Pubdate: Wed, 15 Oct 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mexico Under Siege


Long a Corridor for Narcotics Headed for the U.S., Mexico Is Now
Contending With Its Own Addiction Problem, As U.S. Border Controls
Push Traffickers to Look Elsewhere.

HUITZILA, MEXICO -- When the dope thugs beat him with a pistol,
Rodrigo Sonck decided enough was enough.

He cleaned the gashes on his face and went to his father to plead for
help: The cocaine life was killing him.

A month and a half later, Sonck was cloistered in a treatment clinic
in the central state of Hidalgo, relating a tale of addiction that is
increasingly familiar as growing numbers of Mexicans sample the drugs
that once flowed through their country untouched.

For Sonck, a 28-year-old father of two, cocaine turned from an
occasional party complement into an all-consuming, $700-a-week
obsession. He sold his taxicab abruptly one night to get high. He had
a chicken stand that met the same fate. The pistol-whipping came in
August, after he raced off with his dealer's merchandise.

Sonck had veered over the edge.

"It started as a game, and ended as a terrible disease," he

The rest of Mexico is starting to feel much the same way. Once mainly
a smuggling corridor for drugs heading to the United States, Mexico is
grappling with the effects of a fast-rising addiction rate as
relatively cheap versions of cocaine and methamphetamine find a market
south of the border. Experts say the supply has increased as U.S.
enforcement on the border has made it more difficult to move illegal
drugs north.

A recent government survey of drug use shows Mexicans are trying
drugs, and getting hooked, earlier in life and more frequently. The
number of people who said they had tried drugs rose by more than a
fourth, to 4.5 million, since the last survey in 2002. More than
460,000 Mexicans are addicted to drugs, a 51% jump from six years ago,
according to preliminary results of the survey released last month.

Those tallies are undoubtedly too low. Officials said safety
considerations prevented them from querying residents in two key
drug-trafficking states, Sinaloa and Baja California, and hindered
data collection in three others.

Growing consumption here presents a difficult new front in President
Felipe Calderon's war on drug traffickers, declared in December 2006.
There are signs that the street trade, known as narcomenudeo, is
adding to overall drug violence that has killed more than 3,000 people
nationwide this year. Analysts say the well-armed gangs that have
fought each other for control of key international drug-smuggling
routes are battling over the market in Mexico as well.

The slaying of the mayor of a resort town outside Mexico City this
month was in part linked to his resistance to local drug sales,
authorities said. Media reports said 12 men whose headless bodies
turned up in the Yucatan peninsula in August may have been killed as
part of a narcomenudeo turf war.

Mexican leaders, who for many years have pointed an accusing finger
toward the United States when talking about drug use, now acknowledge
their nation's own problem.

"It is clear to everyone that our nation has stopped being a transit
country for drugs going to the United States and become an important
market as well," Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora said recently. "We are
experiencing a phenomenon of greater drug supplies in the streets, at
relatively accessible prices."

Addiction is reaching all corners of a nation that is poorly equipped
to cope. Some rural Mexican communities have watched drug use rise
after migrant workers returned from the United States with a new
appetite for cocaine and other addictive substances.

Experts say potent drugs, such as cocaine, have become affordable for
Mexicans of modest means. Prices have fallen as domestic supplies have
risen, in part because of U.S. efforts to tighten border security
since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"They've gotten cheaper, basically, because there is more
availability," said Carmen Fernandez, who runs a nationwide network of
110 drug clinics, known as Juvenile Integration Centers, that are
largely supported by government funds. "A lot of these drugs stayed in

Methamphetamine, a synthetic drug, is manufactured in Mexico and
widely available. Officials in the northern border state of Sonora say
consumption of crystal methamphetamine has quadrupled since 2002. They
label drug use their biggest public-health threat.

In interviews, addicts confirm that illegal drugs are readily
available and often less expensive than a six-pack of beer. Crack
cocaine, known in Spanish as piedra, or rock, sells for as little as
$3 a hit. Powder cocaine, folded into a stamp-sized paper bundle known
as a grapa, is diluted with aspirin or other chemicals and sold for $5
or less.

In Mexico City's poorest neighborhoods, such as the Iztapalapa and
Tepito sections, dealers work from mom-and-pop stores, grimy housing
projects and street corners.

"It's like a plague that is invading us," complained Ulises Ocampo, a
neighborhood activist in the Tlalpan section of southern Mexico City.

Sonck said he had 25 spots to buy cocaine near his home in northern
Mexico City. "It used to be something that was not very common," he
said. "Now everybody is involved."

Calderon has proposed giving arrestees who are addicts or those caught
with small amounts of drugs a choice of treatment rather than prison.
The measure would also give local police a bigger role in trying to
erase small-time drug dealing, at a time when federal forces are strained.

Administration officials insist the proposal won't mean
decriminalizing small amounts of cocaine and other drugs. The proposal
wins qualified praise from critics who say the government has given
short shrift to prevention and treatment in favor of a U.S.-style
approach heavy on enforcement.

"There are not enough good treatment centers. There is not enough good
prevention of relapses," said Haydee Rosovsky, a drug scholar who
formerly headed the government's commission on addiction. "All the
money is put in helicopters and soldiers and firearms."

The Calderon administration has begun building 310 centers to improve
outpatient treatment by helping specialists spot addictions sooner.

Janai Ramos needed help long before she got it.

Ramos, a 22-year-old addict in Mexico City, smoked crack through a
glass pipe for the first time four years ago. "This is for me," she
recalled thinking.

The drugs were within easy reach: Ramos could buy from any of four
nearby houses, side by side. She sank into long benders, emerging
filthy and dehydrated after consuming nothing but crack smoke for four
days at a time.

Ramos was soon smoking 15 hits a day, at $5 each. She made money
selling fake-gold bracelets, but started stealing cellphones, hubcaps
and truck mirrors to pay for more piedra.

Eventually she traded her body, selling sex up to five times a day to
men she didn't know.

"The truth is very ugly and degrading and humiliating as a woman,"
Ramos said. Her round eyes were bright, but her voice seemed to come
from a thousand miles away.

Ramos sought help several times, but relapsed. In late August, she
checked into a clinic in Iztapalapa. She and three other women share a
dorm-style room, spare but with a few paper flowers.

The men's section has 24 people. All but two are coke addicts. They
are up at 7 a.m. and fill the day with workshops, therapy sessions and
household chores before lights go out at 10 p.m.

On the tough streets outside, an easy supply of drugs beckons, a fact
of life in this new Mexico.