Pubdate: Thu, 22 Nov 2001
Source: Pueblo Chieftain (CO)
Copyright: 2001 The Star-Journal Publishing Corp.
Author: Julie Watson, The Associated Press


TIJUANA, Mexico -- With a vial of crack cocaine teetering between her
fingers, a glassy-eyed woman pauses while rummaging through a pile of trash
near the U.S.-Mexico border, mesmerized by the morning traffic.

Nearby, a man in his 20s sits on the curb behind a parked pickup and lights
a vial with a tiny white rock inside. A police car passes as he inhales. A
forgotten hypodermic needle rests on the truck's tire.

Others shuffle by, their clothes and faces dirty as they awaken on a recent
midmorning from sidewalks, abandoned houses and cars. Several approach an
American reporter and photographer, wondering if they are potential
customers for their goods - crack cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.

"Looking for anything special?" they ask in broken English.

This is the heart of Tijuana's drug district - the street called Ninos
Heroes, or Child Heroes, a noble name for a place where Mexico's youth
waste away smoking and shooting up on the curbs as traffic passes by.

Long a transit country where drugs passed through to an insatiable U.S.
market, Mexico has seen addictions to hard drugs skyrocket over the past

Now, officials fear tightened U.S. border security in the aftermath of the
Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may exacerbate the problem as smugglers try to
sell their undelivered loads locally.

Mexican cities along the U.S. border already lead the country's drug use as
traffickers pay their transporters in drugs rather than money.

Tijuana has the highest consumption of illegal drugs in the country - three
times the national average, according to the government. The border cities
of Ciudad Juarez and Matamoros are close behind.

"We are watching what's happening on the border very carefully," said
Edward Jurith, the U.S. drug czar, during his visit to Mexico last week.
Recovered heroin addict Jose Luis Avalos, who runs a drug rehabilitation
center in Tijuana, said the longer the U.S. government seals the border,
the more dealers will be looking to the domestic market.

"We already have the problem but it can get worse," he said.

Experts say Mexican border cities can't handle the problem as it is.

Drug rehabilitation centers have grown rapidly in Tijuana over the past
five years, with more than 70 centers housing some 3,500 addicts. Another
2,500 are outpatients.

Avalos' group, the Integral Recovery Center for Alcoholic and Drug Addicts,
is considered among the best. State human rights prosecutor Raul Ramirez
said abuses abound at some other centers. There have been cases of addicts
being beaten to death, chained to walls and denied food in the name of

Several people have died while in rehabilitation in the past few years,
including some who did not receive appropriate medical care after
overdosing, Ramirez said

"A lot of the people running these centers are former drug addicts who have
little education or training," he said. "Addicts have entered these centers
against their will, brought by their families who don't want to deal with
them any longer. They've been tortured, put into isolation - and this is
just what we know of those who have managed to escape."

Ramirez blames the government for not doing enough for addicts. The failure
to clean up corruption has fueled the problem, he said.

"The police know where the drugs are being produced, where the heroin, the
cocaine are being distributed. They go by each week and get paid
themselves," Ramirez said. "The problem is extraordinarily complex."

Police deny involvement, but users say they pay officers to leave them alone.

Ninos Heroes is only a few blocks from a police station and the city's
tourist zone. Most addicts congregate where the street runs into the
International Highway along the border.

Fernando Enriquez sits on the curb, dazed and smiling. The 22-year-old
lives in an abandoned house with a skinny dog that he hugs while it nips at
its mottled coat.

"I learned my English selling crack to Americans," Enriquez said, sitting
next to a blond, blue-eyed woman from Oceanside, Calif. She said she had
been living on Tijuana's streets for five years.

Among Enriquez's customers are tourists from California who cross the
border for the lower prices on crack, heroin and methamphetamines, which
sell for less than $5 a hit.

When Enriquez hasn't got drugs to sell, he works as a prostitute. At the
worst times, he eats trash and begs.

He has been living on the streets for six years but said he believes he
will give it all up someday.

"Yeah, I can give this up," he said. "I'd give it up if I had a reason to,
like if I had a son. Yeah, if I had a baby boy I'd leave this. I definitely
would because I would want what's best for my son."

Julio Arellano, 25, wanted the same for his 4-month-old daughter, but he
soon found himself spending his money on methamphetamines rather than
buying her milk and hitting his wife for the first time in his life.

"You can be such a fool," said Arellano, who checked into one of Avalos'
centers a week ago. "I can't wait to see my wife again to ask her forgiveness."
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