Should U.S. Rehabs Follow the Beraca Model?

By Romina Mazzaferri 09/25/14
Beraca Centers are successfully applying a combo of new and age-old techniques to combat addiction. Here is one man's story.
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Carlos Beraca Media

Carlos has been an addict since he was a teenager. “After my first marijuana cigarette, I never stopped drugging for 18 years. I did not even stop when I had flu or a cold,” he remarks. Due to his addiction, he lost contact with his mother, had to live alone and, when he ran out of money, he began to steal in order to get drugs.

One morning at home, peso-less and high, Carlos lost it and began to hit the walls, break the electrical supplies, break down the furniture. He destroyed the home he was renting, and was thrown out. Broke and homeless, Carlos found his way to the streets of Montevideo, the capital of his home country, Uruguay. He soon got used to street living. When Carlos was out of drugs, he consumed whatever he could get, including ethyl alcohol and underclass-favored drugs like Argentinean paco, which combines cocaine and the “rubbish” from other drugs along with kerosene and similar solvents. According to medical opinion, paco attacks the front part of the brain and “addicts regress as if they were animals." 

For the uninformed, the drug culture in Uruguay out of which Carlos emerged is alive and well, similar to the situation in neighboring country Argentina. After the economic crash that began in 2000, drug trafficking and use increased dramatically, driven either by the desire to get high or for income - or out of desperation. Argentina became a hot spot for cocaine and coca paste (no shock given that the country is a coca paste base for the world), for meth and for the methamphetamine ingredient, ephedrine. 61.5% of users aged 18-24 years are reportedly dependent on toxic paco. By secondary school, 2.5% and 7.4% of students had used inhalants, coca paste, or tranquilizers. 50% of 12-25-year-olds drank alcohol. The country also is afflicted with the second highest abuse of prescription drugs behind the U.S., and there has been a dramatic increase in use of synthetics (ecstasy). Recently, a relatively new mixture of hard liquor and pharmaceuticals called Jarra Loca has made its way onto the teen scene. The factors behind this include the country’s unwillingness to enforce a harm-reduction policy, plus the backwards relationship between drugs and politics, and of course the profitable nature of the drug trade (drug smuggling has increased 500% since 2007). In fact, when the U.S. cracked down on Mexican drug cartels, the cartels turned creative - utilizing the lax border control in Argentina as a new drug route. 

A crucial element here is that the link between poverty, drug use and selling drugs is as strong, if not stronger, in both Argentina and Uruguay as in most countries and presents huge problems. Government stats show that 30% of Argentina's 41.5 million citizens live below the poverty line and another large percentage barely above it. Poverty and drug use has strong links to health issues. Many abusers share or use non-sterile needles to inject the drugs as means to save money, doing so up to 30 times a day, leading to an increase in the HIV/AIDS population and accounting for more than half of the infected. (57% of the injected drug users in Buenos Aires and 65% in Rosario are infected.) As drug addiction through Argentinian slums has increased, so has crime. Paco causes violent and destructive behavior in addition to its reputation as being unfailingly addictive.

In Uruguay, a traditionally social-services oriented and relatively prosperous and modern small country of just over three million people, poverty soared as a result of the Argentine crash but since 2008 has steadily fallen to 12.4% last year. Drug usage and crime, however, have grown along with the influx of desperate Argentinians and the tribulations caused by Brazilian drug traffickers from the north who use Uruguay as a trading passage way and shipping point. Per capita cocaine consumption ranks Uruguay as third among South American countries, with an estimated 4% of the population users. (One way the country has fought back against the cartels is that it legalized marijuana usage last year.) 

At the micro level of these larger forces was Carlos before he discovered the unique Beraca community. As he now says: “Sometimes I woke up in a hospital and could not remember if I had been hit by a truck or what. My appearance was terrible. I did not cut my nails for more than two years and I spent a whole year wearing the same clothes."

One cold evening while begging in the streets, a young man came close by him. The man was very elegant. “So I asked for 20 pesos,” Carlos relates. The man stopped, gave him the 20 pesos, and stayed for a while talking with him. He then took off his jacket, gave it to Carlos and told him: go to a church. 

Any other time, Carlos would have laughed this off because he was used to rejection by institutions; even hospitals had begun turning him away. But in a moment of lucidity, he tried to understand why a complete stranger would give him a jacket. He could not find a reason, and decided to go to the closest church he could find. That church, "Mission Life," happened to work with addicts.

After a couple of interviews with professionals, Carlos agreed to go to one of the church-related Beraca Communities as an intern. He found himself in similar company. As the church minister Jorge Márquez told The Fix, “We focus on socially marginalized people. Most of them are victims of drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, crime, abandonment, homeless, among other social problems.” Father Márquez, who is also the founder of ESALCU, the non-government organization that manages the 36 Beraca centers in Uruguay, Argentina and Haiti, noted that the motto for Beraca is: "Where every community is a home and every person is part of a family.”  

From its beginning in 2000 as part of the church ministry, the Beraca centers transformed into a civil organization based on a simple, heart-based premise enunciated by F. Marquez. “We believe that people can change. They need to feel accepted and loved and find their own purpose in life.”

At first, Carlos rejected any help. After days of patient interactions by the staff, he began to open up to the professionals, and agreed to start rehabilitation therapy. Little by little, he became open to working in the home. He cut his hair, showered, and started to eat well.

“At first, I needed to take about 30 pills a day, because of the trembling due to alcohol and drugs abstinence. It was a month later when I realized where I was. I began to notice that there were beautiful woods, a lot of trees, a real contact with nature. I started to talk to other boys. I saw them singing, working in a happy way. I wanted that.” Carlos recalls that the early experience brought him to tears. He felt loved for the first or second time in his life. He started to feel alive again. He felt special. “Sadness and loneliness were over," he recalls. "Then, love, purpose and value to my life appeared in a real way.” He became a Christian and began to tell people that Jesus changed his life. Now, he says, he is able to feel that same love for others that the unknown man showed to him when he gave him his jacket.

Carlos is one of hundreds of men, women, and teenage addicts currently living in the 36 Beraca centers. The most recent one is designed for orphans in Haiti. The fundamental operating belief is that drug consumption is a consequence of family disorder and not its cause. For that reason, the mission is to provide an environment of love, support, patience, acceptance and encouragement where each person can feel special and develop a sense of purpose. Interns find that they are significant to others. The reigning ethos is to help each other.

Work is the other core element of the program. No one pays a rehab fee; instead, each inhabitant is a volunteer who pitches in to projects that earn operating revenues for the centers while being trained in a craft. Center costs are primarily covered by sales of work products. The work focus has two elements: to allow each home to be self-sustaining and for clients to learn trades and professions. Learning a profession is, in fact, considered a part of the treatment. Each home helps develop entrepreneurial skills within a particular work or profession. The inhabitants also learn discipline, setting limits, and stability. 

Beraca San Jacinto (Uruguay) houses an average of 8 to 41 people. At the time of this writing, 10 men and a married couple were volunteering work in blacksmith trades, home building and breeding goats. There is a separate home for girls, Beraca Tararira (also in Uruguay) where 17 young women - including victims of violence, former prostitutes, or single mothers with no family - live together, cook, bake and make toys to earn a living. In the Beraca Frutales (the Spanish name for Fruit) 14 interns grow apples, peaches, plums, and vegetables. Another home, Beraca Aigua, is comprised of former addict interns who made a wood stove to bake their own bread and cook homemade food to sell. Beraca is in Argentina, too. The newest home was founded last year in the province of San Juan and opened with eight boys. 

Every person faces the challenge of self–improvement, of learning new abilities and of using them to help others. They can enjoy unexpected fruits of their labors as well. Márquez, for example, notes that he has two daughters who are married to recovering addicts. The couples help in the ministry as a living example of real change. They “are good persons back again,” in his words.

The recovered addicts who have decided to continue living and working in the homes are “the ones who allow that Beraca community to keep growing; they became health agents. They help others,” explains Mario Pirán, the director of one of the homes.

As part of their Beraca tasks, interns and professionals also work in multimedia. They edit a local newspaper, work in radio, spreading inspiring messages and prevention tips as well as producing videos with the testimonies of the interns who want to share their stories. 

How complete is recovery? “We do not keep a record of people who leave the home. Some of them return, another group [is] really recovered and many fall again into their addiction,” says Pirán, who is also one of the professionals who handles the first interviews with candidates.

“Every person has his own story; there is not a determined period of treatment. We receive every person as part of our family. On a daily basis we share experiences. Everyone, little by little, begins to talk, to tell his own story, his traumas. We talk and give time until the person shows the very reason of the addiction. In that moment, we began a period of learning: we challenge every person to take responsibilities, to face his own problems so he can learn to face life without the addiction.”

Carlos played himself in a short video explaining how his transformation was possible; how it all started with a jacket. The multimedia team also created the hashtag (in Spanish) #SoMuchToBeThankful.

Carlos is now willing to travel to Haiti to help build a Beraca home for local children.

Romina Mazzaferri is a writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She works in communications for a NGO and writes for a number of magazines and websites in Argentina and internationally.

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Romina Mazzaferri is a writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She works in communications for an NGO and writesfor a number of magazines and websites in Argentina and internationally. You can find her on Linkedin.

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