Rio’s drug barons take stand against sale of crack on their patch
BUSINESS was brisk in the Mandela shantytown on a night last week. Customers bought packets of cocaine and marijuana priced between $5 and $25 (£3-£15), while teenage boys with semi-automatic weapons took in money and flirted with girls lounging nearby.
Once crack was introduced in Rio 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 destabilises 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 crystallised 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. 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.
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 and 1,200 kilos of crack a day, a total valued at about $10 million.
Nonetheless, the other gangs are signing up, said lawyer Flavia Froes. Her clients include the most notorious figures of Rio’s underbelly, and she has been shuttling between them to talk up the idea.
“They’re joining en masse. They realised 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 Ms 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.
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