Pubdate: Mon, 24 Jun 2002
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc


Mexico City - After years of dismissing cocaine as a U.S. problem, Mexicans 
are finding that it's their problem, too. Government drug-treatment clinics 
that saw 3,000 abusers a year in the 1990s now see 50,000. Abuse used to be 
largely confined to the northern Mexican states from which U.S. smuggling 
operations were launched; now it has seeped south to such big cities as 
Mexico City and Guadalajara.

There, high-priced powder cocaine has given way to $2-a-rock crack, so 
cheap that it's luring street kids away from sniffing solvents.

The problem has deep roots, but the security crackdown on the U.S.-Mexican 
border since Sept. 11 intensified it, according to Mexican drug officials. 
They say smugglers, finding it harder to move cocaine into the United 
States, instead are selling it in Mexico at rock-bottom prices. As 
evidence, they cite the purity of recently seized cocaine, which suggests 
that smugglers sold it before squeezing out the extra profit they would 
have derived from cutting it.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson corroborates the 
theory that tighter border enforcement is responsible. Cocaine purity fell 
9 percent last year in the United States, reflecting tight supply, 
Hutchinson said. U.S. coke dealers are "diluting it to make it go further," 
he said.

In Mexico City, at a group therapy session for parents of drug addicts, 
Pedro Bernal Garcia rues the consequences. The working-class father 
explains that he had thought Mexico was only a transit country for 
U.S.-bound Colombian cocaine.

"We are just so sad because we don't want to accept that our kids have 
fallen into drugs," said the man, whose sons, 27 and 24, are in prison for 
stealing to support their cocaine habits.

As other parents nod in unison, he adds something many U.S. families 
already know: "This is a global problem."

Mexico now has at least 2.5 million drug users and at least half a million 
of them are hard-core drug addicts, said Guido Belsasso, Mexico's 
anti-addictions czar, in a recent interview at the National Addictions 
Advisory Board. Mexico's population is about 100 million.

According to Health Ministry studies, more than 5 percent of Mexicans aged 
12 to 65 have tried illicit drugs - nothing like the 39 percent rate for 
Americans reported by U.S. drug-abuse agencies, but a troubling number for 
a conservative country more accustomed to alcoholism than drug abuse.

Traditionally, poor Mexicans and street addicts got high by sniffing 
solvents, such as paint thinner, splashed on rags. For the middle class, 
marijuana was the drug of choice. The Health Ministry, in its latest 
antidrug action plan, warns that cocaine "has a consumption level now 
higher than both of them."

The cocaine problem "no longer belongs to one social class. It used to 
belong to the middle and upper classes," said Victor Guisa Cruz, general 
director of Mexico's 70 government-run rehabilitation centers.

Historically, Colombian traffickers brought cocaine to the United States 
via the Florida and gulf coasts. But more effective interdiction there in 
the 1990s compelled traffickers to seek other routes; increasingly, they 
partnered with Mexican marijuana traffickers and made Mexico the principal 
transit route for U.S.-bound cocaine.

Along the way, Colombians began paying with cocaine instead of cash, and 
what Mexican cartels couldn't get across the border, they sold in Mexico.

"In the past two years, they've been smoking rocks [of cocaine]. It is 
incredibly cheap and very easy to get," said Mari Rouss Villegas, assistant 
to the director of Casa Alianza, a Mexico City group that works with 
drug-addicted street children.

"If you have a 1-kilogram [2.2-pound] block of cocaine, you can't go to the 
bank and cash it out. That's how kids 7, 8 and 9 are getting hooked," said 
Belsasso, the anti-addictions czar. "That is the new scene in Mexico City."

Police complicity is part of the problem. On Reforma, Mexico City's main 
boulevard, the driver of a police tractor-trailer rig carrying horses 
passes a reporter. The driver, in uniform, is holding a lit marijuana 
cigarette the size of a cigar. Mexican newspapers report almost daily about 
police on the payrolls of drug traffickers.

"I think if kids know where to find the drugs, then certainly the 
authorities must know this," said Villegas of Casa Alianza. "It is a bit 
like the authorities are closing their eyes."

Near a downtown food market, a group of addicted children and teens smokes 
rocks of cocaine just doors away from the local precinct headquarters.

Cocaine "used to be just for adults, but now kids can get it easily," said 
Marta Rodriguez Lopez, 41, a street addict who acts as den mother to the 
ragged children. "They sell it to them like it was chocolate."

The street children say police are often involved with selling cocaine, or 
give them drugs in exchange for taking them to the station to pad the 
arrest reports.

Jonathan, 19, tells how he abandoned an upper-middle-class home for the 
life of a street addict. Three months of treatment, he said, could not 
quell his urge for cocaine.

"It's just tremendous. I can't stay off it," he said.

Asked if he can imagine a life off the streets and without cocaine, he's 
silent. Then he admits, "We are all afraid of dying out here all alone."
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