It was 6 a.m. on a Sunday when Rafael Matos da Silva was jolted awake by the repeated crashes of a battering ram against his front door. When he looked out the second-story window, police in riot gear yelled at him to come downstairs.
He opened the door, and officers stormed inside, shoving Silva onto the sidewalk with other neighbors in their pajamas. The search turned up nothing, but the police told him to leave the door open because they might return.
The operation last month was part of an effort by the new mayor of Sao Paulo to clean up the downtown neighborhood of Nova Luz, better known as Cracolandia for the easy availability of crack cocaine and what the federal government had concluded was the highest concentration of addicts in the world.
But the sweep, which was aimed at arresting traffickers and seizing drugs and guns, won Mayor Joao Doria little support in the neighborhood from either the displaced addicts or the ordinary working-class residents living in the boarding houses.
“There are hard-working people and families living here, not just traffickers,” said Silva, who works two jobs as a doorman. “They didn’t tell anyone ahead of time what was going to happen.”
The neighborhood felt like a combat zone as police descended on it with tear gas, pepper spray and dogs. The wall of a building being demolished by the municipal government crashed into the adjacent boarding house, injuring three people who were sleeping there.
Investigators from the National Council on Human Rights visited the neighborhood a week later and concluded that residents had been treated inhumanely.
The neighborhood had long been plagued by drugs, but the problem had been getting worse. In the year leading up to the raid, the number of crack users living there grew from 709 to 1,861, according to a government study. Dino Bueno Avenue had become an open-air drug market, with dealers setting up stalls to sell rocks of crack for about $1.50 each.
Doria, who took office in January and launched a program called Beautiful City, has portrayed the sweep a success.
“Cracolandia is over,” he declared.
But the human rights investigators said that it was still very much in existence.
Many drug users resettled two blocks away in Princesa Isabel Square, where the municipal government estimates some 900 people are now living. Residents call it the new Cracolandia.
Most of the rest are dispersed and afraid to return to the neighborhood because the streets remain full of police.
Cracolandia “is a cancer without a cure,” said an addict named Bel, who was forced to move his tent. “When the cancer was just starting, nobody wanted to cure it. Now it’s pitiful. There is no cure. There is no chance. It will never end.
“For an addict, there is no right place,” he said. “He’ll use anywhere.”
The scattering of the addicts means that many no longer have access to drug treatment and other social services that were concentrated around the original Cracolandia.
“The situation is very bad,” said Leonardo Pinho, who led the human rights mission to Cracolandia. “They’ve lost the ability to get to public services that they have the right to and that they need.”
In 2014, then-Mayor Fernando Haddad had implemented a program called Open Arms, which provided drug users in Cracolândia with jobs, access to treatment and vocational training, three meals a day and hotel rooms.
Data released last August by the municipal government showed that 88% of those who participated in the program said they were using crack with less frequency, 83% said they had entered treatment, 64% had returned to the workforce and 53% had regained contact with their families.
When Doria took office, he said that he would dismantle the program in favor of a state program called Restart that emphasized in-patient treatment, sometimes against the will of the addicts. Then he changed course and announced his own program, called Redemption.
It too sought to force crack users into rehabilitation facilities, but then Sao Paulo courts banned compulsory treatment.
Pinho said that while the program has produced statistics suggesting a decline in traffickers and addicts, the effort is haphazard.
Doria’s press team said he would no longer comment on the situation in the Nova Luz neighborhood. Other city officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Recently, his government opened a temporary shelter made of metal shipping containers to house the addicts who had been living in hotels as part of the Open Arms program. It sits next to the new Cracolandia on Princesa Isabel Square.
Three week after the first sweep, police moved to shut down drug use in the square.
They didn't use the same physical force, but addicts were forced to take down their tents and hand over their blankets on what was the coldest night of the year.
Langlois is a special correspondent.