RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – Days after police stormed one of Rio de Janeiro’s most dangerous shantytowns to seize back territory long held by a powerful drug dealing organization, city health and welfare workers are working to ease the despair and devastation left behind among hundreds of crack cocaine addicts suddenly without drugs.
Since Sunday, when more than 2,000 heavily armed officers stormed into the Manguinhos and Jacarezinho complexes, crews working with police support by Wednesday had rounded up 231 crack users, and another 67 who had migrated elsewhere looking for the drug.
The area had been Rio’s biggest open-air crack market, known as “cracolandia,” or “crackland,” where hundreds of users bought the drug, consumed it and lingered in shacks and on blankets, picking through trash for recyclables to sell so they could buy more.
“These people have to be cured and treated,” Jose Mariano Beltrame, who heads security for Rio state, said during a Tuesday visit to the area. “They’re not coming back to Jacarezinho and Manguinhos; the area is now occupied.”
Drug dealers tired of the hassle posed by the addicts and by incursions of city health and welfare workers earlier this year banned crack in Mandela, one of the slums. Police now have taken over the entire complex housing about 70,000 people as part of a state program to make Rio safer before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
In the days after the occupation, officers were still searching for guns, drugs and suspects, but other city services were already making headway. The garbage removal company ran its own mega-operation, removing 220 tons of trash. City utility workers replaced more than 300 street lights.
The crew of welfare workers, psychologists and others who provide help rounded up drug users found in the streets and took them to shelters. Adults don’t have to stay; of the 215 adults picked up from the streets between Sunday and Tuesday, half had left the shelters by Tuesday night, the city health department said.
Teenagers and younger children must remain in the shelter or go home. Ten of the 16 minors who were rounded up Sunday and Monday remained at the shelter Tuesday.
Getting people help is much easier now that police are in the slum providing protection, said Daphne Braga, who coordinates the effort for the city welfare office.
She said that on the Friday before the police occupation, her department had tried to enter the communities to remove the homeless and the drug users, but were told to leave by the reigning drug faction. Two days later, the workers were returned with full access to the area’s narrow, twisting alleys.
“Working with drug dependents is like the work of ants, you do a little bit at a time,” said Braga. “We can go back and talk to someone two, three times, take them to a shelter over and over again, and still find they’re not ready to fight the addiction.”
The city was prepared for users to spread out once police took over the area, said the municipal head of social welfare, Fatima Nascimento. They had mapped out their likely destinations, and Wednesday’s operation targeted one of them.
“The migration of crack users was included in our planning,” she said. “We will continue offering lodging and treatment for chemical dependence to everyone.”
Awareness of the problem’s scope has increased on the federal level, with President Dilma Rousseff launching in 2010 a $253 million campaign to stem the drug trade, then setting aside another $2 billion in November to create treatment centers.
The city and state of Rio are also responding. On Wednesday, the state security department announced a program aimed at qualifying police officers to better work with crack addicts. The campaign will train 200 officers in community policing, familiarize them with the support network for drug users, and teach them how to best approach addicts in high-risk situations.
The Rev. Antonio Carlos Costa, founder of the River of Peace social service group, works with drug users in the area. He fears for the crack addicts’ lives as they travel out looking for the drug.
“They’re not welcomed anywhere,” said Costa. “They’re desperate, they’re confused, they’re dirty, and I’m afraid they could suffer violence as they try to find shelter and drugs in other parts of towns.”
Costa’s organization is establishing support groups for drug users in these police-occupied communities, and he’d like to see the state do the same, perhaps in partnership with civil society.
“This is a problem that won’t be solved only with money and a shelter,” he said. “These people are going to need someone who cares, who has patience. They’re going to need solidarity.”
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