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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Government plans to decriminalize drug use are stirring controversy in Argentina's slums, where residents blame a crack-like drug called paco for fueling crime, violence and desperation.
Children as young as 10 smoke paco in Ciudad Oculta (Hidden City), a ramshackle neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Youths scan rubbish heaped by the roadside for anything to eat or sell to scrape together five pesos ($1.60) for a short-lived, intense hit.
"They swap food for drugs and then eat from the bins," said Bilma Acuna, 46, one of the addicts' mothers who have banded together to fight paco in Ciudad Oculta. "It rots their brains. Punishment doesn't work (because) the addict is sick, he can't help it."
Argentina's justice minister agrees. He says people caught with small amounts of paco and other drugs for personal use should be treated as victims, with police time dedicated to arresting dealers and smashing big-time trafficking rings.
"We're not inciting drugs (but) we can't criminalize addicts," the minister, Anibal Fernandez, said in a recent television interview. "The ones that have got to go to prison are the peddlers, the smugglers."
He says decriminalization has not caused drug use to increase in other countries, and the measure would ease pressure on Argentina's overloaded justice system and jails.
But critics fear the government proposal, which has not yet been sent to Congress, would make it easier for dealers in a country with few treatment programs for addicts -- especially among the poor.
Others think tougher action on trafficking should come first.
"What's the point of decriminalizing drug possession without stopping this social poison from entering the country?" said anti-drugs activist Claudio Izaguirre, calling for greater radar coverage over Argentine airspace and border controls.
Argentines are Latin America's biggest cocaine users, according to the United Nations' latest World Drug Report. Cocaine use runs at 2.6 percent of the population, compared with 3 percent in the United States, and it is rising.
Several high-profile police raids and murders linked to drug gangs have exposed its status as a transit point for Andean cocaine bound for Europe and a source of precursor chemicals used to make drugs such as methamphetamine.
Last month, police arrested nine Mexicans who had set up an ecstasy factory in a country house north of the capital. Days later, gunmen shot dead two Colombians at a shopping mall in an apparent feud over a stolen cocaine shipment.
But for ordinary Argentines the biggest concern is paco, which is made from cocaine lab leftovers and emerged in poor areas during an economic crisis at the start of the decade.
In Ciudad Oculta, front yards are bare these days because residents were fed up of getting everything down to flowerpots stolen by the paco users.
It is easy to spot the addicts. They lose weight fast and wander around in T-shirts in the middle of winter, having sold the rest of their clothes.
While some of the mothers support the decriminalization proposal, saying paco users are not deterred by punishment anyway, others fear it would make matters even worse.
"The state has completely abandoned these kids," said Maria Rosa Gonzalez, who has one addicted son and another who quit after she managed to get him into rehabilitation. "Decriminalization is just another way for them to wash their hands of the problem."
Editing by Kieran Murray