and you have a point. If we occupy that area, they will go somewhere else. That’s a factor we’ve studied. But the next step for us is to prevent traffic from going to that area, to prevent those people from concentrating again. It’s about occupying these spaces. If it goes to other areas, then it is the duty of the state to go there as well.”

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