The man in mirrored sunglasses accosts American tourists along this border city’s main strip, where mariachi music blares from bars and virtually every other storefront is a pharmacy or doctor’s office. Do they want some Valium? How about diet pills?
Cocaine and marijuana aren’t the only drugs crossing into the United States from Mexico. Tourists also take back a cornucopia of “legal” drugs, complete with prescriptions signed by workers at Mexican medical offices where physicians are seldom seen.
Some Americans are drawn by the inexpensive medicine. Others come because they can get legal drugs that a U.S. doctor might not be willing to prescribe.
“You want to see a doctor, lady?” asks a man who calls himself Carlos. “There is a good one at the corner, or if you no like, there is another by the plaza or around the block. There are many. Which one you want? You can have anything.”
There is a Carlos on every block. When they see a non-Mexican, they pounce and follow for blocks. They say they are hired by doctors to lure tourists into their offices.
Nuevo Laredo has long been a hub for Americans in search of cheap prescriptions. Many buyers are elderly.
A lot of the trade is legitimate. A lot of it isn’t.
“We’re aware of it, but there is little we can do about it,” said Rudy Santos, chief U.S. customs inspector in Laredo. “We have to assume the prescription is legitimate if it’s signed by a doctor.”
U.S. law requires medicine brought into the country to be accompanied by a doctor’s prescription, no matter where it is bought.
Santos said some of the trade involves American teen-agers who cross the border to get tranquilizers and other drugs.
The young men who stalk foreigners say more doctors are selling prescriptions without a consultation since last December’s peso devaluation, which plunged Mexico into an economic slump but also made U.S. dollars go further.
Some doctors are dentists, but will dole out prescriptions that in the United States only a physician or psychiatrist would write.
A visit to one such office leads to a back room that has the trappings of a doctor’s office--a waiting room, diplomas.
A young woman in a white smock sits at a desk. She pulls out a plastic-covered “menu” of medicines in English. There are pills to burn fat, to boost alertness, to induce sleep and relaxation, and to boost fertility.
“How many do you want?” she asks.
Asked if she is a doctor, the woman, called Cynthia, says no.
Is she a nurse?
Is the doctor here?
Not right now, she answers, smiling.
In fact, no doctors were around any of the offices visited by an Associated Press reporter. After identifying herself as a journalist, she was asked to leave and told the offices were for patients only.
Prices for a visit vary from $40 to $100 and may just be for the prescription or may include the drugs, which tend to be inexpensive.
Cynthia writes out a prescription that reads: “Do not open before crossing U.S. Customs.” It is faxed to a Nuevo Laredo pharmacy called El Puente, which means The Bridge, half a block from a bridge linking Nuevo Laredo with its sister city across the Rio Grande in Texas.
A “guide” will walk a foreigner into the pharmacy, stop a few yards away and say: “There it is. Go in.” He leaves. There are dozens of similar pharmacies.
At U.S. Customs, an American can declare the drug, show a copy of the prescription and go home with diet pills, muscle relaxants or whatever.
There is nothing U.S. inspectors can do.
Santos said about 40% of Americans returning to the United States declare prescription drugs. He said they monitor people importing medicine to keep tabs on any shady doings.
“They come to Mexico to buy medicine from Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma, Los Angeles, you name it,” he said. “It’s because of the high cost of health care in the United States. Why pay $150 for a prescription when it’s $30 or less in Mexico?”
Legitimate drugs Americans buy in Mexico include antibiotics, Tagamet for stomach problems and other medicine that carries high prices in the United States. Many drugs, such as antibiotics and common antidepressants like Prozac, do not need prescriptions in Mexico.
By American law, any drug that requires a prescription in the United States must have one to enter the United States from a foreign country, but the law often is skirted.
Lucy, an Alabama resident who did not want her last name used, bought three tubes of Retin-A, an over-the-counter cream used to clear up acne, that many people use as an anti-wrinkle cream. In America, she would need a prescription.