Under a footbridge, when night falls and it’s pitch black, the only light that emanates is from flames given off from a few cigarette lighters and a couple candles.
On the dirt floor trash is scattered about, including condoms and plastic water cups with holes punched in the bottom to be used as rudimentary pipes; the pungent stench of urine hangs in the air.
It’s filthy, but nobody seems to notice. The couple dozen people here on the ground are all too fixated on taking their next hit of crack cocaine. This scene plays out inside the Antares slum – or favela as it is known in Brazil – in the industrial outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There are men, women, and even children, all using.
Paulo, a middle-aged man and father of three young children, is hunched over and inhaling a hit. “I use crack every day, almost every hour,” he said without hesitation. “This is a drug you fall in love with the first time you use it.”
The Antares favela is under the command of dozens of machine gun wielding young men from a faction of the Comando Vermelho drug gang. It’s generally considered a no-go area for police.
A night-time visit inside the drug den in the slum reveals a troubling scene but points to a larger picture of how crack has become a security and public health epidemic in Brazil, spreading to all corners of the country and infiltrating all economic classes.
But since a rock of crack can be purchased for only R$5 (less than $3 USD), the most desperate and downtrodden users tend to congregate by the hundreds in and around Rio’s favelas, where it can be easily purchased.
That is partially why, in an unprecedented move, some drug traffickers have unilaterally decided to stop selling crack in the favelas they control.
In both Mandela and Jacarezinho favelas – combined home to more than 100,000 residents – crack can no longer be purchased. Two drug bosses, who control each favela, gave the orders to halt sales.
“I am not going to lie to you, there is a lot of profit to be made on crack,” said Rodrigo, a top trafficker in Mandela who used to manage all the crack operations, told Al Jazeera. He asked that his real name not be used. “But crack also brought destruction in our community as well, so we’re not selling it anymore. Addicts were robbing homes, killing each other for nothing inside the community. We wanted to avoid all that, so we stopped selling it.”
Police in Rio remain sceptical and dismissive of any gestures by the traffickers, even those who have already stopped selling crack. Marcello Maia, one of the Rio civil police’s top drug crime investigators, believes the move is just an attempt by the traffickers to gain sympathy and divert attention from the other drugs they readily admit they continue to sell.
“I think this is just a trick that the traffickers are doing,” Maia told Al Jazeera. “What they think is that now the police will stop combating other drugs they are selling, and we still stop entering their strongholds. But this is not what is going to happen.”