Working through the Brazilian cracklands

Brazil is one of the largest drug markets in the world. Nevertheless, the government fails to provide support to a large number of addicts.
Crackland Brazil
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Although numbers are not precise, Brazil is one of the largest drug markets  in the world. Nevertheless, many Brazilian addicts still live without any support from government or social policies – having to deal with their addiction problem by themselves.

Going in the opposite direction, a former addict from Brasília has created an NGO which has, for ten years, offered to his fellow addicts from Brazil’s capital the same chance he once had to save himself.

The drug issue in Brazil

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Brazil consumes 18% of the world’s cocaine, in spite of accounting for less than 2% of the world’s population. This puts Brazil in the 2nd position in the world ranking of cocaine consumption, just behind the US.

This scenario gets even worse when we take into consideration Brazil does not present appropriate government and social policies to deal with the addicts. Consequently, addiction treatments are commonly more available to Brazilians from the richest classes – who are able to pay for private assistance – than to the ones from the poorest classes, who are often left without any kind of support.

The situation is particularly tragic for the consumers of crack. After being introduced in the country at the beginning of the 1990’s, crack almost immediately replaced glum and cocaine once it was cheaper and easier to produce. Three decades later, in 2012, estimates by the National Survey on Alcohol and Drugs (LENAD) say there were about 2 million regular crack consumers in Brazil, which meant 20% of the world consumption – becoming the biggest problem related to addiction of the country at present.

A symbol Brazil’s defeat in the fight against drugs

The expression of the size of the crack issue in Brazil is the existence of what is known in the country as cracklands. Initially restricted to the largest urban areas, but now spread all across the country, the cracklands are parts of the cities where users meet to buy, share and consume drugs. The lack of government health, psychological and social support to the addicts who live there is further aggravated by the regular police interventions, which are frequently violent.

The crackland of Brazil’s capital, Brasília, by its turn, is very close to the National Congress (less than two kilometers away) as well as to one of the poshest avenues of the city. There, an unknown number of people wander around, looking for and consuming crack and other drugs. Among them, however, every Thursday a group of volunteers is present; offering soup, clothes and, more importantly, a chance to get rid of the the addiction.

A breath of hope

Those volunteers are members of the Salve A Si, an NGO founded in 2008 whose name means “save yourself”, and which provides physical, social and spiritual support to drug addicts from Brasília. The weekly distribution of soup and clothes in the city’s crackland also aims to convince the addicts to receive treatment at the NGO’s headquarter, a farm at Brasília’s neighborhood where about 90 male addicts in treatment actually live, without any cost. Besides offering health and psychological services, in this farm the NGO also promotes the addicts’ social reintegration and support to their families.

The farm of the Salve A Sí offers to its patients accommodation and leisure, apart from a daily work schedule which the patients have to follow related to the farm activities, as part of their treatment (such as gardening, the care of the animals, cleaning and organization of the place, etc). Furthermore, it offers the interns workshops and vocational courses, so as to prepare them for the job market, after leaving the farm. In general, the offered treatment lasts at least six months. Since its foundation, the Salve A Si has already benefited more than two thousand people.

From addiction to action

Salve A Si was founded and is coordinated by José Henrique da França, a former addict currently aged 38 who was a drug user for over 20 years. Henrique, as he likes to be called, comes from an economically privileged family background, with enormous influence at Brazil’s federal capital. This privileged economic background contributed to his continuous consumption of drugs, facilitating his access to the illegal substances. Henrique’s first drug was alcohol, first tasted when he was only 11 years old.

His privileged background also allowed him to visit Europe on a monthly basis. From there, he started trafficking drugs to Brazil. In 2004, however, during one of these visits, Henrique was caught by the French police, having thus been imprisoned in Paris for three years for drug trafficking. That was the turning point in his life: during those years in prison, Henrique decided to return to Brazil and to help people who suffered from drug abuse, like himself.

Building new lives

Since then, Henrique and Salve A Si have been a thread of hope for a substantial number of individuals from Brazil’s capital. Every week, addicts from Brasília’s crackland are convinced to move to the NGO’s farm and to have a chance to do what the NGO’s name means: to save themselves. As Henrique says, “I know I have destroyed many lives, now I want to build new ones”. In a country where addicts receive such precarious assistance from government and social policies, this project has been a hard, long, persistent and patient work.

Human RightsOpinion
Diego da Silva Rodrigues

Diego is an applied economist interested in policy evaluation and quantitative methods. His main interests are around family issues, such as marriage, parenting, gender, fertility and children, being member of the International Network of Child Support Scholars (INCSS) and the Parenting Culture Studies Postgraduate Network. Diego has also publications in migration and health economics, and is currently involved with human rights and democracy activism in South America. At present, he is completing his PhD at the University of Kent, UK, and is lecturer in Economics at IESGO, Brazil.
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