Red graffiti suddenly comes to view on a white wall, the letters dripping like blood: Uma doença chamada crack, “a disease called crack.” This is in lieu of a welcome for those who enter Cracolândia, “the land of crack,” the nickname for the neighborhood with the most traffic and consumption of crack in São Paulo.
The atmosphere in the neighborhood is both heavy and unreal. People’s gazes are blank, all plagued by the same object of thought: crack.
In the 1950s, this area was “the square of sin,” due to the high concentration of prostitutes. Between 1960 and 1970, it began to be known as the Boca do Lixo (“Mouth of Garbage”), a pun on Boca do Luxo (“Mouth of Luxury”). Despite its state of degradation, in the 1970s the Boca do Lixo area was the main place for independent film production in Brazil. In the studios of the neighborhood, numerous art films and B-movies of various genres were shot and screened. Among all, the genre of the pornochanchada stood out, a form of popular comedy combined with a good dose of eroticism, a sort of Brazilian version of the Edwige Fenech and Lino Banfi genre.
But the current state of the neighborhood, together with its new nickname Cracolândia, arrived around the ‘80s, starting from the gaping hole left by an old abandoned bus station, where drug dealers and crack users found refuge. As businesses and commercial activities disappeared, crack began to make its way in: traffickers began to control much of the economic activity in the area. “The abandoned places,” explains Francisco Inacìo Bastos of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, “were not only occupied by drug dealers, but exerted an attraction for drug addicts from other neighborhoods.”
Before 2014, the daily flow of people from other areas, according to data from the City Hall, was no less than 3,000 per day. After that, the administration of Mayor Fernando Haddad (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) tried to address the situation with a project focused on the concept of harm reduction. The project, called De Braços Abertos (With Open Arms), involved more than 400 neighborhood residents, offering them a hotel room and three meals a day and giving them paid employment as street cleaners in return. Participants were not required to be clean, but alternative options were put into place to engage people as much as possible throughout the day. A total of 467 people have been involved, of whom 65% significantly reduced their crack use.
However, in 2017, the new administration, led by Mayor João Doria (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira – PSDB), put an end to the project because “it only increases the consumption of crack,” as the mayor said on May 21, 2017, when he launched a large-scale law enforcement operation with 900 agents sent in to repress all drug dealing and consumption activities.
They proceeded to tear down many buildings, and continued with repressive actions making use of water cannons and tear gas, but the result was merely to move the problem a few blocks away. In addition, there was a marked growth in crime, as thefts increased by 44% in the area while the average growth in the city was 4.3%. Seeing these results, then-vice-mayor Bruno Covas, now acting mayor, has resumed the policy of damage reduction, but only on paper.
Half of the social hotels that responded to the need for housing during the years of De Braços Abertos are now closed; the presence of social workers and medical personnel who should act as a bridge between drug addicts and services is perceived as scarce in the area; and in mid-April, at the height of the pandemic, the last shelter that offered various social services, including a hot meal and the possibility of washing, was closed. In the meantime, not even the spread of the coronavirus has halted the process of “cleaning up” Cracolândia that has been underway for years: a project to demolish a number of buildings, which would leave 433 families homeless, is now on the agenda.
During the pandemic months, solidarity initiatives have increased, especially on the part of the churches—of various denominations, but especially Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal—and associations such as the BikeSystem collective, a group of cyclists who have dedicated themselves mainly to entertainment activities for the many children who live in the neighborhood’s cortiços, or the Tem Sentimento collective, which generates income through textile work, and has given employment to women and transsexuals, the most vulnerable subjects in this environment.
The theater company Pessoal do Faroeste has distributed aid and health kits, and the associations Novos Sonhos and Ação Retorno have been distributing 560 meals a day to the locals who wait their turn in orderly rows and pray before eating. However, there are many situations of crowding, few masks and few possibilities to wash oneself, so this is putting the people of the neighborhood even more at risk. Because of the kinds of lives they generally lead, they have poor immunity to start with.
“Cracolândia is foda (fucked up),” shouts Estrella. “Yes, that’s great, because there’s room for everyone.” You look at her and wonder how she manages to smile, to have a calm expression, to keep it all inside. The anger and everything else. Hatred that lasts a moment and love that lasts forever. She’s poor, but she has the bearing of a queen. She’s unadorned, yet elegant as a lily in the field. Getting through the day in Cracolândia is a feat in itself, and at the same time it brings an immense satisfaction: life is not something to take for granted, and even when it’s not the high life, it’s life all the same.
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