Sao Paulo's Drug War Takes Surreal Turn: Dom Phillips

What began in early January as a heavy-handed police operation to clean up an area of downtown Sao Paulo has sparked an impassioned debate about drug policy and urban regeneration in South America's biggest city -- with some strange twists and turns.

Sao Paulo's ornate old city center was once one of its most desirable addresses. But in recent decades it became notorious for crime, drug addiction, homelessness and prostitution. Nowhere was the change more apparent than in the warren of narrow streets and alleys where for more than a decade crack has been openly sold and consumed: an area known as "Cracolandia," or Crackland.

Even as the city center saw a regeneration in recent years -- as trendy bars and clubs opened, artists moved in, and property prices began to climb -- Crackland remained on the frontline of Brazil's growing epidemic of crack addiction. Last year, the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper printed front-page photos of a man in a suit buying and smoking crack on the street there in daylight.

On Jan. 3, Sao Paulo police began a major crackdown in Crackland -- evicting addicts from derelict houses, sealing up properties and making arrests. Folha reported that, so far, 114 people have been arrested and another 43 picked up who were "wanted by justice"; 32 irregular properties have been sealed up and six will be demolished; 352 people have been sent to health services and 92 admitted to hospitals; and 3,345 kilograms of crack -- some 10,000 rocks -- have been seized.

Critics responded furiously to what they deemed an excessive use of force by police. After videos circulated of officers firing rubber bullets and stun bombs at about 100 alleged drug addicts, security officials banned the use of such crowd-control devices and the public prosecutor's office announced a civil inquiry.

Fabio Assuncao, a soap-opera star who has undergone rehab for cocaine addiction, weighed in on his Facebook page Jan. 14. His comments were widely reported before being taken down:

Our authorities stroll through Crackland as if they were at Simba Safari, looking at the animals from the car, praying not to be attacked. The weak are not these gentlemen, but rather, the souls in search of nothing, without the ability to walk a true path.

Assuncao's words chimed with many liberals, who accused the police of ignoring Crackland's underlying problems. As Folha reported, the police action was supposed to be accompanied by an ambitious program of social and health assistance for users. But it was only on Jan. 10, a week after the clean-up started, that an alert was sent to medical centers that there could be an increase in addicts needing help, and a planned support center for users wouldn't be opened until weeks later.

Critics said the authorities had got it the wrong way round: they should have provided shelter and treatment to crack addicts before clearing them out of their homes and seizing their supplies.

The conservative news weekly Veja, on the other hand, was quick to defend the operation. The journalist Reinaldo Azevedo, whose blog is one of the most read in Brazil, asked, "If the police can't act, then what?" He railed:

Here comes the talk of "Call the doctor!" General liberalism would have as a corollary a rigorous treatment program that assumes, as the public ministry wants, everything from a nanny to rebuild the drug addict's ties with his family to priority in the queue for free housing -- a "Pavlov in reverse," as I called it, which compensates the transgression ... Doctors for those who need doctors, and police for those who need police!

About 200 members of a loose bohemian protest group called Gente Diferenciada, or Differentiated Folks, held a barbeque in Crackland to express support for addicts on Jan. 14. An invitation read: "Without offering decent alternatives to users who are dependent and respecting their human rights ... the São Paulo government has been occupying militarily since Jan. 3." Videos and photos of the event rebounded around the Internet. A banner shown in one photo read: "Property speculation is dependent on police violence."

One of Brazil's most powerful evangelical churches, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, took some credit for exorcising the "evil spirit" that had ravaged Crackland. An article on its website noted that a bishop of the church, Edir Macedo, had held a televised service in which a "strong prayer had been made to eliminate the unclean spirit which acted in the area where hundreds passed the hours consuming drugs."

It quoted Clodomir Santos, another church official, saying: "The Bishop determined that Crackland would end and this is what happened."

In a thoughtful post on his blog Bate Estaca, the DJ and journalist Camilo Rocha noted that emotion had overtaken reason in the debate over the Crackland crackdown, partly because of sensationalistic media coverage. To illustrate how surreal and disconnected the argument had become, he quoted the British sci-fi author J.G. Ballard:

In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, it seems to me, have been reversed.

Rocha observed: "In Brazil, there is a lack of creativity and will to face the problem seriously. The fault of politicians, the fault of electors. Here, quality information is usually hidden on the inside pages, far from the headline," said Rocha.

He added: "Ballard learned early that everything is not as it seems."

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

You might like: