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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2007, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
Drugs scourge takes hold in Argentina
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires shanty town
Paco consumption has soared in poor areas of Buenos Aires
Whichever figures you read, they're alarming.

The United Nations says the increase in the use of cocaine paste, or paco, in Argentina has risen by 200% in the past couple of years. Other agencies put the figure as high as 500%.

It is simply the case that the consumption of paco is rising so fast in the poor neighbourhoods around Buenos Aires that it is almost impossible to keep track.

What is clear, say the experts, is that urgent action needs to be taken now to prevent the situation spiralling out of control.

Mothers' anger

There is a pile of rubble in the middle of the squat, badly built houses in the Villa La Madrid shanty town from where drug dealers used to sell paco.

"We complained to the police, but they did nothing," said Isabel Vazquez, who belongs to a group called Mothers Against Paco.

Isabel Vazquez
Mothers Against Paco took on the drug dealers - and won

"So one night a big group of us marched over here and tore the place down with our own hands. The dealers fled."

Isabel added that children as young as nine were buying paco.

Initially it is given to them free, then once they are hooked, it is sold cheaply, for just a few pennies a time.

Paco is a cheap drug made from the mostly chemical residue left over from the production of cocaine, which is exported to markets in Europe and the United States as well as being bought by wealthy Argentines.

Paco is the rubbish fed to the often desperate and vulnerable poor.

It is burnt on a piece of metal, a used beer can for example, and the fumes inhaled through a metal straw.

It gives the user a rapid, intense high, but wears off quickly leaving him needing another fix, and another.

[Young men in shanty towns] already belong to a neglected social group. But their use of paco leads to them being doubly excluded, by their families and neighbours as well
Hugo Miguez
Clinical psychologist

Some, in a short time, need a hundred fixes a day, or more.

The drug does severe damage to the brain and internal organs.

In their fight against the cocaine trade, the authorities in Latin America had made it more difficult for the legal chemicals used in making the drug to leave the countries where they were produced - mostly Brazil and Argentina.

So the dealers simply moved their factories from Peru, Bolivia and Colombia closer to where some of the raw materials used in the production of cocaine are made.

"They couldn't believe their luck," said Hugo Miguez, a clinical psychologist and one of the leading experts in Argentina on the rise in the use of paco.

"It was a very ill thought-out strategy."

He explains that in some areas, almost always socially deprived neighbourhoods, 50% of young men were using paco.

"They already belong to a neglected social group," he explained. "But their use of paco leads to them being doubly excluded, by their families and neighbours as well."

Getting a life back

The authorities in Buenos Aires province are responding.

Alexander Zarate
I realised my life wasn't worth living like that. I didn't value my life, but now I do
Alexander Zarate

Paco users, all young men, are treated at a number of rehabilitation centres.

New ones are opening all the time. One of the biggest is at Lomas de Zamora, about half an hour south of Buenos Aires.

Alex is 20 years old and a former paco user.

He tried the drug under pressure from his friends and soon found himself hooked. He sold all he had, which was not much.

Then he began stealing from his family. Then he started stealing elsewhere.

By the time he was 20, he had served three terms in jail and was separated from his girlfriend and their baby daughter.

"I realised my life wasn't worth living like that," he said, standing outside the vegetable patch where he works at the rehabilitation centre.

Xoana Zarate
We thought we'd lost him
Xoana Zarate

"I didn't value my life, but now I do. I realise that I'm important."

He could not talk about any kind of future.

"All I can do is concentrate on the present," he said. "Trying to get my life back and my girlfriend and daughter back."

"We thought we'd lost him," said his sister, Xoana, who had come to visit him.

"But now we see him returning to his old self."

Alex is determined not to go back to his neighbourhood where paco is being sold openly since he fears his friends will tempt and taunt him back into using it again.

"I'm worried about the young kids doing what I did," he said. "They sell to kids of nine and 10."

Alex was just one of many young men at the rehabilitation centre with similar, dramatic stories to tell.

But they are the lucky ones, the ones not abandoned by their families and friends.

Most Argentines never set foot in the sprawling shanty towns around the main cities and are only now becoming aware of the growing paco problem - a problem that is threatening to become a crisis.

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