When Brazil holds the World Cup this summer, around 600,000 football fans will fly in, many of them from Britain. Worshippers of the beautiful game will want to travel to its spiritual home, Rio de Janeiro. But venture beyond the rebuilt Maracana, the concrete bowl that doubles as a shrine to the national sport, or the beachfront bars of Copacabana, and the fans will find a city hooked on more than just football. Rio is fast becoming addicted to crack cocaine.
Since Brazil was awarded the World Cup finals seven years ago, crack cocaine, the more addictive form of the drug, has swept through Rio and its shantytowns, known as favelas. With Brazil sharing borders with Colombia, Peru and Bolivia – three of the biggest cocaine producers in the world – crack has proved impossible to keep out. “Brazil smokes a ton of crack a day,” says Ross Kemp, the EastEnders star turned investigative reporter.
He is no stranger to Rio. Its favelas featured in series one of Sky1’s Ross Kemp on Gangs and he has returned for a new series of Ross Kemp: Extreme World. Back in 2007, even the violent criminals who rule the shantytowns could see the danger in crack. “It was actually banned by the dons [crime bosses] – it was prison gangs that put pressure on two dons in Rio to start selling it. They were also the first two to stop selling it, because it was eating up their own community.”
Not all drug lords are so community- spirited. Despite the low street price of the drug (as little as £1 per rock), the profits are too big to resist. Some dons even give addicts derelict houses where they can get high. In the crack house Kemp visits, people sleep on broken tiles and there’s even a landlord of sorts, boasting about his drug-enhanced sex drive. It’s a twisted kind of hotel: you can check out, but you can never leave.
As a viewer, the sucking sound of the makeshift crack pipes (they look like yoghurt pots) is enough to make you queasy. “The smell of the chemicals is so strong. It permeates everything. It stains the walls, it stains the people; everything has a kind of sticky film to it.”
But that’s not the worst. Far from the sparkly bras and Mardi Gras of the tourist brochures lies Rio’s Cracolandia – the crackland, where addicts spill out onto the streets. Kemp explains: “Drugs like this don’t specify race, they don’t specify class, they don’t specify gender and they don’t specify age. There were all types on those streets. They had one thing in common: they were looking to buy their next hit of crack cocaine.”
The scenes are appalling. People loll about on the kerbside or get into fights, while missionaries and family members search through the crowds. “What I found so shocking is it’s just so open. The scale of it seems uncontainable. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t affect you.”
And it takes a lot to make this hard nut crack. Earlier in the series, he and his team were held at gunpoint by bandits in Papua New Guinea. Kemp shouted, “You’re not going to kill me” and batted away a rifle pointed at his chest. “The bullshit-over-brains approach,” he calls it modestly. “It wasn’t like I karate-chopped them to the ground, Austin Powers-style.”
Might the squalor be its own attraction for sports fans looking for the “authentic” Rio? Could “poverty tourism” be its own draw? “I hope that’s not the case,” he says. “People sometimes watch my programmes and want to follow me to these places, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There are even trips now, which I couldn’t believe, up to favelas that were in the hands of Red Command [a major gang] when I visited. Now they have tourists going up there.”
With the World Cup just months away, and the Olympic Games following in 2016, steps are being taken to clean the city up. The police are rounding up addicts and putting them into treatment, whether they wish to go or not, and moving the rest on. “It’s like moving water,” says Kemp. “It will find its own level somewhere else. If you shove the problem under the carpet, all you’re going to do is incubate it. That’s the feeling we got from people we spoke to on the streets.”
It’s an issue that suits Kemp’s style as a compassionate journalist: a job title he no longer rejects outright, though he still seems surprised by his change in career (“If you had asked me 15 years ago when I was tap-dancing in EastEnders, I’d have thought you were deluded”).
Fearless as he seems in the field, the publicist sitting in on our conversation gets uneasy when questions turn to his views of other journalists. Kemp was once married to Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief executive and ex-News of the World editor, currently on trial at the Old Bailey in connection with phone hacking. What does the award-winning documentary film-maker (“the third series of Extreme World is like a band coming together and making their defining album”) think of journalism today?
“Mate, if there were rules of engagement for making documentaries, it’s that we do not judge. When I was younger I was far more rash about the judgement of people than I ever am now. There are some areas of the media that are not impartial, but I’m not going to name names or they’ll come after me and bite my balls.”
And what about the upheavals in the world of journalism, such as the Leveson Inquiry? “Look, I believe we should have a free press.” End of.
It’s with this magnanimous spirit that Kemp wishes Brazil the best of luck. “I have little doubt that the World Cup and Olympics will be amazing successes, and more power to Rio to be able to host one after the other. It goes to show Brazil is now a global power.” In the face of increasing unrest at the sharp social divisions in the country and widespread corruption, he’s hopeful that the money brought in by the World Cup will filter down to Rio’s addicts, giving them the help they need.
What’s next for Kemp? It seems he’s looking to headline-making Thailand and Ukraine as possible next destinations. “There’s never a shortage of subject matter. Human beings are the brightest creatures on the planet, but we’re also the most self-destructive.” It’s not quite the Olympic motto – faster, higher, stronger – but he says it without judgement.