But this time, the crack epidemic is happening in Brazil, alarming officials and tarnishing the country’s carefully cultivated image ahead of two major sporting events to be staged here: soccer’s 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
In cities all over Brazil — from this gritty metropolis to the crown jewel of Rio de Janeiro and smaller places in the middle of the Amazonian jungle — nightfall brings out swarms of desperate addicts looking for their next fix in districts known as “cracolandias,” or cracklands.
And like the crack wave that slammed the United States, the result here is the same — lives destroyed, families upended, neighborhoods made uninhabitable.
“Crack is an incurable illness,” said Paulino, 50, a wiry, fast-
talking addict who wouldn’t give his last name as he explained his daily appetite for the drug. “I need crack in my blood. My sickness is like a serpent. What’s the medicine for a serpent?”
With an estimated 1 million cocaine users, Brazil is being whipsawed by a problem that some leaders here once thought of as solely an American one. The trend carries worrisome ramifications for the country, whose population of 200 million includes a booming, new middle class, offering a promising market for traffickers, drug-control experts say.
“In Brazil, we have a similar situation to what happened in the United States in the 1980s,” said Eloisa Arruda, who as secretary of justice for Sao Paulo state coordinates the region’s anti-drug policies. “There’s a big growth in crack use in public and people permanently in the streets consuming drugs day and night who are constantly supplied by traffickers.”
There are key differences: Crack hit U.S. cities that were in decline, buffeting minority communities. The battle over the drug trade also led to a record number of homicides in American cities, as some districts became virtual war zones.
The U.S. response to crack involved locking up addicts and dealers alike, a strategy that filled up American prisons and later led some states to moderate their sentencing guidelines.
Brazilian officials, well aware of the U.S. experience, take great pains to explain that their response to the crack epidemic is different. Although crack is illegal, Brazilian officials view the problem as a public health matter in which the state has a paramount role in helping break addictions.
“We don’t put drug users in prison,” said Leon Garcia, a senior expert on mental health and drugs at the federal Health Ministry. “We have alternative penalties for these people because we don’t believe prisons are the best places to treat them.”