Last Sunday, 21st of May, more than 900 policemen from the military police of Sao Paulo, armed with guns, throwing tear gas and with helicopters, took over Cracolandia (Crackland), an area in the city centre of Sao Paulo that is infamous for being a place to use and sell drugs. The scenes of the action reminded scenes of a war, but it was announced as the new anti drug policy of the city.

Absurdly, it was seen as a successful publicity campaign by the new mayor, João Doria, and its press advisers. He got more than a hundred thousand likes in his facebook post about the action. Motivated to show commitment to solve the Cracolandia issue to his supporters – and campaign investors -, on Tuesday 23rd, he ordered the demolishing of the buildings in the area to quickly start building new ones and “revitalize” the city.

While posing for photos and giving speeches to journalists about how great administrators he is, some meters from him, the excavators that were working on the demolition of the buildings reached the side wall of another building, in which there were still people living in. Residents got hurt but fortunately no one died. The mayor quickly finished the interview and no more public declarations were made by him until the following day.

On Wednesday, João Doria, once again, defended his policy to eliminate drug use in the area and declared that the attorney office of the São Paulo City Hall had already filed a request to the Court of Justice for municipal doctors being legally able to judge the need for compulsory institutionalization of crack users.

A social problem turned into a private interest

In the 1990s the crack started attracting users to the area later called Cracolandia. The public power was never effective there, limited to coercive actions from time to time. In 2014, the newly elected mayor, Fernando Haddad, brought a more humanist approach to deal with the issue creating a program based on Harm Reduction principles called De Bracos Abertos (Open Arms).

According to the non-governmental organisation Harm Reduction International (HRI), “harm reduction refers to policies, programmes and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable or unwilling to stop. The defining features are the focus on the prevention of harm, rather than on the prevention of drug use itself, and the focus on people who continue to use drugs”. The harm reduction is being championed by drug reformist groups in recent years after years of failed forced abstinence-based programmes.

Different from a anti drug war that criminalizes the user, beneficiaries of the program Open Arms received a weekly cash allowance of 130 reals (€40), as well as regular meals and shelter under the condition that they would work in city maintenance projects, completing tasks such as street cleaning or gardening.

In 2016, when elected as the new mayor of São Paulo, João Doria announced that he would close Haddad’s program and integrate the city drug policy with the policy already implemented in the State of São Paulo, outlined by his fellow party member governor Geraldo Alckmin.

Even before being implemented, the The Federal Public Ministry, declared that the project presented “inconsistencies”, “lack of theoretical reference” and needed a “very profound modification”.

Doria’s program has a focus on institutionalization of the users in treatment centers, even without their consent. It means that people can be put in rehabilitation by force and can not be reintroduced into society without medical approval.

According to data released by the Government of Sao Paulo, in the last four and a half years of the state program Recomeco (Restart), 13,000 institutionalizations were performed: 11,000 volunteer, 2,000 brought by the family and 28 compulsory. The state has 3,4 thousand beds.

The solution to solve the problem of vacancies in treatment houses is to intensify the partnership between the public and the private interest – which is by definition motivated by the interest of individuals despite the welfare of the society as a whole. The private investor will profit from a health issue and the logic behind the business is: more people institutionalized, more money. The same logic lies behind the privatization of prisons. If it wasn’t problematic enough in itself, as corruption has deep roots in Brazilian society, people will pay an expensive price for this partnership.

Doria’s new program, that is called Redencao (Redemption) – what sounds religious, underlining the morality that guides the project – draws attention to a problem that has been criticized by social workers, doctors and psychologists since the 1970s. These kind of institutions are a return to the institutionalization as a way of treatment – what the psychiatric reformers and the anti-asylum movements have been struggling to overthrow because of its history of torturing and human rights violations.

Contradictorily, it was during the government of the president Dilma Rousseff, who was from the same party as Haddad, that a federal policy was outlined establishing a partnership between the state and private therapeutic centres. The program is called Crack é possível vencer (Crack it’s possible to win).

This kind of treatment centre is mainly ruled by religious groups, mostly catholics and evangelicals. According to a religious perspective, it is assumed in such institutions that the drug addiction is a sin or an ordeal that the user has to go through and very aggressive methods are used to deal with people in suffering. Some of them even deny the use of painkillers, in consonance with the belief that suffering uplifts the soul.

As the soul in suffering is usually held in a poor’s people bodies it is necessary to understand that the drug issue is in a first place a social issue. And understand it means not only to understand the limits of the Open Arm’s program in a city as Sao Paulo but to see it as a fragment of humanism in this ‘’Concrete Jungle’’ that oppresses bodies and minds daily. It is more than an extremely violent process of property speculation – Sunday’s action is a big step in a process of mass incarceration of the poor living in the cities.

After the big military operation on Sunday, more than 500 people were sent to homeless shelters – already over populated – and, as expected by the critics of Doria’s policy, great part of people living and consuming drug in Crakland just moved to different places in the city centre. The market remains active and there is already a reduction in crack’s price to revive the business – one can by one piece of crack for 4 reais ( less than 1.50 euros). The drug dealers are still making profit per kilo.

São Paulo’s Human Rights Secretary has been occupied by protesters opposed to the action in the Cracolandia since 24th of May.


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