Drug dealers say no to crack in Rio
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) — Business was brisk in the Mandela shantytown on a recent night. In the glow of a weak light bulb, customers pawed through packets of powdered cocaine and marijuana priced at $5, $10, $25. Teenage boys with semiautomatic weapons took in money and made change while flirting with girls in belly-baring tops lounging nearby.
Next to them, a gaggle of kids jumped on a trampoline, oblivious to the guns and drug-running that are part of everyday life in this and hundreds of other slums, known as favelas, across this metropolitan area of 12 million people. Conspicuously absent from the scene was crack, the most addictive and destructive drug in the triad that fuels Rio's lucrative narcotics trade.
Once crack was introduced here about six years ago, Mandela and the surrounding complex of shantytowns became Rio's main outdoor drug market, a "cracolandia," or crackland, where users bought the rocks, smoked and lingered until the next hit. Hordes of addicts lived in cardboard shacks and filthy blankets, scrambling for cash and a fix.
Now, there was no crack on the rough wooden table displaying the goods for sale, and the addicts were gone. The change hadn't come from any police or public health campaign. Instead, the dealers themselves have stopped selling the drug in Mandela and nearby Jacarezinho in a move that traffickers and others say will spread citywide within the next two years.
The drug bosses, often born and raised in the very slums they now lord over, say crack destabilizes their communities, making it harder to control areas long abandoned by the government. Law enforcement and city authorities, however, take credit for the change, arguing that drug gangs are only trying to create a distraction and persuade police to call off an offensive to take back the slums.
Dealers shake their heads, insisting it was their decision to stop selling crack, the crystalized form of cocaine.
"Crack has been nothing but a disgrace for Rio. It's time to stop," said the drug boss in charge. He is Mandela's second-in-command — a stocky man wearing a Lacoste shirt, heavy gold jewellery and a backpack bulging with $100,000 in drugs and cash. At 37, he's an elder in Rio's most established faction, the Comando Vermelho, or Red Command. He's wanted by police, and didn't want his name published.
He discussed the decision as he watched the night's profits pile up in neat, rubber-banded stacks from across the narrow street. He kept one hand on his pistol and the other on a crackling radio that squawked out sales elsewhere in the slum and warned of police.
The talk of crack left him agitated; he raised his voice, drawing looks from the fidgety young men across the road. Although crack makes him a lot of money, he has his own reasons to resent the drug; everyone who comes near it does, he said.
His brother — the one who studied, left the shantytown and joined the air force — fell prey to it. Crack users smoke it and often display more addictive behaviour. The brother abandoned his family and his job, and now haunts the edges of the slum with other addicts.
"I see this misery," he said. "I'm a human being too, and I'm a leader here. I want to say I helped stop this."
For the ban to really take hold, it would need the support of the city's two other reigning factions: the Amigos dos Amigos, or Friends of Friends, and the Terceiro Comando, Third Command.
That would mean giving up millions in profits. According to an estimate by the country's Security Committee of the House and the Federal Police, Brazilians consume between 800 kilos and 1.2 tons of crack a day, a total valued at about $10 million.
It's unclear how much Rio's traffickers earn from the drug, but police apprehensions show a surge in its availability in the state. In 2008, police seized 14 kilos; two years later the annual seizure came to 200 kilos, according to the Public Security Institute.
Nonetheless, the other gangs are signing up, said attorney Flavia Froes. Her clients include the most notorious figures of Rio's underbelly, and she has been shuttling between them, visiting favelas and far-flung high-security prisons to talk up the idea.
"They're joining en masse. They realized that this experience with crack was not good, even though it was lucrative. The social costs were tremendous. This wasn't a drug for the rich; it was hitting their own communities."
As Froes walks these slums, gingerly navigating potholed roads in six-inch stiletto heels and rhinestone-studded jeans, men with a gun in each hand defer to her, calling her "doutora," or doctor, because of her studies, or "senhora," or ma'am, out of respect.
"While stocks last, they'll sell. But it's not being bought anymore," she said. "Today we can say with certainty that we're looking at the end of crack in Rio de Janeiro."