Reflections from a harm reduction pioneer – Juan’s story

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Juan González is a pioneer of harm reduction in Argentina. An activist with the Argentine Network for the Rights and Assistance of People who Use Drugs (R.A.D.A.U.D.), and the first operator of the country’s first needle and syringe programme, which was spearheaded by Intercambios A.C. Juan shares his observations on the history and present of harm reduction in Argentina.

Argentina’s drug use landscape in the 1980s and 1990s was far from what we know today. At that time, injecting drug use was quite common. The arrival of HIV in the country in the early 1980s made the health situation for people who inject drugs increasingly tragic. There were no harm reduction programmes. Nor was there much knowledge about HIV. Many died because of lack of knowledge and negligence on the part of the authorities. 

Towards the end of the 1990s, colleagues with whom we had friends in common introduced me to Intercambios Asociación Civil, who at the end of the decade launched the first harm reduction programme in the country. 

It was in this programme, which was called ‘Locos de Avellaneda’, that I served as an operator. Our focus was mainly on the poor neighbourhoods around the city of Buenos Aires, where the need was tremendous. We shared information about HIV, facilitated access to HIV testing, and distributed kits for safer intravenous use (which included syringes, sterile water, and a mixing container). 

There were no limits to access to these kits as our aim was to benefit as many people who use drugs as possible. The bonds of trust we created allowed us to leave material in certain houses and places where it would be available 24 hours a day for people who needed it. On occasion, there would be a knock on the door at 3 o’clock in the morning looking for sterile equipment. And, of course, they were responded to with kindness.

The impact of the programme was extremely positive and was recognised by the local authorities.

Over time, drug use has changed. Intravenous use, for example, has decreased enormously. And with these changes in patterns of use come new challenges to which different and new actors are responding.

In this we can highlight, for example, the good work done by the Project for Care in Parties (PAF!) in relation to the use of synthetic drugs. 

But there is still much to be done. Cocaine base paste use, for example, requires more attention and funding.

Today, at 63, I continue to be a harm reduction worker. I stay connected to the community through activism with RADAUD, a network of users with a presence throughout the territory. From this structure, we continue to advocate for responses that are adapted to current realities while prioritising the well-being and health of people who use drugs.



Juan’s story was compiled with support from Intercambios A.C. and the Argentine Network for the Rights and Assistance of People who Use Drugs (R.A.D.A.U.D.). This story has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.