Originally published in Portuguese.
Brazil currently faces the world’s largest crack epidemic, with an estimated 1 million crack users. Sharing a border with 10 countries, Brazil is a prime transit hub for the coca producers of the Andes region. While the increasing use of crack there is often attributed to the war on drugs in neighboring countries and the growing number of Brazilians with disposable incomes, the government’s corresponding interventions often fail to address the root causes of addiction.
Cracolândia is a densely populated area neighboring Luz—São Paulo’s busiest train station—alongside colleges, business centers, and the offices of Sao Paolo’s biggest newspaper. Here, the entwined epidemics of poverty and addiction are extremely visible. The city is infamous for the public use and trafficking of drugs, while residents face violations of their dignity, safety, and security as the police reportedly detain residents involuntarily and carry out violent street clearance operations.
More than 700 users of crack are concentrated in Cracolândia’s small locality in Southwest São Paulo, forming a parallel society of people treated as second-class citizens within the city.
As the “drug war” or “crack epidemic”—expressions widely used for policies of institutional repression of the poor—loom on, what is clearly visible when walking through São Paulo’s streets are the sheer numbers of people living outside. Tent villages in town squares and under viaducts, whole families cooking their daily meals on the street, and people congregating in public spaces throughout the day are a clear reflection of the lack of housing and employment.
According to official estimations, about 19,000 people in Cracolândia are urban refugees who come from various localities of São Paulo, the countryside and abroad. They must survive the harshness of day-to-day life and the biting cold of the night: unwanted, humiliated and abandoned in the center of a bustling metropolis.
The neuroscientist and addiction expert Dr. Carl Hart was in São Paulo in 2017 when he stated:
“The problem is not the crack… nobody is addicted from the first dose…The problem is racism and social inequality…Brazil is experiencing apartheid and blames the drugs.”
But if you think that Cracolândia is a soulless, untenable place, you’re wrong; things operate under clear mores of community and safety. Residents socialize in small groups, exchange goods and services, share resources and unite against injustice. They also build pipes. Borne out of necessity and proximal skill-sharing, sculpture and the ability to build crack artifacts is a distinct skill in the area. Many people occupying Cracolândia have various skills in construction, so tools and smoking pipes have become increasingly customized and elaborate.
Organizations working to improve community health and harm reduction for drug use are advising people to use their own personal smoking artifacts to minimize the threat and further spread of hepatitis and tuberculosis, in addition to providing sexual education and psychosocial support.
“Those who aren’t addicted don’t know how it is” – User Report – Video: Bridge Journalism
On any given day Cracolândia and it’s main meeting point, Pipe Square, lie relatively calm until the arrival of until the arrival of the Metropolitan Civil Guard (GCM), city security forces tasked with protecting public spaces. Then the targeted frisks, curses, violence and harassment begin against residents.
The GCM conducts thrice-daily “cleaning” operations which are mandated by the city council. Street sweepers join forces with trucks which shoot out water mixed with detergent in order to sanitize the area (both literally and metaphorically) as their directive is to clean out the people deemed as trash and prevent them from occupying their living spaces. During these operations, the sweepers confiscate any and all objects that residents own, including blankets, to prevent the habitation of Cracolândia’s streets.
“Police say they only confiscate blankets from users who own more than one. But if the police directive is to prevent the construction of tents that are used to sell drugs, how is this [blanket] confiscation an effective method?” says L., an advocate who denounces the actions carried out by the government in Cracolândia.
This is just one of the repressive actions taken by the state against residents, especially considering the steep temperature drops of winter time in São Paulo.
With wet floors, without blankets and treated as undesirables by their neighbors, hundreds of people awake to yet another day in the ebb and flow
C, 35, who has been living in Cracolândia for more than two years, said: “The out of towners come to visit and sculpt. They call us garbage people, they beat down on us, they accuse us of being drug dealers and in the end they leave and everything goes back to the way it was before…I don’t live here for the crack, but I’m against this system and I prefer to stay here with my brothers from street”.
The tension in Cracolândia doesn’t just stem from the city council’s directive to manage the public health crisis, but by the real estate speculation and booming commercial expansion in the area. A new project, The Nova Luz, was launched by the Brazilian government with aims to vacate and demolish existing real estate in order to create an area for commercial and business interests.
Companies like Porto Seguro that are based in the region are lobbying public officials in order to further gentrify and capitalize on speculative real estate in the area.
On May 21, 2017, following a city council-approved violent operation against the residents of Cracolândia, then-Mayor João Dória informed the press, “Cracolândia is over, now it’s Nova Luz”. However, the concentrated population living there merely migrated to a nearby street and continued existing in the locality. This demonstrates the inefficiency of the state in dealing with the alarming public health situation by continually opting in favor of police violence and displacement.
Social workers who support people living in the streets noted that there are about 30 other crack bases in the city of São Paulo. In fact, the situation on the streets and the concentration of people living in total abandonment has been spreading outside São Paulo’s borders, and now includes the periphery. With the failure of the government’s tactics, the crisis is poised to continue spreading.
Can video make a difference?
David Quintanilha, the public defender at the Center for Human Rights, reported to us: “Our findings are that both the GCM and military police in the region have acted in violation of the law. People have come to the defense counsel and have brought videos and photos as evidence of these attacks. People in the region report verbal and physical violence, as well as inhibited movement to and from the area.”
The videos of violence recorded with mobile phones have served as proof that has resulted in official denouncements of police actions in the region. In regard to this situation, the defender commented, “Police often seize cell phones and we the defenders have challenged the legality of such actions.”
In January of this year, local advocacy organizations held a public hearing for victims of police violence to testify and to denounce the state’s belligerence against residents of this region. WITNESS will continue to help more people in São Paulo understand their right to record police actions, how to use mobile phones to film, and how to use video in the fight for justice.
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