January 26, 2012
In the United States, studies linked crack use with increases in HIV infections and violent crime in cities such as Washington and New York during the 1980s. Now mayors in Brazil, from Rio de Janeiro to outposts in the Amazon, are lamenting the growth of "cracklands," as cocaine producers expand into emerging markets to offset declines in US consumption.
In São Paulo, hundreds of zombielike and rail-thin users wander at night in a downtown no-man's land known as Cracolândia. Though the area was already a skid row, crack use there is exploding. A clearance campaign launched Jan. 3 resulted in the arrests of dozens, seizures of large quantities of crack, and the demolition or bricking-up of crack dens.
Traffickers are increasingly turning to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, where cocaine use has grown. Though profits are smaller, so are dealers' risks of prosecution and jail. Producers also are expanding markets in Western and Central Europe, where estimated use grew from 63 metric tons in 1998 to 126 in 2008. The most recent trend is moving cocaine to users in South Africa, and from Bolivia through to Chile and on to Australia and New Zealand, said Bo Mathiasen, a senior UN drug official based in Brasilia.
While São Paulo's Cracolândia has become a key issue in this year's mayoral election, critics say the clampdown only moves users to society's margins. Most treatment centers are full, and new ones promised by officials have yet to be built. In the United States, crack use sharply declined in the 1990s; the question remains as to whether law enforcement drove down usage or the drug's brutal toll on users led the epidemic to burn itself out.