SAO PAULO – Every day, the addicts who occupy "Crackland," a square in the center of Sao Paulo where drugs are sold and smoked in broad daylight, pick up their blankets and tents and move across the street to let city sanitation workers clean the area.
And then every day, the group returns. All the while, police look on.
This daily ballet persists four months after authorities launched a major operation to end Crackland for good, arresting scores of dealers and sealing off abandoned buildings they had occupied — sometimes using rubber bullets and tear gas in clashes in the area.
For the two decades that this city within a city has existed, politicians have been trying to get rid of it: first by brute force and more recently with a program that offered addicts housing and cash handouts in hopes of helping them kick their addiction and leave Crackland.
Mayor Joao Doria, a media magnate and political newcomer who took office in January, changed course again, with a program that focuses on offering drug users in-patient treatment coupled with the police raid in May in which he declared Crackland was "finished" and "would not come back." Yet it persists, and experts say there is no simple way to get rid of it.
"Any mayor or any president or anyone can say that the situation will be solved overnight, but this is not true," said Francisco Inacio Bastos, a researcher at the Fiocruz institute who led the last national crack study. "Without sustained action, everything will come back again."
Brazil is likely the world's largest market for crack cocaine, according to the U.S. State Department. Its largest city, Sao Paulo is home to intense poverty and homelessness and to the nation's biggest criminal organization, which plays a vital role in moving cocaine from the Andes producer countries to the streets of Europe. Those factors provide Crackland with both its supply of the drug and ample demand for it among Sao Paulo's downtrodden and homeless.
The first thing visitors to Crackland notice is the smell — of urine and body odor — which wafts as far as a block from its edge. From afar, it appears foreboding. However, Crackland is also a vibrant community, where people sell food and used clothing, catch up with friends and joke with social workers.
This feeling of inclusion may contribute to Crackland's durability. In the wake of the May police action, Crackland has moved twice and is now near its original location. Roberta Costa, an activist and a master's degree candidate at the University of Sao Paulo who studies Crackland, said police operations may have reduced its size — estimated at more than 1,800 people before the May action. But addicts are starting to come back, since it is rare for them to find anything resembling community.
Doria, who is considering a run for president, has walked back his declaration that Crackland is gone, and his administration has since tried a more varied approach. It is expanding centers for out-patient support and offers basic social services in Crackland itself.
Critics say Doria's focus on Crackland is symbolic of a larger campaign to "sanitize" the city: to slap a coat of paint over social problems like poverty and homelessness while pursuing a revitalization of the dilapidated city center that could push working-class families out.
Filipe Sabara, the city's social development secretary, rejects that characterization, saying the previous mayor's policy stashed addicts in filthy hotel rooms and didn't offer enough to help them thrive. He said police actions in Crackland have made it safer and thus more accessible to city services — a claim Costa disputes.
Carlos Weis, the coordinator of the human rights unit of the state's public defender's office, said the new program hasn't hired enough therapists or social workers or opened enough out-patient centers to sufficiently address the social issues surrounding drug addiction.
"The idea of the mayor's office, which we think is fine, is to pull the person out the place where they're using drugs, detox them, but you have to put them on the path of opportunity for a new life," said Weis.
In response to that criticism, Sabara points to the New Work program that pairs homeless people with jobs in companies. Since January, more than 1,200 homeless people have found formal jobs through the program, including 19 who came from Crackland itself. About 90 percent have held onto their posts.
Several addicts interviewed appeared to be unaware that the city was offering any path out of Crackland outside of in-patient treatment.
Faced with the choice between hospitalization and staying on the street, Denise, a 48-year-old mother of three who would not give her last name, said she chose Crackland.
"I can't be jailed again in a clinic — that's a prison," said Denise, who served a five-year sentence for drug trafficking. "It's hospitalization or staying, so…."
In June and July, the city set up three tents where anyone can take a shower, get a meal or sleep for the night, replicating some of the services Doria's administration initially eschewed.
For some, the tents are a bridge between Crackland and life beyond. Roberlei dos Reis, a former taxi driver, began using crack four years ago, and his addiction eventually forced him onto the streets. The 42-year-old now spends his days in the shade of Tent 2, and his nights in a bunk bed in a shipping container there. The newfound stability helped him stop using drugs two months ago, and he is looking for work.
But just over the fence that surrounds Tent 2, Crackland rumbles on.
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