“It’s like having an orgasm that lasts five or six minutes,” said recovered Paco addict Hugo Ropero. “The effect is immediate. It’s so addictive that you try it once and it will destroy your life.”
Crushed glass, rat poison, kerosene, sulphuric acid and a touch of cocaine residue are some of the known ingredients of Paco. The exorbitantly potent, smokeable concoction is branded “the poor man’s drug,” but addiction is penetrating all ages and income levels. Photographer and author Ropero recounted seven points to buy Paco within five blocks of his middle-class home.
Just after Argentina’s economic crisis of 2001, tougher border standards in Bolivia and Peru drove drug kitchens into the notoriously lax country. Once narco-traffickers realized they could sell the often-lethal mixture of cocaine scraps to the poor, the epidemic took off and has been spiraling since. Though the Argentine government has yet to release any official figures, reports from Argentina’s Ministry of Health cite a 300 percent rise in Paco-related emergency room visits from 2008 to 2009. Last year, drug use experts in Buenos Aires told The New York Times that they estimate over 50,000 people have become addicted. And a number of social groups, including Madres en Lucha [Mothers in Combat], believe Paco addiction has grown in certain neighborhoods by as much as 500 percent.
A special Argentine commission on mental health recently released guidelines on how they think the addiction can be treated. But there is still no treatment known to be effective, nor a government plan to slow the drug’s rapid infiltration of the country.
“Day by day, the people die,” said Marta Gómez, organizer of Madres en Lucha. “There is no recourse for what is happening. There are no answers and no help.”
Forced to look for their own solutions, lower-class mothers formed Madres en Lucha in 2006. They joined other organizations in Argentina and across Latin America fighting to save those who are most vulnerable: their children. Argentine law doesn’t punish those under 18, so dealers routinely use children to sell the drug in exchange for free doses. Madres en Lucha say addiction is soaring among 6 to 14-year-olds.
“They are zombies,” said Gómez. “We are losing a generation of young people who are the ‘living dead.’”
Reportedly stronger and more addictive than cocaine, children and adults of all social classes are increasingly at risk to the drug’s unfathomable strength, which is known to cause immediate addiction. What’s more? A bag of 4 hits sells for as low as USD 30 cents. Heavy addicts use around 200 hits a day.
“After just one week of using, all I could think about was Paco,” said Ropero. “My life was a nightmare and I went completely mad. I cut all connections with reality because I thought my friends were stealing from me or had planted microphones in my house.”
Psychosis and hallucinations are common among Paco users. Experts say the drug also causes severe damage to the brain and internal organs. It dulls the senses to the extent that children have been found dead – not from overdose – but prolonged exposure the elements.
Burned fingers and lips, hollowed eyes and frail figures are some of the visible side effects. Regular users sleep only two or three hours a night and don’t notice the severe burns from the scorching metal used to smoke the drug. Rubbish is used to smoke rubbish: hollowed out TV antennas, used beer cans, metal tubing, anything that can be fashioned into a homemade pipe.
“After one hit, your life becomes Paco,” said Ropero. “You don’t want to even eat. You don’t remember what eating is.”
Heavy users quickly shrivel to less than 100 pounds. It’s at this point that some seek help. Madres en Lucha is often the first resource because the group includes those who know most about the effects of Paco: mothers of addicts and former addicts.
“I began to use Paco when I saw my daughter using it,” said 42-year-old Lydia Rigole, recovering addict and Madres en Lucha member. “It was so, so affordable. I started with four to five doses per day but after the first week I was using up to 200 doses every day.”
With the help of Madres en Lucha and the church, Rigole has avoided Paco for almost 3 years. God and the priests of the slums played an important role in Rigole’s recovery and the ongoing battle against the drug.
Father José María Di Paola, known as Padre Pepe, lives and works in a poor neighborhood of 45,000 people that is referred to as Villa Miseria [Misery Neighborhood]. Like Madres en Lucha, Padre Pepe doesn’t trust institutions to slow the Paco epidemic and believes the government and media miss the point by focusing on Paco-related crime.
“In reality, crime and violence is very linked to Paco,” Father Di Paola said. “But it isn’t only a problem of using. It’s how the user ends up on the street and with AIDS, tuberculosis or other sicknesses. It’s how families are destroyed and so many lives are lost.”
Despite its spread to the middle class, Father Di Paola sees Paco as fundamentally a drug of the poor because of Paco’s destruction of entire neighborhoods. In 2007, he publically denounced the fact that authorities consider impoverished areas “punishment free zones” and was subsequently threatened at gun-point at by an unknown assailant. However, Father Di Paola has continued to fight Paco with his church’s limited resources.
Regardless of social class or age, the excruciatingly addictive drug’s effect on an escalating number of Argentines shows no sign of slowing.
“There is no end,” said Rigole. “You succeed if you go a whole day and you didn’t use. It’s a daily fight and it will never be true that we are completely cured.”