RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — A shirtless 10-year old boy walks among the dozens of crack users gathered along the trashed rocky decline between train tracks and a retaining wall.

He taps the hole on his makeshift crack pipe, a hazy plastic water cup covered with punctured aluminum foil, silent as older users yell for him to leave.

“If you like it the first time, it's a bottomless hole,” said an adult man with blistered lips crouched among them. “It's a drug that gets you addicted so quickly that once you realize it ... you’re already gone.”

This is one of Brazil’s growing number of cracolandias, congregations of crack addicts that have raised alarm among officials. Experts say an epidemic has taken root here that is comparable to the crisis the drug created in the United States more than two decades ago.

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Brazil now has at least 1.2 million crack users — this in a nation of just under 200 million — according to the Parliamentary Front to Combat Crack, a committee of government officials that says that kids first use the drug at the average age of 13. 

Combating the problem has become a high-profile issue for public officials, given the growing number of cracolandias in pubic view and crime associated with the drug, as Rio de Janeiro takes on several public-security programs to improve the city’s image before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

President Dilma Rousseff announced in December a 4 billion reais ($2.1 billion) national plan to combat crack in the years leading up to the World Cup. Her health minister, Alexandre Padilha, defended a proposal to extend forced rehab to adults and children throughout the country. 

“Crack has inaugurated a new phase of traffic in Brazil,” says Luis Flávio Sapori, a former public security secretary in the state of Minas Gerais who has written a book on the problem.

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The drug has been in Brazil for two decades. But in the past 10 years the country saw an “explosion” of use, Sapori said. Particularly in the past few years, traffickers abandoned their ban on selling the drug in Rio de Janeiro and other cities, likely because they recognized the burgeoning demand for a cheap, highly addictive drug that's easily produced.

“Crack is a fast sale. … The customer is very compulsive. He spends a lot, but he also becomes very indebted,” Sapori said.

As the drug became more widespread, users began gathering to smoke the drug publicly in cracolandias.

Rio has responded to the rising crack use with a controversial policy of rounding up users in police operations, forcing the underage to stay for months in state-run shelters. Adults are offered optional sheltering, but have to go to transit homes to recover belongings confiscated in raids. 

Most don’t stay, but at least temporarily, the police get what they want: broken-up cracolandias.

The city government has sent more than 100 underage users to shelters since beginning the program in May. Critics have called the move illegal, saying the state has no right to imprison children. They also worry that users will only be driven underground.

“It’s violence that they’re carrying out,” local magistrate Siro Darlan told the news magazine Veja. “In the condominiums of the [wealthy neighborhood] Barra da Tijuca there are people using drugs. Why not go and remove them?”

But supporters say that Rio is a laboratory for a policy that could spread to the rest of the country.

“We think that our role as the state is to watch over their lives,” said Rodrigo Bethlem, Rio’s social assistance secretary, of the young crack users.

He added, “Just by the fact that you have an area called a ‘cracolândia’ where you use the drug openly, you stimulate the growth of users.”

In interviews permitted by shelter staff nearby, the children often say they’re happy in the homes, though many describe going in and out of shelters multiple times. The staff offer counseling and prescribe them a series of sedatives, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs.

Those who stay want to do so. They boys are “always” able to flee when they try, said Luiz Maia, a psychologist at a shelter in the leafy tropical outskirts of the city.

“If they jump here, there’s a river,” he said, indicating the small wall around the sports court.

He claims that boys brought by their families have a high rate of recovery. But of those forced here by the recent round of police operations, only 10 to 20 percent stay in the house. The shelter doesn’t try to hold the boys against their will, Maia adds. “This isn’t a prison.”

Daniel, a 15 year old ex-user who’s been in Maia’s shelter for a month, says he saw a police team coming toward crack users — and then he ran to the officers.’

“I saw lots of people running to not be caught and I thought, ‘This is not for me,’” said Daniel, who said that he routintely spent 300 reais (170 USD) as he’d smoke 20 crack rocks in a day. “I know if I leave this month, I will fall again.” 

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