The white-frocked counterman knew precisely what the American customer wanted. “Dianabol?” the pharmacist said, repeating the American’s request. “We’ve got plenty of it. You want the tablets or liquid?”
Dianabol is a trade name for methandrostenolone, an anabolic steroid favored by body builders and athletes trying to “bulk up.” It is not sold legally in the United States, but “D-Ball,” as it is known on the black market, is a big item in the pharmacies of this border city, where it is widely available without prescription.
“Americans come in here looking for it all the time,” said Oscar Delgadillo, the affable purchasing chief for Maxim Pharmacy downtown. “Some of them look like the Incredible Hulk. They know exactly what to ask for.”
Whether they know what they are getting is another question. One form of methandrostenolone sold here is clearly counterfeit, its label indicating that it is produced by a New Jersey manufacturer that, it turns out, does not exist.
The sales of such body-building drugs, some of which are bogus, illustrate a booming market that crosses the international border.
In recent years, U.S. authorities say, Tijuana, long the haunt of international contrabandistas, has become a focal point for the manufacture and illegal distribution into the United States of steroids--"roids,” in gym vernacular.
Steroids, chemical derivatives of testosterone, the male sex hormone, have legitimate medical uses--they were prescribed after World War II to build the body weight of Nazi concentration-camp survivors--but the drugs are now widely abused by amateur and professional athletes seeking to add muscle and by other consumers enamored of the body beautiful.
Steroids made the front pages last month when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold medal because he allegedly used stanozolol--a steroid that is a big seller in Tijuana (“the Ben Johnson drug,” one pharmacist called it).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has limited the use of steroids to people suffering certain serious illnesses, such as breast cancer and anemia, because of documented side effects--including liver and prostate cancer, heightened risk of heart disease, increased masculinity in women and aggressive behavior and atrophied testicles in men.
But FDA rules don’t apply in Mexico, where Americans have long made over-the-counter purchases of prescription drugs to treat everything from common colds to baldness to cancer and, most recently, AIDS.
Often, purchasers smuggle the drugs into the United States, both for personal use and profitable resale. But U.S. authorities say the volume of illicit traffic in steroids across the border may now dwarf all other such pharmaceutical enterprises--except, of course, for the billion-dollar cocaine and other narcotics trade. San Diego has become a key corridor for the transport.
“The size of it (the border steroid market) has shocked us,” said Kenneth Ingleby, special agent in charge of the U.S. Customs Service office in San Diego. “Until a year and a half ago, we hardly ever saw it--and, when we did, it was in small quantities. Now, it’s everywhere.”
Border-related arrests of steroid smugglers in the San Diego area have increased from a handful two years ago to several dozen a year later to 131 in the last 12 months, Ingleby said. Smugglers range from those transporting the drug for their own consumption to traffickers moving large quantities for distribution throughout the United States. With resale markups of 300% or more, profits reach well into the millions.
Although Mexico is considered an important source for the black market in steroids, it is not alone. The drugs are also smuggled in from Europe and manufactured illegally in the United States. Last year, a Fountain Valley laboratory owner was charged with producing black market steroids and promoting them as East German-made, a claim that apparently carries weight in body-building circles.
Apart from the inherent dangers of steroids, authorities say users are taking additional risks by purchasing such pharmaceuticals in Tijuana or on the black market.
Many of the black market drugs are counterfeit--falsely labeled to indicate that they come from legitimate U.S., Canadian or European producers. Some have been diluted with foreign substances, sometimes potentially dangerous ones. Some supposed steroids have been found to be only aspirin. FDA investigators have identified more than 100 counterfeit pharmaceuticals purported to be steroids or drugs commonly taken in conjunction with steroids, usually to offset side effects.
Bottles of methandrostenolone (Dianabol) sold in Tijuana pharmacies carry a label indicating production at White Pharmaceutical Inc. in Upper Saddle River, N.J.--a company that is nonexistent, according to Donald Leggett, a consumer safety officer with the FDA.
The counterfeit drugs, and their labels, vary in quality. Many bear expertly forged labels of legitimate producers, such as Squibb and Ciba Geigy, sometimes forcing authorities to track lot numbers to determine authenticity.
“I’ve seen some stuff that even the manufacturer has a problem saying definitely that it is not their product,” Leggett said. “On the other extreme, there is stuff that is so blatant that you wonder what kind of yo-yo is dumb enough to spend $40 for something that’s obviously someone’s bathtub preparation.”
But many black-market purchasers--including Michael MacDonald, a world-class weightlifter from Minnesota who pleaded guilty to selling steroids produced in Mexico--maintain that they were unaware that the drugs were anything but the real thing.
“He (MacDonald) never would have taken the stuff if he knew it had been made in a lab in Tijuana,” said Steven Pihlaja, a Minneapolis attorney representing MacDonald, who is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in San Diego in January.
The charges against MacDonald were part of a blockbuster, 110-count federal indictment handed down in San Diego in May, 1987. U.S. authorities say the case put a major dent in the Tijuana network.
Among the 34 people charged in connection with a Tijuana-based smuggling ring were David Jenkins of Carlsbad, a member of Britain’s silver-medal-winning 1,600-meter relay team in the 1972 Olympics in Munich; Patrick Jacobs, a former associate strength coach at the University of Miami; and Daniel Duchaine, author of the “Underground Steroid Handbook for Men and Women.” More than two dozen defendants have already entered guilty pleas in connection with the ring, which claimed to control 70% of the U.S. black market for steroids.
Jacobs has been placed on three years’ probation for his role in the ring. He said he purchased the drugs for personal use and never supplied them to Miami students. Jacobs resigned from the university after his indictment in May, 1987.
Also named as defendants in the case were the owners and several employees of an alleged Tijuana drug-producing facility, Laboratorios Milano de Mexico.
United Pharmaceuticals, a Tijuana-based wholesaler situated in a fourth-floor suite of the city’s swankiest hotel, the Fiesta Americana, was accused of marketing the steroids to U.S. buyers, who then distributed them from Florida to California. The owner of both the laboratory and the wholesaler, Juan Javier Macklis, has not answered the charges and is considered a fugitive, as are three other Mexican defendants.
Still in Operation
Macklis, who allegedly boasted that he would hire “hot-shot” lawyers to defend any employees caught smuggling, did not respond to a request for an interview left at the manufacturing facility, which is situated in the city’s booming Otay Mesa industrial district, just south of the border. The plant, which remains in operation, bears a plaque commemorating its opening in 1982 by then-Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo and former Baja California Gov. Roberto de la Madrid.
At United Pharmaceuticals’ hotel suite, adorned with glossy color posters of runners, skiers and body builders, an official who declined to identify himself or his business told a reporter and photographer to leave the premises after their arrival prompted nervous secretaries to put away paper work. In the past, according to court documents, United Pharmaceuticals provided prospective clients with sales brochures advising volume buyers that it could produce steroids under “your own label.”
Despite the steroid case in San Diego and a number of other cases nationwide, U.S. authorities say the Mexican market continues to thrive, nourished by the voracious demand for steroids by America’s would-be Charles Atlases. The allure is clear: Profits can rival those in the narcotics trade, officials say, but the chances of lengthy jail sentences are much slimmer.
“There’s less risk and just as much money,” said the Customs Service’s Ingleby, who noted that several cocaine traffickers have left that business and turned to steroids. “The market is still virtually untapped. It’s every high school and college, plus the professional jocks, the body-beautiful people, the weight builders. . . .”
Indeed, although the risks might seem prohibitive, many young body builders appear unfazed, particularly since steroids’ side effects can take years to develop.
“They pooh-pooh what the doctors say,” said Jeff Everson, an editor at Muscle & Fitness magazine, based in Woodland Hills. “When they look at Ben Johnson, they don’t exactly see him dying as he crosses the finish line. Instead, they see that he’s faster than everyone else.”
Ingleby said, “For some of these kids, it could make the difference between making the high school football team or not, or getting a scholarship to college.”
Like the drug trade, steroid trafficking can lead to violence. One defendant in the San Diego case is accused of hiring a hit man, who allegedly beat up and cut a Phoenix customer “from ear to ear” because he owed a $50,000 debt for Tijuana-produced steroids. The man survived to make the payment.
Like drug smugglers, steroid traffickers use a wide variety of transportation modes to move their product across the border, including low-flying aircraft, specially outfitted overland vehicles, even pedestrians.
In the Tijuana case, smugglers allegedly hid plastic garbage bags filled with pills beneath their clothing. False labels were printed in Mexico and brought across the border in smugglers’ specially designed pants, according to documents. The drugs would then be bottled and labeled just north of the border.
In another move reminiscent of the narcotics trade, the steroids were left for clients in motel rooms and rented U-Haul trucks.