Cracolândias—areas with high levels of street-based homelessness and public drug use—have been spreading throughout Brazilian towns and cities since the 1990s. That’s when crack cocaine became widespread in our country, and in many cases—alongside alcohol—the drug of choice for unhoused people in our cities. Both cheap alcohol and crack cocaine are ubiquitous and easily accessible in Brazil, where a 17.5 oz bottle of cachaça (a distilled spirit) can be bought for as little as $1, and a bag with three crack rocks ranges from $1 to $2.
São Paulo, the most populous city in Latin America, is the site of the original so-called Cracolândia, which has since been a recurrent topic in national and regional newspapers and news shows. It is also one of the main issues that every mayor and governor—including the new one—must be seen to address.
A survey conducted by researchers from the Federal University of São Paulo found that most of the people who either frequent or live in the city’s Cracolândia are from other states. The average age of the regulars is 36, and the vast majority lived with their families before becoming homeless and living on the streets.
Asked about why they chose to live in the area, 31 percent of the people surveyed cited easy access to crack cocaine. Over 20 percent said their main reason to remain in Cracolândia is that it feels safer to smoke crack in the company of peers. Trauma and family conflicts also featured as reasons to live there, as well as access to health services. Over 75 percent of the regulars are Black or Brown. And although transgender people account for only 7.5 percent of Cracolândia’s daytime population, they constitute the majority—over 65 percent—of those who sleep there, usually in makeshift tents, every night. Clearly, the structural factors behind the deprivation of these populations reach far beyond drugs and drug policy.
Right before being elected, Governor Freitas promised to end Cracolândia once and for all.
2023 began with the inauguration of Tarcísio de Freitas as São Paulo’s new governor. Freitas is a close ally of former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, and served as his minister of infrastructure from January 2019 until March 2022. He then resigned to run in the 2022 São Paulo state gubernatorial election.
Right before being elected, Freitas promised to end Cracolândia once and for all. It’s a promise that has been systematically repeated by conservative politicians for years, to no avail. Cops, rubber bullets, stun grenades, detentions and arrests might temporarily quench the conservative thirst for violence against underprivileged citizens, but their efficacy in “ending Cracolândia” extends merely to dispersing the poor, unhoused population of downtown São Paulo to other nearby areas. People temporarily settle in other streets, alleys and squares—with the new neighborhood immediately baptized as a “new Cracolândia”—before returning once political and law enforcement attention temporarily subsides. The poverty, prejudice and other issues they face do not change.
Freitas’s immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Garcia of the Social Democracy Party, slumped to third place in the 2022 gubernatorial election. His own approach to Cracolândia was disastrous enough to be described as a “circus” by one left-leaning magazine. He deployed large numbers of police officers to patrol the area in support of “Operation Charon”—the naming of which, referencing the ferryman of Hades, spoke volumes about the stigmatization of a population seen merely as bodies. He also allowed civil police officers to detain harm reductionists and take them to the precinct for inquiries, in defiance of the constitution. Freitas’s election victory brought an end to 28 years of Social Democrat control of São Paulo.
On the second day of his administration, Freitas announced that his vice governor, Felicio Ramuth, will be responsible for coordinating initiatives to deal with the issues around Cracolândia. In the tradition of Bolsonaro, he gave few details on how these initiatives will be designed and implemented. Ramuth, however, declared that the state government and mayor’s office will work together to develop strategies—alongside the state public prosecutor’s office and justice system.
“Harm reduction” is not part of the administration’s vocabulary.
This coordination between state and city agencies will be the first of its kind, Ramuth claimed. According to him, strategies will not be limited to a “public security” approach, but will be complemented by housing and treatment initiatives.
This latest promise to put an end to Cracolândia predictably ignores a critical evidence-based and compassionate approach. “Harm reduction” is not part of the administration’s vocabulary. Neither Freitas nor Ramuth has uttered a single word about the brave and essential harm reduction work carried out by NGOs in the region despite the aggressive opposition of police forces and the municipal guard.
Yes, they mention housing and treatment, but it is hard to believe that access to a roof will come with no strings attached, and “treatment,” it should be assumed, means a coerced requirement of abstinence.
The current administration’s approach to treatment is deeply concerning. At a recent event, Freitas emphasized the need to create more places in therapeutic communities. These abstinence-only programs, usually related to the Catholic or evangelical churches, are notorious for their use of physical and psychological violence against people who use drugs. Freitas’s campaign strategy included a working group whose task was to get him closer to evangelical leadership. Now that he’s in office, he has followed Bolsonaro’s path by appointing evangelical politicians to strategic secretariats responsible for social programs.
All the indications are that drug use will continue to be seen as an issue of “public security,” not of public health.
Nothing, in other words, suggests that the Freitas administration will follow the positive steps traced by former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad almost a decade ago. His administration ran Open Arms, a harm reduction project that gave free food and housing to hundreds of Cracolândia residents and created pathways to employment. It sought to remove the stressors that underlie problematic drug use without requiring abstinence at any point. The partnership was ended in 2017 and now feels like a distant memory.
The last thing people in Cracolândia need is more cops and forced commitment to therapeutic communities. They need housing first. They need real community services. They need non-judgmental, supportive mental and physical health services to help them deal with trauma and other issues. They need educational and employment opportunities.
It is hard to believe they will get these things from Freitas, a former military man and a policing enthusiast. He has now appointed a reserve military police officer and a chief of civil police to lead the state’s Public Security Secretariat. All the indications are that drug use will continue to be seen as an issue of “public security” in the state of São Paulo, not of public health. Hope, nonetheless, is the last thing to die.
Photograph via Federal University of São Paulo