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23 Jun 2008

Paco: South America's new drug of the poor

A new drug, the discarded garbage of cocaine, takes hold of South America's poor, leaving its users branded the "living dead."

By Nathaniel Foote for Diplomatic Courier (DC)

A new drug, known simply as paco, has swept the slums of cities like Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro. Previously discarded as the garbage remaining after the production of cocaine, and both highly addictive and dangerous, it has found a home among South America's poor.

A sampling tells a part of the tale: Buenos Aires native Pablo sold all his belongings, going so far as to destroy his home and sell his land, leaving him homeless. Fellow Argentinean Jerimias dismantled his mother's refrigerator, selling the parts on the streets of his Buenos Aires neighborhood. Both men were in pursuit of paco. Some have gone so far as to refer to its users as "el muerto viviendo," or the living dead.

Paco, short for "pasta base de cocaine," has become a scourge for thousands of South Americans. "Cocaine's garbage" as it is also been called, has found a healthy market among South America's poor.

Long discarded as mere waste left over after the production of cocaine bound for affluent markets in the US and Europe, Paco is now being sold in the slums of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay with devastating results. In fact, according the United Nations, paco use "has risen by 200 percent in the past couple of years," and in some parts of Buenos Aires it has been reported that as many as 50 percent of men are paco users.

Paco is considered especially dangerous when compared to other drugs. Not only is it cheap, being sold for about 30 cents a dose in Buenos Aires, it is also powerfully addictive.

In the words of one addict, "when I smoked it my body took control. I had to have it. I started selling everything I had."

Paco also contains significant amounts of toxins, such as kerosene and lidocaine, left over from the production of cocaine that can cause lasting physical damage.

According to Claudio Mate, a leading health official from Buenos Aires, paco can cause "cerebral death" within six months; and unlike users of marijuana, cocaine or ecstasy - whose users often go years without help - paco addicts often hit rock bottom quickly.

The reasons for this sudden rise in paco consumption are uncertain. Most contribute the significant rise in the use of the drug to the Argentinean financial crisis beginning in 2001.

Indeed, it is highly credible that in the wake of the collapse, with poverty and unemployment rising precipitously, people, and especially the poor, may have sought a cheap, easy escape. More likely, however, paco use has skyrocketed because the hardships brought on by the economic collapse have coincided with a broader change in the production and transportation of cocaine across the region.

Traditionally, coca has been grown in the north, in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, with the majority of cocaine production and shipment following suit. However, today the market has changed. Coca growing remains the business of northern Andean farmers, but actual cocaine production has moved further south as Colombian cartels have been broken apart through the increasingly vigorous efforts of law enforcement. Mexican and Brazilian gangs have moved in to fill the void.

Adam Isacson, director of the Washington-based Center for International Policy's Colombia program, believes that the south represents a new frontier for cocaine smugglers in Latin America, saying "they have found new ways to market cocaine[.]"

In addition, cocaine demand in the US has stagnated while Europe is seen as a growing market, making Argentina and Brazil increasingly important for transshipment across the Atlantic.

Cocaine production itself has moved south as well, where the chemicals needed for cocaine synthesis are more readily available.

These changes have altered the use of drugs in South America. According to Argentinean drug official Ricardo Nadra, the entire game has changed. "[B]efore, cocaine hydrochloride would pass from the producer countries into Argentina. Now, what enters is the pasta base, which is much cheaper. In the past, Argentina was a transit country. Now it's a country of transit, consumption and production."

Coupled with the market created by a disillusioned and unemployed working class, stopping the tide of paco seems almost impossible.

Authorities have been slow to respond and paco users, as well as dealers, remain largely free from prosecution. In the words of one aggrieved Argentinean, "the police haven't entered here much since 2001."

This, however, does not mean that law enforcement has ignored the problem. In the first half of 2006, authorities seized as much cocaine as they had in all of the previous year and in Brazil cocaine seizures quadrupled from 2006 to 2007. Yet, this is not a cause to celebrate; it is a sign only of a growing market rather than improved enforcement.

There is hope, however, and Buenos Aires citizens are increasingly refusing to take the paco onslaught lying down. In one barrio Isabel Vazquez and her organization, Mothers Against Paco, literally tore down a drug dealer's hangout with their bare hands, sending the dealers running.

Now that a market for paco exists in the Southern Cone countries, it is unlikely to go away despite marked economic improvements in the region and growing awareness of the paco problem. The production and sale of drugs is a virile and resilient business, and efforts to stop it are generally ineffective. After all, Colombia, for all its hard won successes, remains the cocaine capitol of the world. Argentina and her neighbors may be fated to become the world's best consumers of a homegrown menace.

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