Argentina's Puerta 8: the barrio and the deadly cocaine

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View of Puerta 8, a low income neighborhood north of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, where contaminated cocaine may have been sold. A batch of that toxic cocaine has killed at least 23 people and hospitalized many more, according to police. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

BUENOS AIRES – A dozen children stare as if hypnotized at the fire heating a large pot of meat and vegetable stew. Martín Benítez tosses spices into the pot and stirs its contents with a long wooden spoon. Women with containers to be filled appear from a dimly lit hallway, drawn by an aroma they haven’t smelled in a long time.

After eight months, Benítez has reopened the soup kitchen in front of his home in Puerta 8, the poor neighborhood northwest of Buenos Aires that gained notoriety last week when police said it was the source of adulterated cocaine that killed 24 people and hospitalized almost 100.

Benitez’s humble house of exposed brick with a tin roof is right next to the “bunker” where doses of the toxic cocaine were found.

The 35-year-old prepares food provided by a community organization. He said he shut down the soup kitchen eight months ago because of gunfire from drug dealers.

“I cook in the street, and people come looking for me when I cook. The fear was that someone would get hurt: a boy, a mother, a pregnant woman, an elderly person,” Benítez said. He pointed to a spot about 200 meters away and said that until recently that was where the line of people waiting to buy drugs from the dealers would reach.

Around the fire that heats the pot, neighbors waiting for their share of the stew whispered in low voices: “Everything got worse with the pandemic.”

Puerta 8 is one of dozens of slums that grew in the suburbs of Argentina’s capital following successive economic crises. Its precise population is not known, but it encompasses 150 to 200 houses.

It emerged in the 1980s in the district of San Martín but was never fully developed. There are no sewers and at times the air in its narrow streets and alleyways is almost unbreathable. Besides the sewage, foul smells waft over from nearby slaughterhouses and a garbage processing and recycling site.

During the day, its streets are filled with children who run barefoot and play with slingshots. Few adults control them because most are still working jobs as domestic workers, selling from street carts or collecting cardboard, cans and plastic to sell.

“There are kids who don’t eat; all they have is tea at night. That is the reality of this town, you need food and shoes. You see a lot of barefoot boys,” said Graciela Delgado, a 56-year-old unemployed woman while Benítez served her stew and a piece of bread to feed her disabled son.

More than 40% of Argentines lived in poverty in 2021, with this figure exceeding 50% among children and adolescents, according to UNICEF. Argentina’s Ministry of Education said 1 million students, especially in poor communities, dropped out of school in 2020 when attendance was suspended due to pandemic measures.

Young people in Puerta 8 find “easy money” selling drugs, said Benítez. “They earn more than they can earn working legally.”

“If they are a drug addict, or sick, they get into it to get more drugs easily,” he said. “Then there is the issue of name-brand clothing and sneakers.”

Soledad Campos is the mother of Nicolás, 18, the only Puerta 8 resident arrested in the adulterated cocaine case. She said her son was paid 2,000 pesos (US$18) a day as a lookout for the neighborhood drug bunker.

Police say Puerta 8’s location at the intersection of two major roads make it an ideal point for selling drugs.

Investigators say the cocaine was adulterated with carfentanil, an opioid more powerful than heroin that is used to anesthetize large animals. Authorities say they still do now know why it was put into the cocaine — whether it was to increase the high or as part of a war between drug gangs.

Residents of Puerta 8 are convinced the drug was not prepared there and assume the adulteration was another chapter in the increasingly violent confrontations between drug gangs over territory.

The gloom hanging over the streets of Puerta 8 is at times pierced by the searchlight of a police helicopter flying overhead.

Maylen, 20 years old and pregnant with her second child, thanked Benítez for the plate of food and before leaving she looked at the sky.

“This is going to last a couple of weeks then it will be the same crap as before,” she said, referring to the police presence and helicopters.