SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The trappings of upper-class teenage life seemed to come easily to Sander Mecca: girlfriends, rock bands, entry to stylish clubs — and a serious Ecstasy habit. Weekend-long raves were not the same without it for Mr. Mecca, who said he sometimes consumed six pills in a span of 12 hours.
Ecstasy Ensnares a New Class of Teenage Users in BrazilBy ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
Then, at the age of 21, Mr. Mecca was arrested at a bar, accused by the police of being a drug dealer and put in prison for nearly two years, where he bunked alongside hardened criminals and watched other wealthy so-called playboys get lured into a life of organized crime.
His story is becoming more common in Brazil, where rising Ecstasy use is drawing a new class of educated young people into the cross hairs of drug enforcement here in South America’s largest country.
This new class of drug peddlers is a far cry from the heavily armed drug lords and their young, impoverished foot soldiers in the slums, where the Brazilian police send small armies to wage deadly battles against them. Instead, those accused of dealing Ecstasy are often university-educated clubbers in the booming electronic dance music scene, an import from Europe and the United States that is taking South America by storm.
Differences aside, drug trafficking in Brazil has become increasingly demonized in the eyes of the law — to the point where drug financiers can now receive stiffer prison sentences than murderers — and the country’s elite is not being spared.
Just last week, federal police officers arrested 55 people, many of them in Rio de Janeiro, in a nationwide investigation focused on upper-middle-class youths who the police said were smuggling Ecstasy, LSD and other synthetic drugs into Brazil from Europe.
In São Paulo, the police have singled out raves and clubs, as well as top-flight universities, in extensive undercover operations with headline-grabbing names like Operation Playboy and Operation Dancing. The São Paulo police alone have arrested hundreds of university students in Ecstasy-related stings in the last few years.
Still, the pills keep arriving from abroad, fueling huge outdoor concerts and raves that can draw tens of thousands of people and last for days. The federal police said they seized 211,000 pills in 2007, 17 times as many as the year before, and another 132,621 pills last year.
Ecstasy’s emergence as the drug of Brazil’s wealthy has opened the door even wider for corrupt police officers to seize upon users and their families. Now that Brazil has eliminated prison sentences for drug users, sending them to treatment or community service instead, the police are extracting sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for not charging those caught with Ecstasy as drug dealers, according to defense lawyers and three convicted drug dealers now out of prison.
“Consumers and Ecstasy dealers come from a higher socio-economic background,” said Cristiano Maronna, a criminal lawyer in São Paulo. “From the police’s perspective, apprehending these individuals becomes more interesting because it will open the door to possibilities of police corruption.”
Ecstasy, known chemically as MDMA, first arrived in Brazil from Amsterdam in the early 1990s, well after it had taken off as a recreational drug in Europe in the 1980s, said Murilo Battisti, a São Paulo psychologist who has studied the drug’s use in Brazil.
Now middle-class and wealthy teenagers often sell Ecstasy to sustain their extravagant tastes here in São Paulo’s nocturnal world of big, expensive parties, said Luiz Carlos Magno, the chief of the Narcotics Department of the São Paulo state police.
That party lifestyle has been magnified by Brazil’s booming economy over the last several years, which has created hundreds of new millionaires and ushered in a host of high-priced clubs that still thrive despite the global financial crisis.
Club and electronic festival organizers often balk at suggestions of a necessary link between the drug and the music, saying Ecstasy is being consumed everywhere, including at soccer matches. Mr. Mecca, though, said the connection was undeniable.
“Ecstasy and raves walk hand in hand, and this will not stop,” said Mr. Mecca, now 26. “You go to a rave here and no one is sober. Everyone is on Ecstasy or acid and everyone is crazy.”
Most Ecstasy peddlers buy their drugs overseas, especially in the Netherlands, Superintendent Magno said. “Their parents have money, but don’t have the least idea what their kids are doing,” he said.
Moreover, the image of machine gun-wielding drug bandits is the furthest thing from the minds of users who have found themselves in handcuffs for selling Ecstasy, or sometimes for sharing a few pills with friends.
“They refer to drug dealers as ‘them,’ the guys in the slums,” Superintendent Magno said.
Drug laws in Brazil protect those who have completed a university degree, placing them in special prisons. But even one credit short of graduation means being dumped in with the general prison population.
Lucas, a 24-year-old native of Rio de Janeiro, was in his second year of university when he was caught by the police at a São Paulo airport after bringing in skunk, a more potent form of marijuana, from Amsterdam. The police accused him of having Ecstasy, and scoured his bags for pills to no avail.
After a failed negotiation between his lawyer and the police — he said he offered 30,000 reals or about $13,000 to avoid being charged as a dealer — he was convicted and sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison. He ended up serving two and a half.
“I was treated like a hardcore criminal and put in jail together with killers, kidnappers, you name it,” said Lucas, who agreed to be interviewed as long as his last name not be used, for fear of police retribution.
In prison, he said he endured twice monthly blitzes, in which guards would enter the cells and beat prisoners while in search of drugs, cellphones and guns.
Lucas, who grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Rio’s Leblon neighborhood, acknowledged that he had sold Ecstasy for years, taking trips to Amsterdam, where he said Ecstasy could be bought for as little as 30 euro-cents per pill in 2005; at São Paulo parties, the pills could fetch nearly 50 times as much.
In 2006, Brazil increased the minimum penalty for dealing drugs, and instituted a sentence of 8 to 20 years for those who financed drug trafficking. That is stiffer than the 6-to-20-year range for most homicides in Brazil, Superintendent Magno said.
Since there is no minimum amount of drugs that constitutes dealing, corrupt police officers often solicit bribes after arresting a suspect but before they file their police report, said Maurides Ribeiro, another criminal lawyer here. As a result, he said, “hundreds of people are in jail serving a sentence for drug trafficking when they are not drug dealers.”
Superintendent Magno acknowledged that “it is possible” that such corruption was going on in his 35,000-officer department, but he said internal affairs had yet to arrest a single officer for Ecstasy-related corruption.
Parents are often eager to pay the bribes to avoid their child’s being charged with trafficking. Like Lucas, Mr. Mecca said he also tried to bribe the police but failed because reporters who had learned of his arrest were waiting at the jail.
Jail came as a shock. During his playboy days, he lived at home and had a cook and a driver. In prison, he shared a cell meant for three with as many as 11 prisoners. When the stone slabs jutting from the wall that served as bunk beds were full, prisoners hung hammocks from the walls. Violence was as constant as the nicotine residue coating the prison walls. He said he watched inmates beat other inmates until they soiled their pants.
Mr. Mecca said he used his time in prison to kick his drug habits, before a judge later changed the charge against him from dealing to drug use. Others took a different road. One fellow playboy from the clubbing scene who was also arrested for dealing Ecstasy joined a prison gang, took a liking to criminal life and left as a criminal, Mr. Mecca said.
“The playboys think that since they have money they are above the law and that nothing will affect them,” he said. “So they continue playing around until something serious happens. Prison changed my life.”
Myrna Domit contributed reporting from São Paulo.
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