Pubdate: Mon, 20 Mar 2000
Source: Newsweek International
Copyright: 2000 Newsweek, Inc.
Author: Alan Zarembo


The border town is at the heart of Mexico's burgeoning drug

Alfredo Magallanes weaves around the rows of yellow taxis, past the
humming generators and through the greasy vapors floating from the
taco shacks.

He is looking for drug addicts, and they aren't difficult to find here
at dusk in the carnival-like atmosphere that marks the Tijuana side of
the border between Mexico and the United States. Magallanes spots a
ragged young man and introduces himself as the founder of a new
rehabilitation center.

The man says that he is 29, that he has been shooting up heroin for
the last nine years and that he lives in the parking lot, washing cars
and guarding market stalls.

Magallanes hands him a card and makes his pitch: "It's a place where
you can rest and fatten up," he says. "It's a chance to change your
life." In the Mexican drug world, Tijuana is best known as the
headquarters of the country's most violent cartel; there have been
more than 100 murders there so far this year, including the killing of
the police chief last month in a barrage of automatic gunfire.

But the gritty city of 1.2 million has another distinction: it is the
drug-consumption capital of Mexico. Rehabilitation centers, started by
former drug addicts like Magallanes, have been popping up like
fast-food restaurants-from fewer than a dozen in 1994 to more than 50

The centers are an attempt to do what the state has not-take care of
an exploding number of junkies.

But virtually unregulated, they often rely on untested methods that
are at best tough love and at worst deadly.

The boom underscores a subtle shift in the dynamics of the drug war.
Mexico has long blamed drug trafficking through its territory solely
on demand in the United States-an argument that helps it win
"certification" from the U.S. Congress each March as a loyal partner
in the fight against drugs.

But as Efren Macias Lezama, a state congressman in Tijuana, says: "We
have to recognize that our location on the U.S. border is not the only
reason drugs are trafficked here." The fear is that the drug problem
in Tijuana, other border metropolises and Mexico City is a preview of
a nationwide crisis.

The United States is still the world leader in drug use. But a Mexican
government study last year showed that between 1993 and 1998, illegal
drug use nationwide rose 35 percent.

The number of Mexicans who have tried cocaine nearly quintupled to
1.45 percent-not much compared with the U.S. figure of 10.5 percent.

But the numbers multiply closer to the border.

In Tijuana, more than 8 percent of men have used an illegal drug in
the last 30 days. There are many theories why Tijuana has the highest
rate of drug use in the country: the city attracts drifters, and it is
close to the U.S. drug culture. Old understandings between the ruling
Institutional Revolutionary Party and the drug traffickers have broken
down with the rise of an opposition state government, and the Mexican
middlemen in the drug trade often receive their payment in drugs,
which they convert to cash on the local market.

Cocaine and heroin are the most popular hard drugs.

For addicts on a budget, there is crystal methamphetamine. Made in
household laboratories, it sells on the street in Tijuana for $2 a

For Magallanes, Casa Recuperacion was a path to personal

Now 36, he had been in and out of several treatment centers, injecting
heroin to celebrate each time he was released.

And like most addicts in his clinic, he tells disturbing stories of
treatment: overzealous junkies screaming expletives at each other,
broken ribs, addicts hanged by the shoulders from tree limbs as
punishment for being caught with heroin or trying to escape. In
retrospect, he sympathizes with his captors. "Nobody could tell us
anything," he says. "We rebel when we get to the centers." In 1998,
Magallanes checked himself into El Mezon, a rehab center started by an
ex-con who ran a gentler program.

In two weeks he was given charge of three other addicts.

By the time he left, three months later, he was leading group-therapy
sessions for 67 people and harboring dreams of running his own center.

Last summer a friend offered a run-down house he owned on the
outskirts of Tijuana. The concrete walls were crumbling and the
outside was covered in graffiti. Magallanes, who had saved $1,000
working as a taxi driver, went to the border and told the addicts that
he was starting a rehab center.

His first client was a 23-year-old American woman whom he tied to a
bed to prevent her from escaping during her withdrawal from heroin.

In November, Magallanes received a permit from the state health
department. There were no minimum requirements; the application
process had consisted of sending in an ID, writing a letter explaining
that he was opening a rehab center. Now at least 50 people live there,
sharing four mattress-filled rooms and two bathrooms.

Magallanes resides there too. His only perks are a mobile phone, a
single bed and a 1978 Toyota with California license plates, the logo
he created and the bumper sticker in search of higher power. Recently
down to $5 in his wallet, he says that praying to Jesus for donations
is what keeps the center running.

At just after 5 a.m., Casa Recuperacion begins to come

The 10 guards-addicts who have been there for at least two weeks and
shown good behavior-remove the padlocks from the plywood bedroom doors.

In the threadbare concrete courtyard, filled with stacks of rusty bed
frames, the top of a camper and a weight bench, people brush their

Roberta Flack blares from a boom box. One man shaves in front of a
sliver of broken mirror. Others huddle together on an old sofa,
sipping coffee under the moon. By 5:45, the largest room is packed
with addicts singing Christian hymns, bursting into coughing fits,
listening to readings from a Narcotics Anonymous book and sharing
their tales of being down and out.

In the kitchen, 33-year-old Aida Gutierrez, one of the three women at
the center, is cooking beans and tortillas for 50. Electrical wires
crisscross the ceiling and cupboards are filled with donated bread.

Gutierrez had been living on the border, she says, selling sex and
injecting heroin.

She had been in rehab before, but never much liked the company.
"Crystal, coke and crack have taken over their brains," she says. "One
girl didn't even remember her name." By the afternoon, the kitchen
proves too small, and men are boiling pots of beans on an open fire in
the driveway.

Outside Juan Estrada hunkers down into a folding chair.

His job is to make sure nobody tries to flee, and from the looks of
him nobody will. His black T shirt features a marijuana leaf, and the
name Roy is tattooed on his neck, in honor of a friend who was shot
and killed in a gang fight two years ago. His torso is covered with
stab wounds.

Addicted to methamphetamine since he was 13, he arrived a month ago,
the eighth time his mother put him in rehab. Now 22, he says he
doesn't want to return to the old neighborhood. A few days later he
runs away. Magallanes regretfully says that he was soon arrested and
jailed for allegedly assaulting somebody with a knife.

Around the back, two other guards sit in front of a chained door,
detox stenciled across it in Gothic letters.

Bars stretch across the length of the room-about 25 feet-and inside,
10 men are neatly lined up on mattresses. There is a television in one
corner, and some of the men watch a program that teaches English. The
zombielike man with a great mess of black hair and the worst track
marks rarely moves.

This is where all new arrivals spend their first week, sometimes with
the help of tranquilizers to counteract the effects of withdrawal.
There are no doctors or nurses at most centers, but in Mexico
medicines are readily available without prescriptions. Magallanes
claims that in more than a decade of addiction, he has learned more
than most doctors about dispensing them. The detox chamber doubles as
a jail cell for addicts who become unruly or try to escape.

One prisoner is 32-year-old Federico Mendosa. "They have no right to
keep me here," he says through the bars. His parents had called
Magallanes after finding drug paraphernalia in a trash can outside
their house; they had suspected their son was using drugs.

He was asleep when four of Magallanes's men arrived in his bedroom,
handcuffed him and walked him to a waiting car. Finally Magallanes
agreed to give Mendosa a drug test, as long as the family would pay
for it. With a guard watching over him, Mendosa gave a urine sample.
The next day it came back clean and he was released.

"It wasn't our decision to bring him here. It's the

We're forced to believe them," says Rene Moreno, a recovering addict
who had helped in the capture. Just two months earlier it had taken
five men to apprehend the 6-foot-5, 34-year-old Moreno, lock him in
the detox room and feed him tranquilizers until he calmed down.
Magallanes says that kidnappings-which are illegal even with a
relative's signature-are the exception at his center and that most of
his addicts check in voluntarily.

But at other centers, putting addicts in charge of addicts has
sometimes proved fatal.

NEWSWEEK has identified 20 deaths in Tijuana rehab centers since 1998.
The majority were caused by drug overdoses, hepatitis, heart attacks,
HIV and tuberculosis. But a number of cases-including three separate
deaths in which the cause was ruled "a profound blow to the
abdomen"-are suspicious and, prosecutors say, under investigation. In
one, two men have been jailed on homicide charges.

On the morning of June 13 of last year, they and two other men arrived
at the Red Cross Hospital in Tijuana carrying 35-year-old Jose
Rodriguez Nunez. He was dead or near death. His body was bruised in
several spots, several fingers were broken and his wrists and ankles
had been tied. The men-all patients with various levels of
responsibility at the rehab center NACER (the Spanish initials for
Drug Addicts and Alcoholics With the Hope of Reintegration)-told
prosecutors that Rodriguez was going through withdrawal and that when
he began bashing himself against a wall they tied him up. The head of
the center, Hector Calvillo, says he's not really sure what happened,
but adds: "We cannot make ourselves responsible for sick addicts.

These types of things happen precisely because there are deficiencies.
We cannot pay somebody to be there 24 hours a day."

Neither can the government, making the centers the best of a set of
very bad options for junkies and their families.

Tijuana needs the centers to help get addicts off the streets and ease
crowding in its emergency rooms.

When distraught families come seeking help for a relative, health
officials often refer them to the centers-but quickly distance
themselves when things go wrong. (The relationship is particularly
ambiguous in the case of the largest center, ARAC, or Addicts in
Recuperation. Home to 400 addicts at a time, it is a half-built state
prison that was abandoned in the early 1980s and three years ago
turned over-with $200,000 in state grants-to a recovered addict.) "If
the government and the rest of the social agencies cannot provide
anything to these people, something will fill the void," says Haydee
Rosovsky, head of the National Council Against Addictions. "Some of
the people who run these centers are not very well," she says.
"Sometimes they are charismatic leaders.

Of course, they did abandon drug use, but they are seriously mentally

But with investigations of abuses a rare happening, the risks remain.
Authorities can't even agree on who is responsible for regulating the
rehab centers. "We cannot intervene in this sense because we are not a
human-rights office," says Maria Antonieta Olvera, head of the
addictions program in the state health department. The boss of the
state human-rights office, Antonio Garcia Sanchez, says that he is
limited to cases involving government agencies.

Still, he receives about 15 complaints a year of beatings and
kidnappings in the private centers. "They have proliferated out of
control," he says. "The majority of these centers take addicts by
force. The families come looking for someone to take them away." He
adds: "The authorities don't want to investigate too much."

Regulation, officials promise, is coming.

The state legislature has approved $640,000 this year to invest in the
centers, and efforts are underway to form a commission of government
officials and rehab-center heads to set standards for the centers.

The national health department is also preparing its own norms, which
would outlaw locking up patients against their will, ban
nonprofessionals from administering medicines and require local health
departments to have doctors on call who could be dispatched to the
centers. Some centers could eventually be shut down under the new rules.

But in private, some authorities make a grim but convincing

Yes, there have been problems, even deaths.

But the centers take in people who have no other place to go-and who
might otherwise die on the streets.

Several centers send their charges into downtown Tijuana to raise
money by selling candy, key chains or newspapers. In Magallanes's
view, that only offers the chance to make quick drug deals with old
friends or sneak hits. He prefers to put his men to work under his own
supervision. On a recent morning, five addicts are finishing building
a courtyard and a garage for an old friend of Magallanes's. For their
five weeks of work, the center will earn $1,100-enough to keep the
place running for two weeks.

Back at the center, around dusk, a taxi pulls up to the iron gate.
Rudolfo Cortez, 39, hobbles past the barking Dalmatian-mix, Freckles,
chained in the driveway, and up the stairs.

Somebody had given him the address.

Two other addicts lead him into back room. They take his belt and
shoelaces-anything that he could use to hurt himself-and force him to
strip down to his underwear to make sure he isn't hiding anything.

His arms are covered in tattoos, his leg pocked with needle

He says he is ready to quit heroin. It was probably his best

But after two torturous weeks of withdrawal, he leaves the center,
disappearing back into Tijuana's universe of junkies.
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MAP posted-by: Allan Wilkinson