Pubdate: Mon, 28 Jul 2008
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2008 The Arizona Republic
Author: Chris Hawley


AGUA PRIETA, Sonora - Perla got hooked on crack and crystal meth at 
age 12. Soon she was prostituting herself to support her habit.

At her lowest point, the girl said, she was selling sex for 50 pesos, 
about $4.75.

"As soon as one rock was done, I'd be out trying to get money for 
another," said Perla, whose last name is being withheld because of her age.

Now 15, Perla is in a rehab center in this Mexico border town, trying 
to put her life back together.

Stories like Perla's are multiplying as Mexico confronts a growing 
problem with drug addiction, a phenomenon that some experts blame on 
the Mexican government's crackdown on drug cartels and stepped-up 
U.S. border enforcement.

With drugs harder to smuggle into the United States, more remain in 
Mexico, where they are sold to local consumers, said Marcela Lopez 
Cabrera, director of the Monte Fenix Center for Advanced Studies in 
Mexico City, which trains drug counselors.

 From 2000 to 2006, the number of new patients at Mexican 
drug-treatment centers more than quadrupled, to 57,173, the Mexican 
Health Department says. It plans to open 310 new rehab centers this 
year, triple the current total, to handle the demand.

"We used to think of drug traffickers as people who took drugs 
through Mexico to the United States," Mexican President Felipe 
Calderon said in a speech to addiction counselors last month.

"But their goal is no longer to just get drugs to the United States 
but rather to get it on the domestic market, generating consumers 
here in Mexico who will buy it and buy it for the rest of their lives."

'Ice-cream trucks'

In Agua Prieta, across the border from Arizona's Douglas, the drug 
peddlers sell crack, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and marijuana 
from cars that cruise through the dirt streets. The addicts call them 
"ice-cream trucks."

On the edge of town, recovering addicts gathered for their noon pep 
talk at a private shelter.

It's a grim place to kick a habit. The dormitories are dimly lit 
rooms with bare concrete floors. Mentally ill patients wander around 
a penned-in area. Meals are cooked on an outdoor fire.

The detox area, where patients spend their first days, is a room with 
a light bulb off the main sleeping area. There is no door to muffle 
the screams of newcomers going through withdrawal.

A few years ago, the shelter averaged 50 residents at a time. Now, 
there are 92, and they are getting younger as the price of drugs 
drops, said assistant director Miguel Salgado. A rock of crack costs 
as little as $2.50 in Agua Prieta, he said.

The problem is not just along the border, addiction experts say. In 
the Mexico City area, cocaine and crack are beginning to displace 
marijuana and inhalants.

"Before, cocaine was expensive here. Now, you can get it for 
practically nothing," said Irving Aguilar, medical director at the 
Clinicas Claider treatment center.

A gram of cocaine now sells in central Mexico for 200 pesos, or about 
$19, he said. Crack is $9.50 a rock and getting cheaper.

At Clinicas Claider, crack addicts began outnumbering alcoholics in 
2003, he said. They now account for 60 percent of his patients.

No rules

The rise in drug peddling is partly due to political changes in 
Mexico, said Carlos Antonio Flores Perez, an expert on crime at 
Mexico's Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology.

 From 1929 to 2000, Mexican politics operated under a virtual 
one-party system. Authoritarian governors and mayors enforced a quiet 
truce with the drug traffickers, Flores Perez said: As long as the 
smugglers didn't cause problems in Mexico, authorities would look the 
other way as drugs moved on through to the United States.

But in 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the 
presidential election. The party's patronage system began to crumble, 
giving political opponents more clout against governors and mayors.

Now, "those types of agreements (with traffickers) don't necessarily 
work," Flores Perez said.

At the same time, the United States has been building walls and 
adding federal agents to the border, making it harder to get drug 
shipments through.

In December 2006, President Calderon launched an offensive against 
the four main drug cartels, sending 20,000 troops to patrol border 
cities, killing or arresting kingpins and extraditing suspects to the 
United States.

With their chiefs gone, discipline has broken down within the 
cartels. Former lieutenants want their own side businesses and have 
begun peddling drugs locally, said Arturo Arango, a researcher with 
the Citizens' Institute for Studies on Crime.

"You've got a hydra - a monster of many heads - now," Arango said. 
"Now there are 50 mini-cartels, and people have started claiming 
little pieces of the market for themselves."

Meth problem

Addiction experts say they are most alarmed by the appearance of 
crystal meth in Mexico.

"Look at this," said Ricardo Sanchez, research director for the 
federal health department's rehab centers, as he pointed to a map of 
Mexico on his computer.

Bright dots showed areas with meth addicts.

In 2000, the only dots were in Tijuana and Mexicali on the California 
border. But as Sanchez tapped a key to scroll forward through time, 
the dots multiplied until they formed a line from the central state 
of Michoacan to the Arizona border.

"This is not a coincidence," Sanchez said. "The cartels are taking 
over the American meth supply, and they are getting Mexicans addicted, too."

Clandestine laboratories in Michoacan create methamphetamine from 
pseudoephedrine shipped from Asia or distilled from stolen medicine.

Crackdowns on illegal immigrants in the United States may also be 
bringing different kinds of addiction to Mexico, some experts say.

For decades, heroin was produced in Mexico only for export because of 
its high price, Sanchez said.

But in 2001, the health department started to see heroin addicts in 
the central state of Puebla. Many of them were migrants deported from 
New York, he said.

A recent health department study in border cities showed that 23 
percent of Mexican youths who had lived in the United States had 
tried drugs, compared with 5 percent who had never left Mexico.

Getting help

To combat the problem, the Mexican government boosted funding for 
addiction treatment programs from $14.3 million to $76.2 million this 
year, mostly for new rehab centers.

But recovering addicts and their counselors say it will be hard to 
beat back the dope peddlers. There are at least two crack houses 
within walking distance of the Agua Prieta shelter, Salgado said, and 
the "ice-cream trucks" run all night.

Sitting on her bunk at the shelter, Perla said she dreams of 
returning to school and having a normal life. But the temptation to 
stray is always there.

"It's so easy to get (drugs)," she said. "They're everywhere."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom