Jeremy and a friend jumped off the La Uruca bus in downtown San José and quickly ran to a crevice between two decrepit brick buildings, five blocks south of the entrance to the Children’s Museum.
Jeremy, 28, who said he doesn’t have a last name, is about 5 feet 10 inches tall and has long, dirty, dreadlocked hair tied together with rubber bands and cluttered with thin, red strings.
On Sunday afternoon, he wore a torn, teal blue and green tie-dye Grateful Dead T-shirt cloaked with grease stains.
He turned to his friend.
“You got it?” he asked.
Jeremy’s friend pulled a thin, pencil-length pipe and a lighter from his left pants pocket. He, pinched his fingers together, reached into his right pocket and slowly removed a small, white clump and broke it into pieces that fell into the palm of his soil-and-asphalt-tarnished hand.
He crammed the powder into the end of the pipe, lit it, inhaled and passed it to Jeremy.
“This rock is better,” Jeremy said with a lung full of smoke.
Jeremy said he smokes crack several times a day. Although there is a rehabilitation center nearby, he said he only admits himself when he is desperate for food or shelter.
He concedes that he doesn’t have a “stable job,” but denies that he has to steal in order to buy his crack rocks, which sell for as little as ₡300 ($0.60).
“I do other things,” Jeremy said.
“Yeah, you’re an angel,” his friend said. “Come on. Let’s go.”
They disappeared into an abandoned building around the corner.
A ‘Constant Problem’
This scene is common in San José’s Zona Roja, a neighborhood that has a longstanding reputation as the capital city’s open-air crack den and hub for the homeless.
The drug situation here hasn’t worsened, but it hasn’t improved either. Police say many of the crack users who wander the neighborhood daily are the same ones who have roamed these streets for years.
Despite recent successes in dealer arrests and efforts to boost security in the district, crack’s stranglehold on what many call San José’s “underworld” is as tight as ever.
“The problem is constant,” said Paula Martínez, a crime statistics analyst for the Merced police precinct. “It doesn’t get better, it doesn’t get worse. It’s constant.”
Between June and August this year, police seized 2,810 crack rocks in the Zona Roja, far outnumbering the 272 marijuana joints and 326 hits and 33 grams of cocaine that authorities confiscated during the same time period.
Since the beginning of August, the National Police have arrested the neighborhood’s three most powerful drug dealers.
Still, drugs and users clutter the streets, and police seem frustrated.
“Something needs to change,” said Merced Police Chief Edward Monestel. “You arrest one dealer, you uncover three more. When you arrest those three, the dealers who were working below them are now above them. It’s a pyramid without a top.”
The sale, purchase and consumption of crack are illegal in Costa Rica, but police turn a blind eye on crack possession as long as the amount is small enough to be deemed “personal use.”
While Monestel said he believes legalization will only increase consumption, he acknowledged that busting dealers with large amounts of the drug hasn’t helped in getting users off the streets.
“They always find a new source, if not on this corner, then on the next corner,” he said. “It’s an endless problem.”
Blind Eye in the Sky
Since President Laura Chinchilla has taken office, the Public Security Ministry has installed cameras around San José in an effort to cut down drug dealing and help improve street safety.
But the new eyes in the sky, it appears, have merely made dealers craftier.
A dealer who calls himself Marley sells drugs outside a restaurant near the Zona Roja – cocaine for ₡8,000 ($16) per gram, marijuana for ₡5,000 per gram and, what he calls “quality rocks” for ₡1,000 a pop.
Four months ago, authorities installed a security camera at his corner. But rather than closing down sales, Marley tinted black the windows in his white Nissan and he now orders his clients into the car and drives around the block to make the deal.
But even if the cameras spotted Marley making a sale, local police said they don’t think they would have enough time to respond.
The cameras are wired to the National Police headquarters, and the local stations don’t have monitors.
Danny Arguedas, a National Police officer, works in a Zona Roja police station on the same corner as one of the new cameras. He has never seen what it records.
“If we had a monitor here, we could have a more immediate response,” he said. “But by the time the guys at headquarters see it, radio our dispatch and we go to investigate, it’s too late.”
Menace or Nuisance?
The Public Security Ministry estimates that approximately 2,000 crack addicts inhabit the streets of San José. Ministry officials and police officers claim that the users disturb the peace, steal, and rob passersby.
While some business owners in the zone said that the street drifters are threatening, most seem to believe that the users pose a greater threat to themselves than to others.
Luís Rivera is a tin knocker at a small sheet metal shop in the Merced district, located caddy-corner from a popular sleeping spot for the homeless, some of whom admitted using drugs to The Tico Times.
“They fight among themselves, but other than being an annoyance, they don’t really harm businesses,” Rivera said.
On a recent afternoon, a couple argued in front of a convenience store about whose turn it was to pay for drugs. The argument elevated to shouts and shoves, and the man slapped his female counterpart.
The clerk inside the locale briefly shut the blue metal gates at the entrance to the store and, shortly after, the couple marched away screaming.
“We’re used to it,” Rivera said. “The scenery here never changes.”
A rehabilitation center, a homeless shelter and a Salvation Army – which at times takes in drug users – are not far from the Merced district. While these refuges offer an alternative to street life, long term progress is seldom seen.
Marcela Rodríguez said she has been smoking crack for nearly 15 years. She spends her days begging for change outside of restaurants, bars and grocery stores and uses most of the money to buy drugs, she said.
Rodríguez said she has gone to rehab “on various occasions,” but said that life on the streets “is cheaper and easier than confronting personal pitfalls.”
It’s a cycle that Martínez, the precinct statistics analyst, knows well.
“That’s basically the story,” said Martínez, “They go to rehab or to a hotel for a bit and in one month they are right back here on the street.”