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: Cracolandia, or Crackland.
Cracolandia'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 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 Cracolandia 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 Cracolandia, the effort simply pushed the crack trade east by a half dozen blocks.