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As part of our on-going villa series, we revisit Anthony Bale’s 2008 article on paco, a by-product of cocaine that is wreaking havoc on the lives of many villa inhabitants.
“My son, Jeremia, was in another world. He had to sleep outside like a dog because he couldn’t stay in the house or he would rob everything from us,” says María Rosa Gonzalez, founder of Madres Contra Paco, (Mothers Against Paco).
Gonzalez, a mother of four, lives in La Cuidad Oculta, one of the most deprived and dangerous areas of Buenos Aires. She has two sons, one is an ex-addict and the other is currently still addicted to ‘paco’, the drug which has been described as being deadlier and more addictive than crack.
What is it?
Although it comes from cocaine, paco is merely a by-product of the drug. It is made up of the chemical residue of coca leaves used to make cocaine which has been produced to be trafficked to the US and Europe. Meanwhile the poorest communities of Argentina are left with what has been considered as the ‘rubbish’ of the drug.
It is so low grade and toxic that it’s basically just a mixture of chemicals with no purity to it whatsoever. It is often mixed with such substances as sulphuric acid, kerosene, rat poison and even crushed glass.
It is considered a drug for the poor as it only costs two or three pesos for a hit; but addiction soon becomes an expensive habit. It gives an intense high that lasts a matter of seconds, and it is this, combined with the highly toxic chemicals, which makes it so addictive. Users constantly need another fix, with people taking up to 100 hits a day. Many addicts will go on binges spanning over three days without sleep, constantly searching for more.
Their lives become consumed by the drug, so much so that they are often described as being ‘the living dead’ by doctors and those who interact with them.
Dr Eduardo Kallina, a leading medical expert on the effects of drug addiction in South America, described how a person changes: “The absence of the drug is very bad because the sensation is so quick and intense. You become depressed. It completely transforms your personality to be more aggressive.”
Portraying the mannerisms of an addict, he says: “It attacks the front part of your brain which controls your personality, your sense of right and wrong, your conscience, your aggression… addicts regress as if they were animals, like apes or Neanderthals.”
“I was 18 when I first tried it,” says Jeremia, Gonzalez’ 22-year-old son. “It’s a quick, intense high, but it leaves you almost immediately. It leaves you feeling very low, and desperate, wanting more and nothing else matters… You don’t have any fear, and you don’t care about anything else.”
While users of other drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine may experience long-term effects after several years of using, paco causes problems almost immediately. Dr Kalina explains: “After six months it completely destroys you. It’s as if someone was smoking 80 cigarettes a day for 20 years, however these side effects are evident within a matter of months. You lose all sense of humanity.”
As users are constantly searching for their next fix, they don’t eat or drink.
Gonzalez tells how her son originally weighed around 75kg, a weight that was reduced to just 31kg by the time he was admitted for treatment.
Many family members suffer as they watch their loved ones quickly deteriorate before their very eyes. A lot of addicts are teenagers, with reports of children as young as nine hooked on the drug. There have been several stories of addicts selling everything and anything they own to feed the habit and this includes stealing from their families, something Gonzalez had to endure with Jeremia.
“I couldn’t stand seeing him like this anymore. I had to do something. There’s something about a mother’s love for her children, when you see them in danger something takes over you.”
So she decided, along with other family members to block off the main road next to the shantytown as a cry for help, pleading that someone would show interest in her mission to get treatment for her son. Eventually the media showed interest in her plight, and Jeremia was admitted to hospital. But he was soon transferred to another hospital as the first one didn’t know how to treat his addiction to paco.
When referring to her son’s experience, Gonzalez was quite direct, “At the second hospital, the doctors didn’t know what to do with him either, so in the end, they strapped him down to his bed and let the withdrawal pass through him, it was horrible!”
Jeremia underwent almost two years of treatment and rehabilitation. “I needed 18 months of treatment and three months of counselling. But it depends on how much you have taken. Some may need more,” he explains.
“Eventually they put him on some medication, but there were many physical and psychological effects,” his mother added.
Jeremia admits he experienced many low points during his rehabilitation, and at several times used to cut himself to relieve the pressure and pain he was going through.
Looking at the scars on his wrists reveals the horrific reality paco addicts have to go through to get off the drug. Although Jeremia is recovered now, he explains how there are still some lasting effect
“When I was on it, I used to vomit blood and even now every morning I drink a glass of water and throw it back up as my stomach has been damaged so much.”
But he is proud to have managed to leave his old life behind, and is now working, teaching others of the dangers of paco.
Many others are not so lucky, and either die from overdosing, violence related, or even take their own lives.
Who’s to blame?
Many people point the finger at the collapse of the economy in 2001, citing huge unemployment and increasing poverty as the main source for its growing presence in shantytowns and poor communities across Argentina. However it could be argued that there are several other factors contributing to its current detrimental effect on the country.
In the last few years there has been a war waged against drugs cartels across South America with laws imposed to stop the international transportation of the chemicals used to produce cocaine.
This has led to an increasing number of cocaine factories appearing on the continent, and Argentina now has become a country of transportation, production and consumption. Many point the finger at the current president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and his policy of relaxing the country’s coca production laws. According to a news report produced by Channel 4 in the UK, Morales, a former coca farmer himself, wants to encourage his country to produce coca for natural consumption (chewing the coca leaves has been a national tradition for hundreds of years).
Morales’ policy against producing cocaine for illegal means therefore arguably is very weak. And with little monitoring of the Argentine-Bolivian border and only 10% of Argentina’s airspace covered by radar, traffickers are almost free to transport cocaine into the country.
Giovanni Quaglia, a representative of the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime, agrees, and was quoted on the same news report, saying that: “Evo Morales doesn’t have the capacity to control the huge border which Bolivia shares with Argentina.”
The UN estimates that the number of paco users in Argentina has tripled in the last two years, and some argue that the government is not doing enough to address the problem.
Guillermo Tonini; a 36-year-old former cocaine addict-turned-psychologist said: “The government would rather spend time and money on political campaigns rather than anti-drug campaigns. Basically the government is absent.”
He now is the deputy director at the Revivir Institute, a treatment centre for addicts, run by volunteers. In their institute, 85% of those admitted are for paco. However Tonini argues the problem is not the drug itself.
Paco isn’t the problem; it’s that the government allows the production and distribution of paco to exist. It’s because cocaine has been allowed to exist and be produced in this country for so long that paco has since come to pass.”
Within their treatment centre they have two types of patients: those who receive day care treatment and those who are admitted full time. Revivir has the capacity for 100 full time patients each month, however they average about 130.
Their treatment involves counselling – both group and individual – and also the creation of daily projects and goals for the patients to achieve. These include activities such as cooking, growing organic food, making their own bread and pasta and taking care of the cattle and pigs which they rear to feed themselves. Apart from this, they are educated and are taught to read and write, as many of them cannot.
“Here we make sure that in the final stages of treatment, our patients leave educated and not just academically, but in life also,” stated Tonini. “These people turn to the drug as they previously had no motive or reason in life, but we try and make sure that they do.”
He argues that it is a deep-rooted social problem in Argentina which must be addressed.
“There are many factors: poverty, indolence, lack of education: They have nothing else. There are no other options for them and so they turn to drugs. For example they say that school is obligatory but there aren’t enough schools. I’m very pessimistic about the current situation.”
Revivir is a non-governmental organisation and survives on donations. But Tonini believes that it should not only be left up to such groups to deal with this social problem.
“The problem with Argentina is that the ones in power often abuse it,” says Marcelo Candal, the director of Revivir, also a former addict. He agrees that education is the key, lamenting the lack of funding that goes into it.
Mothers Against Paco
Revivir is just one of the organisations in Argentina trying to help those affected by the drug along with Mothers against Paco. Gonzalez formed this group after seeing her son suffer so much and with the apparent lack of help from anyone else.
“The police do nothing. They beat up the addicts but don’t touch the dealers. If they do catch anyone with a sufficient amount, they consider it ‘personal use’ and simply take it off them. The punishment isn’t severe enough,” she proclaimed.
“These people are ill and every illness has to be treated individually,” she adds. And Gonzalez has the experience to know – despite Jeremia now being clean, her eldest son, Juan, remains a paco addict.
Mothers against Paco is still not recognised as an official association as Gonzalez and the other volunteers cannot afford the $2,000 needed to be registered. The group relies on donations and help within the community. Her home has become much like a community centre for addicts and their family members. Her small house is currently under construction with a second floor being built where her family will live; downstairs is to become a library for addicts and their family members.
The group also organises day events for addicts and their families. For example, recently they had a fun day for over 500 children in the area, most of them children of addicts and toys were donated by companies from the US.
But Gonzalez laments the lack of support from organisations in her own country and the lack of action being taken against those contributing to the problem such as dealers.
The government believes that there are around 85,000 paco users in Argentina. Other organisations believe that the number of users has increased 500% in the last couple of years with some groups reporting that almost half of the male population in several shantytowns are addicts. However it must be noted that this is a problem that affects both men and women.
Government anti-drugs agency, SEDRONAR, says they are working tirelessly in the fight against this social problem. Graciela Ahumada, director of Investigation against Drugs at SEDRONAR said: “The government isn’t absent. Other people may have a different opinion but we don’t deal with perception we deal with facts. The number one problem with addiction in Argentina is alcohol, then tobacco, then illegal drugs. First marijuana, then cocaine, then paco.”
When asked what SEDRONAR is doing to combat the problem with paco, Ahumada said: “We concentrate more on the social problem of drug addiction as a whole. We have prevention schemes in schools but against substance addiction, not just paco.”
She produced government figures stating that the rise in paco users had now stabilised in the last year whereas marijuana and cocaine users were still increasing.
Ahumada added: “It must be understood that people are usually not only addicted to one substance. Most people who smoke paco will also have problems with marijuana, alcohol, or cocaine.
“We have over 300 people working daily in prevention, investigation, help for drug addiction. Many people will say we aren’t doing anything but they don’t see the work we do. We are constantly working against drugs.”
However Gonzalez and Tonini would disagree as they feel that the government is not taking the problem seriously.
“The government estimates one person dies a day due to paco; I would say more like ten. In the last ten days I know of three people who have died, and that’s just in this area,” said Gonzalez.
She added: “I met with President Kirchner last year to discuss my organisation and what I was trying to achieve and that I needed help from the government. Yes, they said it was important and wanted to take pictures with me and President Kirchner – but I refused. They were only using it as a publicity stunt. They don’t care.”
There seems to be a strong difference in opinion between the government and NGOs in relation to Argentina’s problem with paco.
The truth is that no-one can truly specify the exact damage this drug is doing to Argentina, as everything seems to have been based on opinion and estimates.
The NGOs will say more because they see it every day, whereas the government is going by national statistics. However what is clear is that the government really does have no anti-drugs policy when it comes to paco. It seems like they are underestimating the problem, and until they show increased dedication to the issue, no-one will know the real damage this drug is doing. Until the government addresses the situation with real dedication and focus, the problem is only going to get worse and people like Gonzalez, her sons, and the thousands of others affected, will continue to suffer.