Posted by: talljoe | November 23, 2011

Paco: A Classless Drug

With a population of over 45,000, Villa 21 is Argentina’s largest slum.  Located in the capital city of Buenos Aires, walking into the shantytown is like entering another dimension.  The rocky streets filled with children playing soccer with a makeshift ball, hundreds of shacks carelessly built one on top of another, and a rank smell of garbage – villa 21 is an exceptional parallel to the glitz and glamour of the streets of Recoleta and Palermo, two of the city’s wealthiest barrios.  On some corners, groups of men lazily sit, devoured in smoke and listless conversation.  With a closer look one would notice that not all of these men are smoking cigarettes or marijuana.  Some are hopelessly engaged to a manmade pipe – a pipe filled with a toxic substance with the capability of controlling their lives forever.

According to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) paco is an inexpensive, yet highly addictive residue left over from the creation of cocaine.  Paco’s ingredients are deadly – cocaine sulfate, smashed glass and rat poison are only three of the various toxicities used in creating the drug.  The drug grew in popularity among Argentina’s lower classes, particularly in Buenos Aires, during Argentina’s financial crisis.  However, although paco began as a comfortable substitute to cocaine for those in the Country’s impoverished Villas, it has gained in power and influence among the middle and upper classes as well.  Hugo Ropero is the former executive photo editor of Argentine news magazine Noticias.  His struggle with addiction to the drug is a prime example of how paco has slowly gained control of even those who lead lives of luxury.

“It’s not a matter of who you are, or where you come from,” Ropero said.  “It’s a matter of how vulnerable you are to addiction.”  Ropero began using the drug in 2004 when a group of 20 to 25-year-old girls he was socializing with offered him a joint.  He was immediately hooked.  Ropero cannot compare the affects of the drug to anything else on the market.  “It’s a completely different effect,” he said, tapping his foot up and down, perhaps out of nervousness.  “After you swallow the smoke the feeling is intense – orgasmic.”  The effect of paco is felt as soon as one inhales its smoke.  However, the sensation only lasts a few seconds.  Afterward the user falls into a deep depression.  “It’s a very dark place,” Ropero recalled.  Ropero believes that anyone can fall victim to paco if they allow themselves to.  “I’m weak in front of addiction,” Ropero said with a laugh.  “It’s a part of my nature, my essence.”

Ropero is not an amateur when it comes to taking illicit substances.  In fact, he has tried just about everything – from marijuana and cocaine to LSD.  While working for Noticias Ropero followed many rock bands on tour and acted as their photographer.  During his experience he was exposed to chemical drug use, and unsurprisingly he began to use lysergic acid and marijuana.  “I am a rebel by nature,” Ropero said.  Drug use among journalists who shadow rock bands is not uncommon.  Famous American photographer Annie Leibovitz experimented with similar drugs while on tour with the Rolling Stones in the 1980s.

Although dealers target the Villas – places where one cannot afford the expense of a cocaine or heroin addiction, paco is also available on the wealthy street corners of Palermo and Recoleta.  Feeding the addiction to paco was quite easy for Ropero.  “As an addict,” he said, “you always find what you’re looking for.  When I was looking for a paco dose, I knew exactly where I could find one.”  Ropero was surprised as to just how many members of Argentina’s middle class were addicted to the drug.  According to Marta Gómez, one of the founders of Madres en Lucha, an Argentine organization of mothers who fight against the spread of paco addiction and provide support to those families with children under the influence, paco is a bigger problem in the city than it is in Argentina’s interior.  “Paco is a drug of extermination,” Gómez said.

Although addictions are very difficult and dark experiences, Ropero views his as a life lesson.  One morning in 2004 Ropero was washing up and getting ready for his day when he looked at himself in the mirror.  It was in this moment when he decided that enough was enough.  He took a day trip to Brazil to clear his mind.  He decided that it was time to find help through rehabilitation.

Unlike most addicts living in Argentine’s villas, Ropero was lucky.  Due to his financial stability he was able to afford effective treatment from a private institution in Argentina.  Villeros, or the people living in Argentine villas, either seek the support of non-profit organizations, or they submit themselves to Hospital Borda, one of Buenos Aires’ psychiatric hospitals.

Today Ropero’s three years of addiction have come to an end.  “Now [paco] is invisible to me,” Ropero said.  “I’ve changed my social world and left the addicts behind.  I’ve found new interests.”  Although he is clean of paco, Ropero still smokes marijuana from time to time, as well as cigarettes.  Ropero, like many of those dealing with a drug addiction, cites his children as his main drive to quit the drug.  He now leads a healthy lifestyle, working as a freelance private photographer instead of for the mainstream media.  In 2009, Ropero penned his experience into a book he titled Maldita Droga (Damn Drug).

Whether you are rich or poor, living in a pent house in Recoleta or a small shack in Villa 21, Hugo Ropero stresses that addiction is not about the drug, but about the willpower of the human being.  Although malicious drugs like paco are to be ignored, if one stumbles into their presence, the power of a single hit is endless.  Paco has surely become a classless drug.


*Written for my Reporting Buenos Aires course at NYU in Buenos Aires




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