Brazil’s Crackland: São Paulo drug market under police pressure

Police pressure on Crackland, the open-air drug market in downtown São Paulo that's one of the world's largest and oldest, has pushed dealers and users into adjacent neighborhoods.
Police pressure on Crackland, the open-air drug market in downtown São Paulo that’s one of the world’s largest and oldest, has pushed 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 clotted with people draped in blankets, many lying down. Drug users pick through trash bins in search of items they might sell for a few reals — enough to secure the next fix. They carry away a wheezing boombox, worn tennis shoes, busted combs.

Dawn is breaking over Crackland.

It’s been two months since hundreds of drug-addicted people spilled into Mendes’s neighborhood, and her morning walks have been tense ever since. Now, when she goes to the gym, the retired tourism manager takes only her key. She avoids going out at night at all.

“You become a prisoner,” says Mendes, 58. “You cannot bring your cellphone with you when you are out, even if you are going to work. You have to be constantly on alert.”

Brazilians call it Cracolândia: a 30-year-old colony of hundreds of drug users and dealers under the control of the First Capital Command, the city’s most powerful gang, across more than two dozen blocks in downtown São Paulo. It’s one of the world’s oldest and largest open-air drug markets, moving an estimated $37 million of product each year.

Since crack cocaine engulfed São Paulo in the 1990s, nearly every city administration has proclaimed victory over Crackland, only to see it resurge, whack-a-mole style, in a different location, to the horror of the residents and business owners affected. Successive governments have tried approaches ranging from tear gas and rubber bullets to free housing and treatment.

In 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a law to allow police and security to commit addicted people to hospitals by force. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is challenging Bolsonaro in the October election, says 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 decades-long series of police crackdowns this year is pushing the squatters beyond their long-standing boundaries and into adjoining neighborhoods.

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

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

Elbio Marquez walks three blocks into the heart of Crackland, past people with open wounds and crutches, to open the heavy iron gates of Cristolandia church. His bright yellow uniform is stamped with “Jesus transforms.”

“Coffee? Showers? A change of clothes?” he offers to the people gathered.

Suddenly, people rise to move. Run, run, they whisper. “Run where?” asks one man, confused.

Across the street, a line of police officers, armed and grim-faced, orders the gathering to disperse. As people run, a tear gas bomb goes off.

The chaos jars amid the architecture of downtown São Paulo. Crackland sits next to the Sala São Paulo, the extravagant theater that serves as headquarters for the city’s symphony orchestra, blocks from the Pérola Byington women’s hospital, and close to the Pinacoteca, one of the country’s most important museums of modern art. It’s not only a public health nightmare but also a real estate headache.

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

“We unrooted the problem. We broke the economic cycle of Crackland,” says Alexis Vargas, head of strategy for São Paulo’s city police force.

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

The police are urging neighbors to be patient as Cracklanders move through the city. “There needs to be resilience,” Vargas says. “Organized crime is resilient, so the public also has to be.”

At 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 in five days. Before he quit, he says, he stole electronics and items from the local market to sell for crack. But life in the last few months has grown more difficult: “They send us from one place to another. You are hit with rubber bullets, pepper spray.”

Jittery and anxious, he says he’ll seek help from a government treatment center after the service is over. With a 9-month-old daughter, he is determined to stay clean. “It is a battle. You have no idea how hard it is.”

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

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

The newcomers, he says, have stolen cables and metal from the outside of his store. Customers have stopped coming by — some, scared of the addicted people; others told to work from home until they disperse.

Maria Inês Sene, 61, was leaving her home. Sene has lived near Crackland since it began. Until this year, she says, she was able to walk and bike here without fear.

Now the noise of the drug market keeps her awake at night. Before she walks out her door in the morning, she looks out the window to judge the mood. If the users seem calm, she says, she leaves. If she sees fights or chaos, she waits.

In May, she was returning home from the supermarket at dusk when four men blocked her path and demanded her bags. “What am I supposed to do at that point?” she asks. “It is hard to explain what I was feeling, a mixture of panic and fear. Of course, I see the human being in front of me, but I also felt so vulnerable being surrounded by four men.”

Now, she doesn’t leave the house past 5 pm

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

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

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

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