'Paco' Drug Ravishes Communities In Argentina

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A drug called Paco is devastating poor communities in Argentina. Paco consists of cocaine residue, industrial solvents and rat poison. The Argentine government estimates that in some shantytowns, as many as half of the young men between the ages of 13 and 30 are addicted. Alexei Barrionuevo, The New York Times Rio de Janerio bureau chief, recently wrote about the epidemic and talks about the growing concern over Paco addiction.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Walking through the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, Argentina, you might hear a song like this one playing on somebody's radio.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

This song in the popular Cumbia music style tells a story that too many youths in the South American country know all too well, addiction to a dangerous new drug known as Paco. It's a smokable drug made from bits of cocaine residue, industrial solvents and kerosene or rat poison. Those who smoke it are popularly known as muertos vivos, or the living dead, due to their emaciated appearance and short lifespan.

And it's a growing problem. The Argentine government estimates that in some shantytowns, as many as half of the young men between the ages of 13 and 30 are addicted. The drug is not unique to Argentina. Organizations in Uruguay, Chile and Brazil have expressed their concern about the drug.

So joining us to talk more about this is Alexei Barrionuevo. He's the New York Times Rio de Janeiro bureau chief, and he recently wrote about the Paco epidemic. Alexei, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO (Bureau Chief, Rio de Janeiro, The New York Times): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What do you think it is about this drug that's caused it to take hold so quickly?

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: I think the problem with Paco and with Pasta Basa(ph), as it's called in Brazil, is the sellers of the drug are preying on the poor and their hopelessness and desperation of their circumstances in some of these poorer areas. And so people are seizing on that, and they've given a drug to the poor that they can afford, frankly. And in often cases, they pay for it even by selling the drug themselves or helping in the distribution or production of it within the barrios.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea how this particular compound got started? You wrote about how it start with cocaine residue, but then who got the idea to add these obviously toxic substances to it?

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: It's not clear who had the brilliant idea to do that, but talking to drug officials in Argentina, their strong feeling is that the shift began early in the decade, maybe as early as 2001 but more clearly in 2003 it began to be seen.

What happened was this shift has happened in the region, and Argentina, and Brazil to some extent, with their excellent chemical industries, began to be locations where refined cocaine was processed before it was shipped out to Europe. And when that happened, that left behind leftovers from the cocaine production, which people started to take and add chemicals to and turn it into a drug that could be consumed and sold.

So far, drug officials seem to feel that it is mostly controlled by smaller to medium-sized sellers operating in the shantytowns themselves and sometimes producing out of home kitchens.

MARTIN: What's the appeal? Is it cheap?

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: It's extremely cheap. It costs as little as five pesos in Argentina for sort of a hit that will last 15 to 30 minutes, and that's the equivalent these days of maybe $1.30 American. It's very accessible and it's very cheap. And it's an escapist drug in the sense that the high is so intense, much more intense than the high that people snorting snortable cocaine would experience.

MARTIN: When crack became an epidemic in the U.S., there were certain areas where you could tell that the drug had burrowed in because you could see from people's appearance, their behavior. Can you see the signs of it on the streets in some areas?

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: Yeah, it's absolutely obvious because it has very physical effects. It causes the loss of appetite to the point where, you know, anorexia results. There's an incredible jitteriness, and it's really obvious when you look into people's eyes.

Speaking to Pablo(ph), the subject of the story I recently wrote, it was really sad to see the change because I had seen him when he was in a rehab center, when he was clean for a little while. And his eyes when he's on the drug are just all over the place. He can't focus.

MARTIN: And speaking of which, you mentioned that there's one young man whom you've been following while he's been in and out of treatment. Is there an effective treatment for this?

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: Argentine drug officials say there is not. They've tried a couple of different things in the last few years, you know, putting people in psychiatric clinics and trying to treat it as a psychiatric illness and just traditional drug treatment centers. And they can't quite seem to beat it, but that's because they're still trying to study the long-term effects to understand what needs to be done.

But simple removing somebody from the drug doesn't seem to remove it from their brain, in a sense. And when they get back anywhere near it, it's an incredibly quick, you know, jump back into the addiction. And that's what's happened with these people in these barrios in Argentina that have nowhere else to go, and they go back home and then seemingly benign circumstances can trigger re-addiction or re-acquaintance with the drug.

In the case of someone like Pablo, something as simple as coming back and being disappointed about the offer of a job that he felt he needed to get back on his feet. And when it was less money, half the money that he thought he was going to be paid, he just went into a massive depression and went to the street corner and started smoking it again.

MARTIN: And finally, there's always this question about how drugs should be addressed. Is this primarily a law enforcement issue? Is this primarily a health issue? Do you see any signs that there's any consensus emerging about how to combat this?

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: I think that in Argentina especially, they're coming around to the attitude that you see in Europe, which is that this is a health problem and that we shouldn't treat drug addicts, especially, as criminals. There's still a debate going on in Argentina currently over a re-definition of the law that would ever further sort of decriminalize persistent users, but that seems to be the direction, certainly, that the government is trying to push the agenda on that issue.

MARTIN: Alexei Barrionuevo is the bureau chief for the New York Times in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and he joined us from there. Thank you so much.

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: Thank you.

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