Tackling São Paulo’s Crack Cocaine Epidemic

Brazil has the biggest crack cocaine epidemic in the world, and São Paulo’s Cracolândia (Crackland) is its symbolic epicentre. The city is changing its approach to tackling the problem. Involuntary hospitalisation, police interventions and forced dissipation have given way to an Open Arms programme, which provides food, housing and jobs for addicts.

Fellows 2014

By Almudena Toral

October 29, 2014

Also published by The Guardian

In the centre of São Paulo, Brazil, commuters and families walk through the Cracolândia district. Here, a woman with a baby and schoolchildren pass by an addict.

The area has been taken over by crack cocaine addicts since the late 1980s. Smoking crack is defacto legalised in a area nicknamed the Fluxo (on the right). The drug reaches the city via micro-traffickers – highly mobile individuals who carry small quantities of crack cocaine.

Drug users are forced out of the Fluxo every morning for it to be cleaned. While they wait, they keep their belongings in shopping trolleys.

In January, the city government set up a harm reduction programme called De Braços Abertos (Open Arms) to support addicts with food, housing and jobs. The programme has a tent where addicts can gather to watch TV, sleep and socialise.

An addict stands in the Braços Abertos tent with his crack pipe and lighter hung from his neck.

An addict who is part of the programme sits on a bench while a police officer patrols the area. Most of the people arrested, usually outside the programme area, are small-scale traffickers.

An officer watches over the Fluxo, where users can openly consume. Buying and selling is illegal, but curtains hide dealing. The writing on the van says ‘It is possible to win the battle against crack.’

Police cameras monitor the area. Brazil has an immense, porous border with coca-producing nations Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. In small Brazilian towns close to the border, often in home kitchens, coca paste is transformed into impure yellowish crack rocks. The supply chain is nearly impossible for law enforcement to trace.

Users and their work supervisors collect brooms to start their working day. The Open Arms programme gives part-time road sweeping jobs, food and housing in hotels to more than 400 addicts, without requiring them to give up drugs.

Flavia Castro do Britto, 39, has joined the programme. Here, she sweeps the streets of downtown São Paulo as part of her few hours of daily work.

Britto in her hotel room, which she shares with another addict. She worked as a hairdresser for 20 years before she lost her home and her job after leaving an abusive relationship with a man who got her addicted to crack.

Health workers talk to addicts outside one of the Open Arms hotels.

‘A happy day is so rare’ – a message on one of the hotel walls.

Almudena Toral reported from Brazil with the support of the International Reporting Project. These photographs were published in conjunction with the article "Controversial São Paulo Project Offers Jobs to Crack Addicts in Cracolândia."