(MintPress) – Controversy clouds Brazil’s new law of mandatory treatment for crack cocaine addicts. On Jan. 3, downtown Sao Paulo looked like a war zone as police fired rubber bullets and stun bombs to evict crack addicts from the streets. Today, in a complete turnabout in tactics, Sao Paulo police will be looking to help treat addicts, not arrest them.
The Brazilian government hopes to roll out a new “war against drugs” policy in the frontline battleground of Sao Paulo’s district known as Cracolandia, or Crackland. It would allow social service workers, with armed police escorts, to remove crack addicts from the streets and put them into local hospitals and special drug facilities for treatment.
Government authority says: “Police will not be deployed to remove addicts this time. It will be social services and not the police, who will identify potential patients on the streets. And they will only identify people in advanced stages of addiction and at risk of death.”
Critics say that mandatory intervention can only work if it is backed by a rigorous prevention policy and this could easily be a pretext for cleaning up the streets without lawful means.
What was once a beautiful old city is now a gangland hot spot, notorious for crime, drug addiction, homelessness and prostitution. It is clear that there needs to be some social invention to prevent crack addicts openly smoking in the narrow streets and alleys. Sao Paulo police began the year with a major crackdown by evicting addicts from derelict houses, sealing up properties and making arrests. In a bloody and violent raid by the Sao Paulo police, local paper Folha reported that there were 114 arrests, 32 properties were sealed up and six were demolished; 3,345 kilograms of crack were seized and some 10,000 rocks were also a part of the drug haul. Under this new initiative, all this will be a thing of the past, and the police will act more like bodyguards to health workers.
Tackling Brazil’s drug crisis
Brazilian authorities have been waging a costly and violent war against drug barons and drug traffickers. International drug enforcers believe that Brazil’s coastline supports the trafficking of cocaine to European markets. Nationally the news isn’t any better — Brazilian authorities are struggling to cope with the world’s biggest market for crack cocaine with more than a million users.
Two years ago, the Brazilian government launched a multimillion dollar program to tackle what it called the epidemic spread of crack. Under the plan, 4 billion reais ($2 billion) was to be spent on prevention, care and policing by 2014. Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are the only states that have already signed up for the policy. Brazil’s Congress is expected to vote on a bill in the coming months that would increase penalties for drug trafficking and mandate forced treatment for crack addicts across the country.
Critics are worried that by forcing addicts into treatment, it is not only putting health workers’ lives at risk, but also they’re skeptical that it will reduce the number of addicts.
Speaking to BBC, Silva Tidestco, a psychologist at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said:
“Forcing treatment will only escalate the violence between addicts and the authorities, be it police, or health worker.
“The policy doesn’t work. What happens is, they will go into treatment for months. They will come out, and after a few months, sometimes even weeks, they will be back using it.
“The number of success stories is very small and insignificant to justify the use of compulsory treatment.”
Commentators have described the policy as naive. But the war on drugs is a growing problem. In the past, Sao Paulo police have be criticized for heavy-handed tactics resulting in deadly shootout battles, so will this new approach by the police restore some trust?
Eloisa de Sousa, Sao Paulo’s justice secretary, weighs in: “This is a prevention policy. Police will only be deployed where necessary and that the measure will save lives. We cannot just let people die.”
It is difficult to see if this prevention policy will restore trust within a community that feels hounded and persecuted by a violent police force.
Police are in the frontline in this drug war. Sao Paulo is the latest major South American city to see its drug war spiral out of control. The conflict between police officers and the drug trafficking gang known as the Primeiro Comando da Capital or PCC, has led to a huge increase in police deaths and people (mostly addicts) trapped in the crossfire.
Last October, figures from Sao Paulo’s public security ministry revealed 176 people were killed in that month alone. The escalation of killings was caused by a police unit known as “the Rota,” which shot dead six men. Since then, there appears to have been a wave of retaliation — the murder of policemen by the gang PCC, or First Command of the Capital.
Shopkeeper Silva based in Vila Brasilandia said that while police and the gang battle, those caught in the crossfire are feeling the pain. “The average person ends up being the real target — and we don’t know who is the criminal and who is the police,” she said.
Although Brazilian police have imprisoned nearly 13,000 PCC members, the gang is thought to control drug trafficking operations and police killings from prisons. The devastating effect of violence, intimidation and control the PCC has on the streets of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro cannot be underestimated.
Speaking to MintPress, Sao Paulo Health worker Thiago said: “Life is cheap here. The gangs control everything, they control the drug, who gets the drug, whether you can live or you should die.
“I’ve seen young men, maybe 17 or 18 years old, been brutally beaten on the head and body by gang members as a punishment for not paying them money. People are addicted and they will do anything to get the drug. So people will steal, or work as a prostitute or work for the gangs so that they can get a hit.”
Buying crack in easy in Cracolandia; it’s available on streets via aggressive street sellers, in clubs, café and bars and you can buy it for as little as $1.10. The only problem is that it’s highly addictive, leading addicts to get high as much as a dozen times a day. It is this addiction crisis that has left the city spiraling into chaos. The addiction problem causes a surge in violent crime and prostitution that leads to police raids which often end in a shootout.
Critics like Thiago have complained that the policy and the tactics of the police are only making it easier for the gangs to continue their hold over this community.
“We are going round in circles,” Thiago said. “The gangs control the addicts; the addicts will create a local crime wave to get drugs and the police arrests the addicts. So nothing changes — the gangs are still in control and when the police clears the streets of addicts, gangs are already creating new addicts.”
The PCC controls more than half of the crack, cocaine and marijuana trade in the city. With members as far away as Bolivia — the source of 80 percent of the cocaine in Brazil — police authorities are under pressure to find a solution fast.
Compulsory treatment for addicts
Commentators have indicated that this policy may have more to do with the upcoming World Cup, rather than to solving Brazil’s growing addiction crisis. In 2014, Brazil will be the host to one of the biggest soccer events, the World Cup. Brazil is desperate to show the world its successes in business, culture and music, not addicts strung out, high on drugs or people openly smoking crack.
Last year, Rio de Janeiro rolled out its drug treatment program for minors. This program was a response to the growing number of children under the age of 16 who have become addicts.
Abandoned by their drug addict parents, or running away from dangerous and traumatic lives, these children survive on the crack streets, doing anything and everything to stay alive. The program offers young people treatment and help, but there are critics of the program who struggle with human rights issue. And it’s unclear whether forcing someone to do something against their wishes (such as vulnerable minors) really works, or does this forced treatment build up resentment and hate, as well as cause more problems in the future.
Health workers like Thiago want to see a system that works. “This problem cannot be solved by the police or by social services giving people treatments. It’s more complicated,” Thiago said. “They need homes; they need jobs; they need a family life. These are the things that will keep an addict off drugs. It makes no sense to spend money on a drug treatment program and then afterwards send that person back to Crackland streets.”
Forcing minors into a treatment program is different from forcing adults into treatment. And if people refuse to go to treatment, what happens? Will the police be forced into arresting addicts again? You can’t deny that the Brazilian government is undertaking a bold experiment to treat a huge population of addicts. And if this model is successful, would other governments, including the U.S., be willing to implement a compulsory drug treatment program?