On Paco

It is a subverted image of happiness. Two women laughing, their bodies reclining in the sunlight. A closer look betrays profound decay: the broad smiles revealing black holes of missing teeth, the dirty broken fingernails barely visible in the shadows. In the background, a barbed wire fence snakes across the horizon. This is a photograph from Myriam Meloni’s series “Frágil”. 

These women are Paco addicts.

Paco, the street name for “pasta base de cocaína”, is a virulent blend of cocaine residue, kerosene, rat poison and glass, reports the International Herald Tribune. The drug appeared on the Argentine streets in the wake of the 2001 national economic crisis. Pouring out of the depths of Buenos Aires’s shantytowns or villas, Paco is marketed towards Argentina’s poorest citizens. At only $1.30 a hit, Paco is cheap and toxic. It ravages bodies, systematically destroying the nervous and respiratory systems and quickly wasting away users like the women described above into the “living dead”. According to the Guardian, an addiction of spanning more than three years is almost unheard of. While Paco has devastated the poor and raised crime rates, the state has failed to implement prevention and treatment programs. It has yet to confront the magnitude of the epidemic.

Paco affects all of Argentine society and women have emerged to fulfill a variety of roles. Their relationships to Paco are diverse: some are addicts, others struggle to recover and still others mobilize to combat the issue.

Paco claims lives regardless of gender. In the words of Hugo Ropero, former user, “Drugs are for addicts” and addicts are women, too. Ropero, a middle-class middle-aged photographer, recovered after a year of Paco consumption. Dressed in black, shiny hair slicked back, a permanent side-effect of his drug-abuse seems to be his scatter-brained nature. Demographics don’t matter, he insists, addiction preys on human vulnerability. In 2004, recently fired and divorced, the self-proclaimed experimental rebel wiled away his days consuming drugs with girls half his age. He found himself falling in love with a girl in her twenties. In the midst of seduction, she introduced him to Paco.

The feature film Paco illustrates a similar scenario of men initiated to Paco by women. Directed in 2009 by Diego Rafecas with the collaboration of former addicts and endorsed by the activist organization of mothers against Paco, Madres en Lucha, the film depicts one man’s downward spiral into drug addiction. In the film, the well-off son of a senator is introduced into the world of Paco by his lower-class girlfriend Flor. In the midst of an impoverished villa, she lights up the pipe. The male protagonist, tempted, tries. So begins the addiction.

As with many drugs, women notoriously exploit their bodies to get a dose. As portrayed in Paco, Flor eventually succumbs to prostitution to feed her addiction. Meloni reports that the two women she photographed, like many other female addicts, also sell their bodies.

While some women scour to smoke more Paco, others seek to quit their addiction. Hogar de Cristo, located on the border of Buenos Aires slum Villa 21, provides support in various forms for those who need it. Established in 2008, this community center measures success by progress, not numbers of clean and sober. Most slum-dwellers lack basic education. Some, like 17-year old Marcelo, are sleeping on the streets. Unlike Ropero or the moneyed protagonist of the film Paco, “These are people who have to fight for everything,” Sofía, the center’s psychologist emphasizes. Inspired and humbled by their struggles, Sofía dedicates her days to helping nurture their human dignity.

Today the center’s indoor sports-field is full of rambunctious recovering male addicts. One man, aggressively approaching the goal, kicks the ball into a little boy defender’s stomach. Immediately, the child bursts into tears. One of the two women watching from the sidelines gathers him into her arms, scolding the men for playing so rough. This woman has regularly attended sessions at Hogar de Cristo since its opening four years ago. Although she has not abused Paco for years, she continues to come to the center to mentor and support her friend Cristina, who still struggles to kick the addiction.

Mothers are also rising to the challenge. When crises attack Argentine society, they are often the first to take a stand. During the horrific military dictatorship of the late 1970s, mothers marched to demand the return of their 30,000 disappeared sons and daughters. “These are not desaparecidos (disappeareds),” insists Marta Gomez, one of the founders of Madres en Lucha, the organization of mothers who rally against Paco. They are the living dead, she says, you watch them die before your eyes.

An animated middle-aged mother with a mass of curly black hair, Marta began fighting against the scourge of Paco when her son Juan started abusing the drug. Violent and addicted, Paco had altered his behavior drastically. He was fighting with his family and pawning their possessions to get hits. He breached the limit and she kicked him out of the house. After several nights on the streets, Juan approached his mother for help. Since then, Marta has guided her son in his journey to get and stay clean. “I had no choice,” she explains, “I am his mother”. To combat the new unknown drug, she along with two other mothers (one who used drugs herself) began researching Paco’s effects, symptoms and other details. As the drug spread, the organization also grew. Today they work prevention and treatment programs across the nation. Juan was their first success story.

Now Juan is clean, though four years of Paco abuse has left all kinds of scars on his body, like jumbled speech and jittery legs. Nevertheless, Marta takes pride in her son and his struggle to quit Paco.

Women can drag people into the dark world of Paco, but they also have the power to guide addicts out. They can play a number of roles. For Juan, it is his baby daughter Tiziana who inspires him everyday towards a healthy and productive future.