Pubdate: 16 Sep, 1999
Source: International Herald-Tribune
Copyright: International Herald Tribune 1999
Section: page: 2
Author:  Anthony Faiola


BUENOS AIRES -- Two months ago, Raul 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 30-year-old dry cleaner who 
wanted only his first name be used.

He shares a room with two other addicts at Argentina's National Center for 
Societal ReEducation, a treatment center whose patient population has grown 
15 percent during the 1990s.

"But when you get out of here, back in your neighborhood," he said, "the 
cocaine is everywhere. And it's cheap."

Drawn faces walking the center's hallways are among many illustrations of a 
rise in illicit drug use that has become increasingly apparent in Latin 
America 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 like 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 and European countries.

For Latin America, which has historically considered illicit drug use a 
problem for far-off places like New York, Washington and Los Angeles, the 
increase 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 comer near the schools my children attend, 
near our social clubs and soccer fields."

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 

Barry McCaffrey, White House director of drug control policy, made that 
view clear on his visit to Latin America last week, saying that local drug 
use was 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, including heroin, are 
virtually absent from most Latin American cities. But the percentage of 
drug users here is growing fast.

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

In Buenos Aires, which has 12 million people, 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 Mr. 
McCaffrey's office. Nationwide, the number is 3 percent. Although that 
figure is half the U.S. rate, the local authorities compare it with 
estimates of only I percent here early in the decade.

In Mexico City, the number of people who said they had 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 12 to 62 years of age 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 -- mainly in Lima and other major urban centers -- the number of 
people age 12 to 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 rose to 8 percent from 5.3 percent during the same period, 
according to the Center for Information on Prevention and Drug Abuse in Lima.

In Colombia, the most recent official national survey showed an increase to 
6.6 percent from 5.9 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 cannot sell abroad.

As a result, the authorities say, primitive local refining and domestic 
marketing of often dangerously impure forms of cocaine have been fostered 
by efforts to prevent the transport of Peruvian coca, the plant from which 
cocaine is made, to large refineries in Colombia. In Lima, bazuco, a 
derivative of coca paste smoked like crack cocaine, can be bought for 10 
cents a dose -- the lowest price in three years, officials say.

Larger supplies have lowered prices 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 bargain compared with 
$80 to $150 on the streets of Washington, the anti-drug authorities say. 
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