At dawn on Sunday, a neighborhood in the center of São Paulo, Brazil awoke to a violent and unanticipated onslaught of nearly a thousand police officers, who descended on residents – many of whom were homeless and many of whom use drugs – with dogs, Tasers and rubber bullets. The area had come to be known as Cracolândia (“Crackland”), and the officers had been sent by São Paulo’s Mayor João Doria to destroy one of the world’s exemplary harm reduction programs, De Braços Abertos (“With Open Arms”).
Videos and recounts of the crackdown are horrific: 900 militarized police officers viciously stormed through the area, arresting people suspected of using drugs. They evicted people who had been accessing voluntary treatment services, destroyed tents and temporary housing that had become people’s homes, and even blocked health professionals from providing relief to those harmed in the operation.
Brazilian human rights advocates, drug policy reformers, psychologists, academics and treatment specialists are responding to Sunday’s violent operation against De Braços Abertos.
Brazil’s Federal Council of Psychology called the mayor’s action “barbarism.” Luciana Boiteux, a law professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said, “This police action in Cracolândia in São Paulo was a brutal war against the poor homeless people. They were disarmed and vulnerable, and were treated as something disposable, despicable.”
The city of São Paulo, under former mayor Fernando Haddad, launched De Braços Abertos in 2014 to address the neighborhood’s high prevalence of crack cocaine use. The city replaced its previous law enforcement-heavy approach with an emphasis on social reintegration by providing health care, temporary housing, employment opportunities, meals, technical training and a daily wage to over 800 people struggling predominantly with homelessness and addiction to crack. Significantly, abstinence from drug use was not a requirement for participation in the program.
De Braços Abertos has been a success. Within a month of the program’s initiation crack use had reduced in the area by 50 to 70 percent and within two months 10,555 health interventions had been delivered. Crime rates in Cracolândia fell in the first half of 2014, including a 32.3 percent decrease in theft. In a survey of De Braços Abertos participants, 95 percent said that the impact on their lives was either positive or very positive; 76 percent accepted jobs as part of the program (75 percent of which thought that the employment conditions were either good or excellent); 73 percent sought rehabilitation services; and 67 percent said that they had reduced their crack consumption. 66 percent of the program’s participants were formerly incarcerated, making the emphasis on social reintegration all the more significant.
Today, two Brazilian drug policy and human rights organizations, the Brazilian Platform for Drug Policy and Conectas Direitos Humanos, will denounce Mayor Doria’s crackdown in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Gabriel Elias, Advocacy Coordinator of the Brazilian Drug Policy Platform said, “The government is trying to find new ways to incarcerate drug users through confined and compulsory treatment. This policy is contrary to the United Nations guidelines and Brazilian legislation.”
The São Paulo government has no realistic plan for what to do with the now-dispersed residents of Cracolândia. Many of them are spending the night in jail cells or on cold, hard floors in government facilities. Mayor Doria’s decision to violently shut down an effective and compassionate program that was serving an oft-overlooked and stigmatized population was, purely and simply, inhumane.
Hannah Hetzer is the senior policy manager of the Americas for the Drug Policy Alliance.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.