Pubdate: Wed, 15 September 1999
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 1999 The Washington Post Company
Address: 1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post Foreign Service


BUENOS AIRES 96 Raul, a 30-year-old father of two, tried to make it through
the exit. Two months ago, he checked out of a public hospital for severe
drug addicts that takes in 100 new patients a month. But two weeks later, he
checked back in after injecting cocaine into his spindly arms again. And so
he has returned to fidgeting in his room, his cheeks sunken and his eyes red.

"I don't want to make excuses," said Raul, a dry cleaner who asked that only
his first name be used. He shares a room with two other addicts at
Argentina's National Center for Societal Re-Education, a treatment center
whose patient population has grown 15 percent during the 1990s. "But when
you get out of here, back in your neighborhood, the [cocaine] is everywhere,
man. And it's cheap."

Drawn faces walking the center's hallways are among many illustrations of an
increase in illicit drug use in Latin America that has become increasingly
apparent during the 1990s as traffickers create markets at home for
inexpensive and abundant drugs.

Although the region has long cultivated and exported illicit drugs, local
consumption is rising. Now, in big cities such as Buenos Aires, where about
4 percent of the population acknowledges having used drugs, the percentage
of users has begun to rival that in the United States.

For Latin America, which historically has considered illicit drug use a
problem for far-off places such as New York, Washington and Los Angeles, the
hike in domestic consumption is bringing the issue home as never before.
Nations here are facing not only increased drug-related violence, but also
higher transmission rates for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, among
intravenous drug users, as well as the disintegration of families forced to
cope with addiction.

"I think we're all waking up to the reality that drug use is no longer just
something that's happening in the United States," said Eduardo Amadeo,
president of the Argentine Planning Secretariat for Counternarcotics and
Drug Prevention. "Drugs are now being sold on the corner near the schools my
children attend, near our [social] clubs and [soccer] fields. It's a problem
right here, and one that we are now going to have to deal with."

Although no one likes to see consumption grow, it could end up helping the
United States in the drug war. U.S. officials, whose approach to the drug
problem is often criticized in Latin America because of the view here that
the problem is not one of trafficking but of U.S. demand, have been quick to
seize on the fact that illicit drug use is "no longer just a gringo
problem." Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control
Policy, made that clear on his visit to Latin America last week, saying
local drug use is strengthening the political will to combat trafficking.

Consumption of illicit drugs in Latin America still does not approach levels
in the United States, which remains the world's biggest consumer by far. In
addition, some of the deadliest drugs, such as heroin, are virtually absent
from most Latin American cities. But the percentage of drug users here is
growing fast.

Governments are scrambling to launch new prevention and law enforcement
programs as drug use takes a toll on public health and public coffers. One
report from Brazil estimates the cost of medical care for drug addiction
soared from $902 million 1993 to $2.9 billion in 1997. At the same time, the
percentage of AIDS cases from intravenous drug use moved from 2.5 percent in
1985 to 25 percent in 1998.

In Buenos Aires, a city of 12 million, the first official government poll on
drug use showed consumption at 4.1 percent of the population, similar to
levels in Washington, Chicago and New York, according to McCaffrey's office.
Nationwide, the number was 3 percent. Although that is half the U.S. rate,
local authorities compared it with estimates of only 1 percent here early in
the decade.

In Mexico City, the number of people who said they have tried drugs at least
once increased to 7.3 percent, up from 4 percent in 1993.

In Chile, an official 1998 national survey showed 5.3 percent of the
population between the ages of 12 and 62 had used marijuana, cocaine base or
refined cocaine during the past year, up from 4.3 percent in 1996, with
rates higher than the national average in the capital, Santiago.

In Peru 96 mainly in Lima and other major urban centers 96 the number of
people between 12 and 50 saying they had used cocaine at least once rose to
3.2 percent in 1998, compared with 1.3 percent in 1988. Those saying they
had used marijuana jumped to 8 percent from 5.3 percent during the same
period, according to the Lima-based Center for Information on Prevention and
Drug Abuse.

In Colombia, the most recent official national survey showed an increase
from 5.9 percent to 6.6 percent in the number of people who had used an
illicit drug in the past year. The most recent survey was done in 1996; the
previous one, in 1992.

Latin Americans take drugs for many of the same reasons North Americans and
Europeans do. But traffickers are also making illicit drugs more affordable
domestically, pushing the excess product they can't sell abroad.

In Peru, for instance, efforts to prevent the transport of Peruvian coca 96
the plant used to make cocaine 96 to large Colombian refineries has
fostered primitive local refining and domestic marketing of often
dangerously impure forms of cocaine, counternarcotics authorities say. On
the streets of Lima, bazuco, a derivative of coca paste smoked like crack
cocaine, can be bought for 10 cents a hit 96 the lowest price in three
years, officials say.

"Suddenly, you had all this product in everybody's backyard and nobody to
buy it," said a Western diplomat in Lima. "It was sort of like having grass
clippings, but these clippings had a high worth. So they just turned around
and found another market 96 here."

Larger supplies have driven prices down in the relatively affluent southern
part of South America, too. In Buenos Aires, cocaine powder sells for $5 to
$20 a gram, about half its price in the 1980s and a major bargain compared
with $80 to $150 on the streets of Washington, drug enforcement authorities say.

Governments are trying to cope with the rise through new law enforcement
initiatives and national and local prevention programs. In Argentina, drug
use has generated a boom in the number of private rehabilitation centers
catering to middle and upper class users. Statistics show that the largest
pool of heavy drug users here is the relatively large middle class, with the
very wealthy only a shade lower on the totem poll than the poor.

"We in Argentina are becoming more like Europe and the United States, but
not in the way we once wanted," said Leonardo Perelis, director of Program
Renewal, one of dozens of nonprofit private rehabilitation clinics that have
sprung up here.

In a room in the chic Buenos Aires neighborhood of Barrio Norte, seven drug
addicts at Perelis's rehab center have gathered to talk about temptation.
Anibal, a 37-year-old manager for the Buenos Aires subway system, gave up
cocaine in February, but keeping off it has been hard. In part, he blames
the new drug culture, which he says has exploded since Argentina, like other
Latin American nations, opened its economy in the early 1990s.

"It's like nobody really thinks it's something bad anymore," said Anibal,
father of two, whose wife left him last year because of his addiction. "When
I used to smoke marijuana at school, it was a scandal among the other kids.
You know, everyone was very traditional, very Catholic. But more recently,
when I did coke at parties 96 even openly at work 96 nobody ever said a
thing. Unless they asked for a line."

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