quinta-feira, agosto 14, 2008



Cheap Cocaine Floods Argentina, Devouring Lives

Joao Pina for The New York Times

Published: February 23, 2008

Slide Show

Argentina's Cocaine Problem

Bilma Acuña has two sons who are addicted to paco. She and the group of mothers she helps organize have become the only bulwark, it seems, against the irrepressible spread of paco, a highly addictive, smokable cocaine residue that has destroyed thousands of lives in Argentina and caused a cycle of drug-induced street violence never seen before in this country.

The scourge underscores a significant shift in both Argentina and its larger neighbor, Brazil, which in just a few years have become sizable cocaine consumers. Brazil now ranks as the second largest consumer of cocaine in the world after the United States, the State Department says.

The surge in drug use has been fueled by porous borders, economic hardship and, more recently, the rolling back of restrictions on coca growing since President Evo Morales took office in 2006 in neighboring Bolivia. The result has been the democratization of cocaine in this part of South America, which has become the dumping ground for cheaper, lower-quality cocaine.

In the five years since residents first began noticing the crude yellowish crystals being smoked on the streets of Ciudad Oculta, a neighborhood of 15,000 people within Buenos Aires, paco has become the dominant drug that dealers are peddling.

Just weeks after first trying the drug, Mrs. Acuña’s son Pablo Eche began selling everything he owned to feed his addiction. He committed violent robberies. In a drug-fueled rage he destroyed his house and then sold the land that was left, ending up freezing and alone on the streets until his grandmother took him in.

“The majority of the kids are using here,” said Mrs. Acuña, 46. “My son saw what was happening with the kids in the streets that were using paco, and he always said he wouldn’t get caught up in that. But he did.”

The challenges to stopping the flow are immense. Fewer than 200 federal police officers patrol Brazil’s 2,100-mile border with Bolivia, though the Brazilian government says reinforcements are on the way. Only 10 percent of Argentina’s airspace is covered by radar, leaving traffickers free rein.

Cocaine seizures and major drug raids in Argentina and Brazil have surged in the past two years. The influx of raw cocaine paste used to make crack, from both Bolivia and Peru, has been particularly acute. In Brazil, such seizures by the federal police nearly quadrupled from 2006 to 2007, to 2,700 pounds from about 710 pounds, according to the police.

In Argentina, the deep financial crisis of late 2001 turned places like Ciudad Oculta into what are known here as villas miserias, or towns of misery, easily exploitable markets of impoverished people looking for escape.

“Cocaine is no longer the drug only of the elite, of high society,” said Luiz Carlos Magno, a Brazilian narcotics officer in the São Paulo State Police Department. “Today kids buy three lines of cocaine for 10 reals,” or about $6. For about $1 in Brazil and about $1.50 in Argentina, users can buy enough of the cocaine for a 15-minute high.

Paco is highly addictive because its high lasts just a few minutes — and is so intense that many users smoke 20 to 50 paco cigarettes a day to try to make its effects linger. Paco is even more toxic than crack cocaine because it is made mostly of solvents and chemicals like kerosene, with just a dab of cocaine, Argentine and Brazilian drug enforcement officials said. The surge in lower-quality cocaine hitting the streets has resulted from a crackdown by both countries on the chemicals needed to transform cocaine paste, or pasta base, as it is called, into powder form.

Tougher customs rules to track the flow of the chemicals, manufactured in large quantities in both countries, have limited access for Bolivian traffickers seeking to refine the base cocaine into higher-value powder, said Gen. Roberto Uchõa, Brazil’s national drug secretary.

As the quality of Bolivian cocaine has fallen off, the European market, in particular, has rejected it, the general said. So more of it has gone to Argentina and Brazil. In São Paulo, the police say the cocaine on the streets is less than 30 percent pure. “Every year they are producing more, and that is driving down prices,” said Mr. Magno, with the state police.

Traffickers are cutting the cocaine powder with everything from boric acid to lidocaine to baking powder, leading to severe health effects like infections and blood clots, health officials said. “It is the garbage cocaine that is coming here,” Mrs. Acuña said. “The kids here are smoking garbage.”

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