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A new scourge sweeps through Argentine ghettos: 'paco'

Abuse of the highly addictive cocaine byproduct 'paco' is causing officials to revamp drug laws.

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To get it, Jerimias sold his shoes. Then he sold his clothes. Then he stole and sold his sister's clothes.

Finally, says his mother María Rosa González, a welfare mom of four, her bone-thin teenage son dismantled the refrigerator to sell aluminum parts in the streets of their Buenos Aires slum.

He did all this for paco, a smokable, highly addictive street drug sweeping through Argentine ghettos, hooking impoverished teenagers, and prompting law officials here to revamp drug laws to stop its insidious spread.

A recent study by the Argentine Secretariat for Prevention of Drug Addiction and Control of Narcotrafficking, known by its Spanish initials SEDRONAR, showed paco has outpaced all other drugs in rates of adolescent users in the last two years. Based on the results of the study, officials say 70,000 Argentines between 16 and 26 years old in the greater Buenos Aires area have tried paco.

Paco's effects on users are quick and obvious.

"My son was un muerto viviendo," she says, a "living dead," before she sent him last year to live with his grandmother in the rural province of Patagonia for three months. When he returned, Jerimias, then 19, was back at it, eventually ending up in a Buenos Aires drug clinic, where he just turned 20.

The paco sold here is a chemical byproduct, a leftover when Andean coca leaves are turned into a paste, then formulated into cocaine bound for US and European markets. Paco was once discarded as laboratory trash, says Dr. Ricardo Nadra, an Argentine government psychiatrist who works with paco addicts. But Argentina's devastating financial collapse in 2001 left the poorest even poorer, creating an impoverished demand for "cocaine's garbage," he says.

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