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Mexican Drug Traffickers Tap New Market--at Home

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Isidoro Salas has always enjoyed “Sweet 15" parties, the lavish bashes that Mexicans traditionally throw for their teenage daughters. But lately, the father of three has been shocked by a new custom at the festivities.

“When you go into the bathroom, there are two or three kids who hide,” said Salas, who heads a parents association in the northwestern state of Sinaloa.

The kids, he said, are using drugs.

After years of being a major source and transit point of narcotics, Mexico is facing a drug abuse problem of its own. Mexican traffickers who grow marijuana and transport Colombian cocaine for U.S. users are now looking to their own backyards, selling drugs in this country’s schools, discos and alleyways.

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Starting today, a three-day U.N. drug summit in New York proposed by Mexico will emphasize that fighting drug use is as important as fighting cartels--a message clearly aimed at the United States and its voracious appetite for narcotics.

But even as Mexican authorities maintain that drug abuse is mainly a U.S. problem, Mexican parents, community activists and rehabilitation experts are becoming concerned about the small but growing threat they face at home. Experts say drug use among the young is particularly worrisome.

“This has stopped being just a state that produces drugs,” Salas said, referring to Sinaloa’s extensive marijuana and opium fields. “We never thought it would get to this point.”

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Mexico has long been a major player in the narcotics trade, but--thanks in part to the country’s conservative, family-oriented culture--few people in the past sampled the drugs heading for “El Norte.”

Lately, however, divorce, economic crisis and growing urbanization have taken their toll on families. At the same time, drugs are becoming more available here--possibly because it’s growing more difficult for traffickers to get drugs across the U.S. border, experts say. Another factor is that cartel employees are often being paid in drugs, turning some of them into dealers too.

Luis Astorga, a sociologist who writes extensively about narcotics, said he believes that the rise in drug sales reflects an increasing willingness by traffickers to challenge Mexican authorities.

“For many years, it was said that there was a sort of unwritten pact between the traffickers and the dominant political class to not create an internal market for drugs,” he said. “Now [traffickers] don’t respect those laws.”

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While few recent statistics exist, experts agree that Mexico’s drug consumption pales beside the number of people who snort, shoot up and smoke in the United States, the world’s No. 1 narcotics market. What’s worrying is that drug use here is rising.

A 1997 Health Ministry study, for example, found that cocaine use had quadrupled among Mexico City teenagers in six years, with 4% of those surveyed saying they had tried it last year. Marijuana use had almost doubled, to 5%.

At the country’s main network of drug treatment clinics, the government-subsidized Centers of Youth Integration, the number of patients mushroomed from 4,400 to 13,400 between 1990 and 1997. While marijuana remains the drug most commonly used by new patients, cocaine shot to No. 2 this year, passing inhalants such as paint thinner.

“The [federal] authorities say drug use is not so big, that Mexico is a transit point for drugs,” said Dr. Armando Barriguete, head of the drug abuse program for Mexico City’s opposition-led government. “I’m not so sure about that. I think it’s alarming, the number of people who are addicted to cocaine.”

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The white powder, he added, is turning up everywhere in the city, from discos to high schools--something that “would have been unthinkable five or six years ago.”

Drug pushers appear to be aggressively seeking clients, offering cut-rate cocaine often mixed with other substances, say rehabilitation experts and officials.

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“Five years ago, there were only a few cases [of cocaine use], involving rich people,” said Salomon Monarrez, a construction executive in Culiacan, the state capital of Sinaloa. “But now it’s everywhere. A shoeshine man will go to a wedding reception and buy a gram.”

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Mexican institutions are struggling to respond to the rising use. Police have stepped up patrols around schools, watching for pushers. Local and federal officials are organizing talks with parents and students about drugs.

Ordinary people such as Monarrez are also doing their part. He began campaigning against drugs after learning that students were snorting cocaine in the bathroom at his children’s high school. He joined a Culiacan civic group that denounces drugs and reported dealers to the authorities.

This year, he decided to go further. The tall, heavyset father of three cruises through the steamy streets of Culiacan in his construction truck, which bears a giant sign: “Parents: Denounce Drug Pushers Who Destroy the Health of Your Children and Enrich Themselves by Ruining Your Home.”

“I decided to put this up because of the apathy of the authorities in charge of fighting drug trafficking. They’re not working as they should,” Monarrez said. Although he gets plenty of puzzled stares, he said, most people have responded positively.

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“People tell me this is great,” he said. “We shouldn’t stay quiet.”

Mexican officials say narcotics abuse is a cause for concern but not alarm. The country’s strong family structure and the social stigma attached to drug use keep the problem from reaching the levels it has in the U.S. or Europe, they say.

But Foreign Minister Rosario Green recently acknowledged, “If you start out on this road [of drug abuse] and don’t stop it on time with truly adequate measures, it could become really dangerous.”

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Drug abuse is highest along the routes traffickers use in Mexico. The hardest-hit areas are border cities such as Tijuana, where traffickers apparently store U.S.-bound drugs and residents are more likely to share the habits of their neighbors to the north. Heroin and methamphetamine use have risen sharply in such cities.

But the problem goes well beyond the northern border. It has even flared in places such as Merida, a city with a large Maya Indian population on Mexico’s southern tip.

“It’s on the drug trafficking route” for Colombian cocaine, said Jesus Cabrera, head of the government-subsidized rehabilitation clinics.

In the northwest, Sinaloa--with its abundant fields of marijuana and poppies--is the traditional home to Mexico’s biggest drug lords and has become a stop on the cocaine trail. Here in Culiacan, men with cowboy hats and cellular phones can be seen at a shrine to Jesus Malverde, a turn-of-the-century outlaw known as the patron saint of traffickers, offering thanks with a mariachi band for a successful shipment.

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Traffickers have long been tolerated in the region, out of admiration or fear. But that may begin to change now that local youths have begun to use drugs--and the dangers are brought home to parents.

“Having a friendship with a drug trafficker used to be very in, very well regarded,” said Carlos Ramiro Gamez, a state congressman for the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. “Today, there’s a rejection of these people that didn’t exist before.

“Drug traffickers don’t just bring us addicts, but violence, assaults and killing.”


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