Pubdate: Mon, 14 Jul 2003
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2003 The Dallas Morning News
Contact:  http://www.dallasnews.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/117
Author: Ricardo Chavira Jr., The Dallas Morning News

NO LONGER MERELY A PIPELINE, MEXICO WATCHES DRUG USE SURGE

New Users Are Mostly Lower-, Middle-Class Youngsters, Officials Say

MEXICO CITY - Scores of small stores dot the seedy Santa Julia neighborhood 
near downtown, serving the restless youths who shamble up throughout the 
day. But they're not selling chips and soft drinks.

The shops are among the city's estimated 2,000 tienditas - little stores - 
that sell illegal drugs such as crack, cocaine, methamphetamines and even 
heroin, authorities say.

Mexico, once largely a stop in the pipeline for illegal drugs bound for the 
United States, is confronting a rise in domestic drug use. "Colombian drug 
lords began paying Mexican traffickers in drugs about three or four years 
ago, and that has led to an increased drug presence," said Daniel Lund, a 
pollster for MUND Americas in Mexico City. In a March survey by MUND 
Americas, 39 percent of 1,506 Mexicans polled nationwide said drug use had 
"increased a great deal" in the last few months, and an additional 23 
percent said it had increased some. Only 1 percent said drug use had 
"decreased a lot."

And the new users are mostly lower- and middle-class people in their teens 
and 20s who are being targeted by traffickers and dealers offering cheaper 
drugs, authorities say. These young people pay for the drugs with money 
they get from part-time jobs or their parents, said Dr. Arturo Alvarado, a 
sociology professor at El Colegio de Mexico.

"The group that has seen the largest jump in drug consumption is 14- to 
21-year-olds," he said. "This generation is the first to encounter 
widespread problems with drug addiction."

The proportion of Mexican youths who had tried cocaine, marijuana, heroin 
or methamphetamines at least once rose from 1 percent to 5.2 percent from 
1992 to 2002, according to a joint study by the International Prosecutors 
Monitoring Drug Use and the United Nations.

The study, released in February, did not include raw numbers. But because 
it focused only on high school students, the overall number "is probably 
higher," said Victor Manuel Guisa Cruz, head of the Juvenile Intervention 
Center, a government-funded nonprofit group that runs rehabilitation 
centers nationwide.

Still Lower Than U.S.

Drug use in Mexico is still much lower than in the United States. According 
to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a 2002 study of U.S. youths in 
grades seven through 12 found that 48 percent had tried illegal drugs. The 
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 42.4 percent 
of U.S. high school students surveyed nationwide had used marijuana. Mexico 
appears to have begun catching up. Bombarded with images of drug use in 
films and videos, some of Mexico's adolescents apparently crave chic drugs 
the way they do Tommy Hilfiger jeans.

"I think the American dream has influenced Mexico's drug culture," said 
Alvaro Perez, a 20-year-old college student who described himself as a user 
of marijuana and hallucinogens. "Kids see drug use in movies and TV, and 
they think it's cool. Even though their lives are fine without drugs, they 
want what they see."

Victor, a 14-year-old junior high student whose last name was not used 
because of his age, said he regularly uses marijuana and cocaine to bond 
with his elder brothers. "It's just something we all do together. All of my 
friends use drugs. About 90 percent of my classmates have used drugs." U.N. 
statistics show that children 14 and younger make up one-third of Mexico's 
100 million people  a large group of potential drug users. No big surprise 
Higher illegal-drug use in Mexico should not surprise anyone, said John 
Walters, head of the National Office for Drug Control Policy in Washington. 
Countries that supply the drugs "will eventually face demand problems in 
their own countries," he said.

In Mexico, that increased demand has fueled other problems: The number of 
drug rehabilitation centers has grown to 65 since the first one opened in 
1973, Mr. Guisa said. Statistics being compiled for release at the end of 
the year will show that the number of youths in drug rehab programs has 
steadily increased, he added.

And the number of violent crimes associated with illegal drugs also has 
increased, especially in Mexico City, Mr. Guisa said. There were 23,588 
drug-related offenses in Mexico in 2002, more than twice the number five 
years earlier, when there were 10,742 drug-related offenses, according to 
the Mexican attorney general's office, which is known by the Spanish 
acronym PGR.

"Mexico City is the trendsetter for the rest of the country," Mr. Guisa 
said. "The urban drug phenomenon in Mexico's larger cities is imitating 
Mexico City."

Increased violence has been most evident in the city's bustling downtown 
area, open-air markets and slums, Dr. Alvarado said. "Fights among gangs 
dedicated to selling drugs are increasing," he said. President Vicente Fox 
blames the usage problem, in part, on the ongoing battle to staunch the 
tide of drugs heading to the United States from Mexico. "We were so busy 
focusing on that task that we failed to take care of the health of our own 
young people," he said recently in his weekly radio address. "That can't 
happen."

Mr. Fox presented a five-year strategy that bolsters drug-treatment and 
prevention programs and imposes tougher punishment on drug dealers. "This 
is a war that we have to fight on all fronts," he said. "It's not enough to 
attack the supply. We must also stop the growth of demand." Some experts 
and anti-drug officials, however, say Mexico lacks the resources and law 
enforcement ability to successfully fight its drug problem, and they 
described the government's drug-fighting effort as archaic and ineffective.

Law enforcement is outmanned, outgunned and overmatched in its dealings 
with drug cartels, said a PGR agent on an anti-drug task force. "How can we 
stop drugs from entering our country if the U.S. couldn't?" the agent said 
on condition of anonymity. "There is no way we can win the war on drugs." 
Moreover, many Mexicans deeply distrust law enforcement, a situation some 
experts attribute to police corruption.

In a nationwide survey of 800 Mexicans released this month by Barrometro 
Iberoamericano, a Spanish polling organization that specializes in social 
issues, only 13 percent of respondents said they had confidence in the 
police  the lowest rating of any group. Many police officers will take a 
bribe instead of enforcing a drug violation, Dr. Alvarado said, and the 
police often scold young people or administer punishment themselves rather 
than prosecute violators.

"And families ... will support their kids' anti-social behavior by 
protecting them from the law," he said. "They don't preach drug use and 
violence, but they do everything they can to cover for their kids. They see 
the incarceration of their kids as unjust."

Dr. Alvarado said most youths buy drugs at Mexico City's tienditas , which 
authorities say are popping up in poor, middle-class and even wealthy 
neighborhoods.

Some Are in Homes, Others in Restaurants.

More than a ton of cocaine circulates monthly among tienditas in the 
crime-ridden neighborhoods of Tepito, Itztapalapa and Nezahualcoyotl, 
police said. The tienditas sell crack for as little as $1.20 per dose  
just enough to get high  and an ounce of cocaine for $300, according to 
the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In the United States, cocaine 
sells for $340 to $990 an ounce, depending on quality, DEA statistics show.

In the Santa Julia neighborhood, the most popular tiendita complex has been 
around a few months and operates round-the-clock.

'They Just Appeared'

"It happened so fast that none of us could react," says Guadalupe Garcia, a 
45-year-old maid living next to the building on Lago Chapala Street. "It 
was like one day they just appeared. And when we went to the police they 
did nothing. These people are destroying our neighborhood, and there's no 
way to stop it." Calls to a local police station seeking comment on the 
tienditas were referred to the attorney general's office. Drug use in 
Mexico is a federal crime. Bernardo Batiz, Mexico City's district attorney, 
said in a prepared statement that Mexico City police and the PGR were 
working together with residents to combat the proliferation of tienditas.

Residents remain skeptical, pointing to regular reports of police malfeasance.

Police Chief Carlos Ernesto Garcia of Nezahualcoyotl, a sprawling 
municipality in the state of Mexico, was recently arrested on charges of 
helping run tienditas, reported Reforma, a Mexico City daily newspaper. At 
the tiendita complex on Lago Chapala, dozens of eager people, mostly gaunt 
young men in shabby jackets and worn jeans, line up as early as 9 a.m. 
every day. Two stocky guards armed with pistols stand watch in front of the 
crumbling facade.

The building is divided into 16 makeshift stalls separated only by hanging 
blankets. Half the stalls are for selling drugs. The rest serve as living 
quarters for poor families with nowhere else to go.

At the stalls selling drugs, buyers approach a person sitting in front, 
place their orders and pay in cash. The person disappears behind the 
blanket partition and returns with the drugs.

The tienditas get their drugs from distributors who run their operations 
from houses in nearby neighborhoods.

One such operation is in a squat, decrepit one-bedroom house in the nearby 
Observatorio neighborhood.

The house is occupied by nine drug smugglers from the central state of 
Michoacan and reeks of unwashed bodies, marijuana and uncut cocaine. 
Crammed inside are 10 kilos of cocaine, 10 kilos of marijuana, and 5 kilos 
of heroin. The dealers estimate they will net $16,000 from selling the 
cache to tienditas. The distributors say they feel no remorse about their 
drugs falling into the hands of teens.

One, who refused to give his real name but called himself "Samuel," said 
his choice of profession is all about economics. Given the country's low 
wages, and with easy money to be made in the illegal-drugs industry, this 
line of work is a golden opportunity, he said.

"There is no work in Michoacan," he said. "My family has to eat and I have 
to provide for them. How else can I provide when there is no work?" Samuel 
said cocaine, heroin and marijuana arrive from the Pacific Coast state of 
Guerrero  the cocaine is shipped there from South America. "We pick up the 
drugs in Guerrero and bring them to Mexico City. We sell the marijuana 
ourselves. The cocaine and heroin are sold to our connections here [Mexico 
City]. They mix what we sell them and distribute it from their tienditas."

Aggressive Marketing

Cocaine, once a drug of the Mexican elite, is now aggressively marketed to 
lower- and middle-class youths, authorities said. It is made affordable by 
mixing pure cocaine with other substances, such as methamphetamine and 
aspirin. Mr. Guisa of the Juvenile Intervention Center attributes the 
popularity of cocaine to a "desire for refinement found in cosmopolitan 
cities," noting that it had been a drug primarily of the upper class. "Even 
though the cocaine is impure, cheap, and often mixed, they [lower and 
middle classes] will buy it," he said.

One seller, known to clients as "Juan," said he prefers wealthier 
customers. On a hot afternoon, Juan, who declined to give his real name, 
roamed a city block with a large backpack full of illegal drugs.

He said he moves from one wealthy neighborhood to another, trying to stay 
one step ahead of police officers.

"I used to be in Condesa, but the police kept pinching me for money," he 
said. "I moved here to Polanco to get away from them. But they can't stop 
me. I'm in this business to stay."
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