Pubdate: Thu, 07 Aug 2003
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2003 The Miami Herald
Author: Ricardo Chavira, Jr, Dallas Morning News


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 like 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

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 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.

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.

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, 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, Guisa 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."

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."

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

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.
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