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Brazil set to tackle spreading crack cocaine epidemic

posted 6 Feb 2012, 16:18 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 6 Feb 2012, 16:19 ]

Brazilian health authorities jump into action with a two billion dollar programme to fight the country's surging crack cocaine epidemic.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL  (REUTERS) - In the heart of Brazil's biggest city hundreds of crack cocaine addicts used to walk freely with their pipes in hand in a district that became known as "cracolandia", or "crackland".

But the area that became a haven for crack users in Sao Paulo suffered a blow last month when a task force of 300 police officers armed with rubber bullets and tear gas forced them out of the area. Now they are mostly hidden in the city's tunnels and under bridges, although some still gather in the area after the clean up.

The once crowded blocks of "cracolandia" are now virtually empty and in the operation, police arrested dozens of drug dealers and recovered large amounts of crack. Buildings used as dens were demolished and others bricked in.

The initiative is part of a larger $2.3-billion dollar plan launched by the government of President Dilma Rousseff in November last year to crack down on drug trafficking and consumption by 2014.

Police and specially trained social workers are carrying out daily inspections in the streets of cracolandia, where undernourished addicts still wander in smaller groups with nowhere else to go. Packed treatment centres and shelters makes it harder to convince them to seek treatment.

Most still refuse to go and many give up within days. Fernando Silveira, a former construction worker who said he was about 35 years old, tried several times to go back home to his wife and children in the northeast, but the drugs always ended up taking priority.

He said crack had killed his hopes for a better life.

"To me crack is death," he said.

Although he refused to go to the clinic, he helped police officers convince two of his friends to seek help.

One of them, a 32-year-old woman who did not want to be identified, said she wanted to start anew.

"I don't want to live in the streets any longer. I don't want to continue using drugs. I want to change my like," she said, after entering a police van.

Under the Brazilian law, addicts cannot be forced into treatment nor arrested for simply using drugs.

Police inspector Sergio Otavio, who is in charge of managing teams in the area, said persuading crack addicts to seek treatment was always a tough task.

"The majority will not go. Between 50 to 60 percent of them do not want to receive treatment. But because we insist everyday and our faces have already become familiar to them, we often manage to win their trust and meet our objective which is to send them to clinics and make this district a more pleasant place," he said.

Although the crack cocaine issue is more evident in Sao Paulo's "cracolandia", the relatively inexpensive and highly addictive drug is also making its way into smaller Brazilian towns at an alarming rate.

But driving out the addicts from the "cracolandia" neighbourhood was only the first and a small step of the plan to eradicate drug abuse in the city of nearly 12 million people. The biggest challenges lie ahead -- rehabilitating hundreds of thousands of users and preventing such large amounts of cocaine from continuing to pour into the country through Brazil's extremely vast borders.

Sao Paulo's urban security secretary Edsom Ortega, said for the first time the federal government was working hand-in-hand with state officials through co-ordinated actions.

"We have therefore been trying to increase control over our borders in order to stop the huge amounts of drugs that still arrive in Sao Paulo and in other cities so that the effect of this drug (crack cocaine) may be less devastating than it is now. But we truly believe that in this year of 2012 we will advance greatly in these joint efforts with the federal government, the state government and the municipal government along with civil organisations," he said.

The government said over 300 clinics will be set up to provide health care in urban areas with large numbers of drug users, especially Sao Paulo. Nearly 600 temporary shelters are also being built to monitor the recovery of addicts.

Officials said that $365 million U.S. dollars of the anti-crack package would be invested solely in patients. In Sao Paulo alone, the government will triple what is spends on rehabilitating a patient.

The government is also trying new treatment methods that are more humane and which have proven more effective so far.

One patient, a 54-year-old woman who used several types of drugs since her early 20s, said she was finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. In the new clinic she and other patients do art work, group therapy and exercise daily.

"In the first days it is very hard. Some of them get cravings and they get very nervous, so I try to talk to them and tell them that it is normal to feel that way in the beginning, but they have to be strong. In the beginning, in my first week here, I wanted to go back home because of the cravings. We become slaves of crack, crack turns us into slaves," she said, not wanting to give her name and be identified.

Rosangela Elias, head of the drug programme of the city's health department, said the new clinic is helping patients build a trust relationship with doctors. She said the new model will be implemented in more rehab centres in the following months.

"They will be able to bring in their families, there will be several activities, health care, therapy, nutritional support, dentists, an entire team of doctors and psychiatrists. So our idea was to think of their wellbeing in an integrated way, especially for those who are in urgent need of a more careful treatment," she said.

Hundreds of thousands of teachers are also being trained to deliver anti-drug messages in public schools across the country.

A large portion of the $2-billion U.S. dollar package is being invested in security forces to monitor borders.

Most of the world's cocaine still comes out of the Andean countries of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, even after billions of dollars have been spent eradicating crops.