A new scourge sweeps through Argentine ghettos: 'paco'

Abuse of the highly addictive cocaine byproduct 'paco' is causing officials to revamp drug laws.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

To get it, Jerimias sold his shoes. Then he sold his clothes. Then he stole and sold his sister's clothes.

Finally, says his mother María Rosa González, a welfare mom of four, her bone-thin teenage son dismantled the refrigerator to sell aluminum parts in the streets of their Buenos Aires slum.

He did all this for paco, a smokable, highly addictive street drug sweeping through Argentine ghettos, hooking impoverished teenagers, and prompting law officials here to revamp drug laws to stop its insidious spread.

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A recent study by the Argentine Secretariat for Prevention of Drug Addiction and Control of Narcotrafficking, known by its Spanish initials SEDRONAR, showed paco has outpaced all other drugs in rates of adolescent users in the last two years. Based on the results of the study, officials say 70,000 Argentines between 16 and 26 years old in the greater Buenos Aires area have tried paco.

Paco's effects on users are quick and obvious.

"My son was un muerto viviendo," she says, a "living dead," before she sent him last year to live with his grandmother in the rural province of Patagonia for three months. When he returned, Jerimias, then 19, was back at it, eventually ending up in a Buenos Aires drug clinic, where he just turned 20.

The paco sold here is a chemical byproduct, a leftover when Andean coca leaves are turned into a paste, then formulated into cocaine bound for US and European markets. Paco was once discarded as laboratory trash, says Dr. Ricardo Nadra, an Argentine government psychiatrist who works with paco addicts. But Argentina's devastating financial collapse in 2001 left the poorest even poorer, creating an impoverished demand for "cocaine's garbage," he says.

"People were broke and they couldn't afford to buy anything else," says Dr. Nadra, adding that drug dealers took the leftovers, which look like salt crystals, and added substances such as ground up glass as a filler in order to increase their profits. "Drug dealers could keep selling pure cocaine in Europe or the US but now they could sell paco in [Argentina's poorer neighborhoods]," he says.

By 2002, one man's trash had become a poorer man's drug of choice. Paco had made a social impact, sparking government concerns and even earning a reference in the US State Department's annual drug reports as "a relatively inexpensive and addictive drug similar to crack."

Because it's smoked rather than sniffed, and because of the physiological impact the confluence of chemical toxins have, experts like Dr. Roberto Baistrocchi, an Argentine pharmacologist who has studied the drug, say paco is exceedingly addictive and can cause lasting physical damage. "More than any other drug, paco is the most dangerous." says Nadra.

Last April, La Nacion, a leading newspaper here, quoted Claudio Mate, a ranking health official from Buenos Aires' provincial government, as saying that intense paco consumption can cause "cerebral death" in as little as six months.

Inexpensive high

Paco is cheap. It usually goes for about 30 cents a dose, enough for a powerful two-minute high. Jerimias was hooked from the first hit.

"I saw a guy using it and asked him to give me some," says Jerimias, who has gone three and a half months without the drug. "When I smoked it my body took control. I had to have it. I started selling everything I had."

Pablo Rafael Kodrec, director of a small Buenos Aires drug clinic where half of the 24 patients are paco addicts, says the drug's silver lining is its quick destruction, which makes patients seek help faster.

"It's not like cocaine or marijuana or ecstasy, where an addict can go for years without seeking help," he says. "They tend to come in quickly."

Like crack in 1980s America, paco has become a metaphor for societal problems.

Parroting a common refrain from experts interviewed for this story, Nadra says paco is fundamentally a social and economic issue. He says the roots of the growing scourge of paco are "social and spiritual dislocation" caused by an increase in poverty.

What's being done to stop the scourge?

To strike at its distribution channels, Argentine lawmakers on Dec. 9 passed a new law that expanded enforcement nets by letting provincial courts and police join federal forces in enforcing drug laws.

There have been gains. In late February, provincial police seized 7,000 doses of paco in 19 different raids. But critics say provincial police aren't using their power to strike at traffickers. Of 1,724 drug arrests between Dec. 11, 2005 and Jan. 29, 2006, 84 percent were for personal consumption, and only 3 percent were for paco, according to government data cited by Pagina 12, a leading newspaper, last month. Martín Arias Duval, second in charge of Buenos Aires's provincial ministry of security, says police are in "a transition period" and that catching traffickers is more demanding. "The trafficking cases generally require more previous work" such as catching traffickers on film, he told Pagina 12. "That takes some time and delay."

But the market for paco is growing. "Now rich kids are doing it too, like in Mar De Plata [a popular beach resort]," says Jerimias. "They say it's only poor people but they come in wearing nice clothes and driving expensive cars and eventually they come back in sandals."

He says he is scared to go back to his old neighborhood where old habits lie. But remembering his lowest moments helps.

"It was when I had nothing left to sell," he says. "That's when I asked for help."

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