If you’ve consumed any Brazilian news sources within the past few weeks, you’ve likely heard of Cracolândia—“Crackland,” in Portuguese—São Paulo’s dangerous urban wasteland of dealers and thugs and fiends, as our conservative mainstream media tells it.
Cracolândia-heavy news always signals the unofficial beginning of campaign season in São Paulo. Political hopefuls for 2022’s general election are by law not permitted to campaign or discuss their platforms until next August—but they can publicly discuss public health and safety in general.
On August 8, Congresswoman Janaína Paschoa attacked Father Julio Lancellotti on Twitter for posting pictures of military police, on the orders of right-wing São Paulo Governor João Doria, intimidating pastoral workers as they distributed lunch boxes to people on the street. Paschoa accused Father Lancellotti of promoting crime and drug use by giving drug users food.
Doria, a pre-candidate for the presidency, has smeared and attacked Cracolândia and its people since his mayoral run in 2017, campaigning on promises to dismantle Cracolândia and sell it for parts to gentrifying developers.
Between 2014 and 2017, São Paulo had prominent harm reduction programs and policies implemented by left-wing then-Mayor Fernando Haddad, including a ban on involuntary treatment, and the introduction of a hotel-room housing program that paid participants a living wage for city jobs. Doria dismantled all of it.
He sanctioned violence by Metropolitan Civil Guard (MCG) operations, evicted families and demolished homes. These policies obviously failed to stamp out crime and end homelessness.
Since he took office as governor in 2019 Doria has crusaded against feeding anyone in Cracolândia, allowing the military police to harass anyone who tries to distribute food, whether they’re affiliated with harm reduction or not. Always a fan of bombs, rubber bullets and tear gas, he seems to be enjoying having the entire state’s police force at his fingertips rather than just the MCG.
Though still harassed almost daily, A Craco Resiste kept campaigning for health care and human rights.
In September 2020, far-right YouTuber and São Paulo City Council hopeful Rubinho Nunes filed a lawsuit calling for an investigation of harm reduction collective A Craco Resiste—“The Crackland Resists.” The collective, developed specifically by and for people who smoke crack, connects users to health care, housing and employment.
They also advocate for the distribution of free harm reduction supplies including syringes and crack stems, which Nunes misrepresented to accuse them of encouraging illicit drug use. Brazilian drug law contains an article banning the incitement of drug use, which is often used to criminalize people who use or distribute “paraphernalia.”
Time passed, Nunes was elected, and the lawsuit seemed to be resting in a drawer somewhere. Though still harassed almost daily under Doria’s administration, A Craco Resiste kept campaigning for health care and human rights. They also made a plan.
In December 2020, A Craco Resiste installed cameras in the region and over the next few months, captured hours of footage of police and civil guards attacking residents with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. On April 5, the collective uploaded the footage to the public under the title “It’s Not a Confrontation, It’s a Massacre.”
That same day, the Commission on Human Rights of the São Paulo Chapter of the Brazilian Bar Association sent an official letter to the São Paulo Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office requesting an investigation.
In June, the Prosecutor’s Office filed a public civil action to ban police from conducting any further such operations. It is not clear if or when this might be implemented, and the MCG have in the meantime continued using military-style operations to harass people.
“The war is not really on drugs.”
Meanwhile, the Nunes lawsuit hadn’t been forgotten after all. A São Paulo City prosecutor used it to authorize the State Department for the Prevention and Repression of Drug Trafficking to investigate A Craco Resiste, and to mobilize the civil police to do so.
Over the next few months, at least two A Craco Resiste members were summoned before the civil police to be accused of inciting drug use as well as several other “crimes” they did not commit. The police also summoned a well-known harm reductionist physician not affiliated with A Craco Resiste, but who had been working in the region for nearly a decade. He was a physician for the state of São Paulo until 2019, when he was fired in what he believed to be retaliation for promoting harm reduction rather than only abstinence.
Brazilian policymakers and law enforcement not only ignore, but actively oppose, the large body of scientific evidence that supports harm reduction instead of punishment. The current government even has the nerve to misapply and misinterpret data to claim a scientific base for its drug war.
Cracolândia does not exist because of crack cocaine. It exists because its residents have been deliberately failed by a neoliberal state that treats food, housing and health as commodities. The region has become a political scapegoat for the specter of “drug addiction” that the government uses to excuse its underinvestment in housing and public health, and its violent harassment of civilians.
In the words of a harm reductionist friend who works in Cracolândia, the war is not really on drugs. It’s not the crack itself that police are beating and incarcerating. They are carrying out the orders of a state waging war against its own people.
Photograph of São Paulo via Pixabay