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Argentina - Street gangs
Jessica takes a cigarette break. (Peter Andrew Bosch/Miami Herald) Slide show
Teens crave glue, 'paco' -- `You have to do drugs to belong'

BUENOS AIRES -- Street children in Argentina's capital often have an odd request when begging for food: They want yogurt.

"It's because of the calcium," says 15-year-old Carlos, concealing a bag full of glue in his sleeve.

Experts have a different explanation.

"Yogurt is smooth on the throat and the stomach. All these kids have their respiratory and digestive systems inflamed by sniffing glue and smoking paco," said Miguel Sorbello, a social worker who runs Children of Belén, a Catholic day center for street kids.

Marta, 16, hands over a bag of glue, which Buenos Aires street children sniff for a high. (Peter Andrew Bosch/Miami Herald) Slide show

More than 90 percent of Buenos Aires street children consume illegal drugs like paco, the highly toxic waste of cocaine refining known in other countries as basuco, according the authorities.

"It's the law of the ranchada," said Carmen Inés Salgado, who runs one of the city's social services, using the slang for the street children's loosely knit gangs. ``You have to do drugs to belong."

A pound of glue costs a little more than $2, and many Buenos Aires hardware stores turn a blind eye and sell it to the kids. The children transfer it to plastic bags from which they sniff it.

After a short high, the glue relaxes the kids, who can be seen wandering the streets a little wobbly.

While glue sniffing has been around for some time among Argentina's street kids, paco has appeared in the past few years and is having devastating consequences. Its short but powerful highs keep the kids coming back for more.

"That thing is bad, you do anything to get it. I blew 100 pesos [$33] yesterday on that stuff and I smoked all night. Now I am beat," says a 17-year-old girl named Noelia.

Paco is smoked like crack, in makeshift pipes that the kids construct using the body of a pen and some round container the size of a nut. They poke holes in a candy wrapper -- or a yogurt lid -- and use it as a filter. One dose costs between 50 and 75 U.S. cents.

Web design by Shawn Greene / Miami Herald