Crackland in Brazil: the São Paulo drug market under police pressure

Police pressure on Crackland, downtown São Paulo's open-air drug market, one of the largest and oldest in the world, has driven dealers and users into adjacent neighborhoods.
Police pressure on Crackland, downtown São Paulo’s open-air drug market, one of the largest and oldest in the world, has driven dealers and users into adjacent neighborhoods. (Gui Christ/FTWP)

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SÃO PAULO — Fatima Mendes tightens her grip on her dogs’ leashes as she crosses a street in the hemisphere’s largest city. The narrow sidewalks here are crowded with people draped in blankets, many of them lying down. Drug addicts rummage through trash cans looking for items they could sell for a few reals – enough to secure the next fix. They carry away a hissing boombox, worn tennis shoes, broken combs.

Dawn breaks over Crackland.

It’s been two months since hundreds of drug addicts poured into the Mendes neighborhood, and its morning walks have been strained ever since. Now when she hits the gym, the retired tourism manager only takes his key. She avoids going out at night at all.

“You become a prisoner,” says Mendes, 58. “You cannot take your mobile phone with you when you go out, even if you go to work. You have to be constantly alert.”

Brazilians call it Cracolândia: a 30-year-old colony of hundreds of drug users and traffickers under the control of First Capital Command, the city’s most powerful gang, spread over more than two dozen city blocks. from downtown Sao Paulo. It is one of the oldest and largest open-air drug markets in the world, transporting approximately $37 million worth of product each year.

Since crack engulfed São Paulo in the 1990s, nearly every city government has declared victory over Crackland, only to see it reappear, mole-like, in a different location, much to the horror of residents and business owners involved. Successive governments have tried approaches ranging from tear gas and rubber bullets to free housing and healthcare.

In 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a law authorizing police and security to forcibly detain drug addicts in hospitals. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is challenging Bolsonaro in October’s election, said he would consider limiting prison terms for users and redefining definitions of drug trafficking to exclude smaller quantities .

Now Crackland is on the move again. The latest in a series of decades-long police crackdowns this year is pushing squatters beyond their long-held borders and into nearby neighborhoods.

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

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

Elbio Marquez walks three blocks through the heart of Crackland, past people with open wounds and crutches, to open the heavy iron doors of Cristolandia Church. His bright yellow uniform is stamped with “Jesus is transformed”.

“Coffee? Shower? A change of clothes? He offers the gathered people.

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

Across the street, a line of police, armed and grim-faced, orders the gathering to disperse. As people run, a tear gas canister explodes.

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

Until recent months, the traffickers had total control of the region. But since the beginning of the year, the police have launched a series of invasions to arrest traffickers and disperse users. According to the police, the operations led to the arrest of several prominent traffickers.

“We have uprooted the problem. We have broken the economic cycle of Crackland,” says Alexis Vargas, head of strategy for the São Paulo Municipal Police.

The approach has shrunk Crackland from a height of 4,000 people in 2017 to a few hundred today. But as people scatter, residents of neighborhoods that have never been affected are locking their doors and closing their businesses.

Police are urging neighbors to be patient as the Cracklanders move through town. “There has to be resilience,” Vargas says. “Organized crime is resilient, so the public must be too.”

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

“The first time you use crack, that’s it. Your life is over,” says Alan Felipe, 32. He says he has not used for five days. Before quitting, he says, he stole electronics and items from the local market to resell them for crack cocaine. But life in recent months has become more difficult: “They send us from one place to another. You are hit by rubber bullets, pepper spray.

Nervous and anxious, he says he will seek help from a government treatment center once the service is over. With a 9 month old daughter, he is determined to stay clean. “It’s a battle. You have no idea how difficult it is.

Valdomiro Sousa Lima, 54, says he has been using crack for 13 years. He pulls out a homemade pipe, made from a car antenna, from a bag. “Now there is no place to stay. We have no space to congregate. Everyone is spaced out.

Aldino de Magalhães runs a restaurant that has been in his family for generations. But sales have dropped 50% since the day in May when, without warning, drug addicts moved into his block. “It was worse than the pandemic,” he says.

The newcomers, he says, stole cables and metal from outside his store. Customers stopped coming – some frightened by drug addicts; others said to work from home until they disperse.

Maria Inês Sene, 61, left her home. Sene has lived near Crackland since the beginning. Until this year, she says, she could walk and cycle here without fear.

Now the noise from the drug market keeps him awake at night. Before leaving her house in the morning, she looks out the window to judge the atmosphere. If the users seem calm, she says, she leaves. If she sees fighting or chaos, she waits.

In May, as she walked home from the supermarket at dusk, four men blocked her way and demanded her bags. “What am I supposed to do then?” she asks. “It’s hard to explain how I felt, a mixture of panic and fear. Of course I see the human being in front of me, but I also felt so vulnerable to be surrounded by four men.

Now she doesn’t leave the house after 5 p.m.

As night falls, Livia Pereira da Silva sits on a park bench and watches her son climb a tree. Jobless and pregnant, she has been squatting in Crackland with her five children for years.

“I’ve never had any problems with users,” she says. “The problem is the clashes. My problem is with the police. During the police operations, the school is canceled, the bullets fly and she closes the doors of her apartment to prevent tear gas.

But users give her children cookies and toys, and they don’t smoke in front of them. Once, when her children were playing outside and got lost, a patron took them home. “If people saw them up close, they would have a different view,” she says. “Before being drug addicts, they are human beings.”

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