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.
People crowd onto Princess Isabel Square after a police operation removed them from a nearby area of the Nova Luz neighborhood of Sao Paulo, Brazil. It’s known as “Cracolandia,” the land of crack, for the many drug users living on its streets.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
A crowd gathers in Princess Isabel Square after a police operation removed people from an area in the Nova Luz neighborhood, known as “Cracolandia,” in Sao Paulo, Brazil.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
Rafael Matos da Silva works as a doorman at a boarding house in Nova Luz. “There are hard-working people and families living here, not just traffickers,” he says of the neighborhood.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
The downtown Sao Paulo neighborhood of Nova Luz, known as “Cracolandia,” has a large concentration of crack users living on its streets.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
An addict lights up in Nova Luz’s Princess Isabel Square in São Paulo, Brazil.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
Authorities stand guard near Nova Luz’s Princess Isabel Square after a police operation removed people from Helvetia and Dino Bueno streets.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
Milton Custodia de Souza owns a boarding house in the Nova Luz neighborhood near “Cracolandia.”(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
Princess Isabel Square has come to be known as the new “Cracolandia” after a police operation removed drug users from Helvetia and Dino Bueno streets in the Sao Paulo neighborhood Nova Luz.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
A man bathes in the crowded Princess Isabel Square.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
An aerial view of Helvetia and Dino Bueno streets in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where authorities expelled a large concentration of drug users.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
Many drug users who had scattered from one part of the Nova Luz neighborhood after a police crackdown have regrouped at Princess Isabel Square.(Victor Moriyama / For The Times)
Brazilian police sweep through the Sao Paulo area known as “Cracolandia” in May. More than 500 police officers were involved in an operation to crack down on drug use and trafficking to help revitalize the downtown.(Fernando Bizerra Jr. / EPA)
Brazilian police conduct sweeps of homes in the Nova Luz neighborhood of Sao Paulo.(Fernando Bizerra Jr. / EPA)
Brazilian police sweep through an area known as “Cracolandia” in Sao Paulo, Brazil.(Fernando Bizerra Jr. / EPA)
The operation in Nova Luz by Brazilian police drew criticism from some residents.(Fernando Bizerra Jr. / EPA)
“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.