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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Issues | August 2008 

Mexico's Drug Problem
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Sierra Madre drug bust (Reuters)
 
A growing number of reports from Mexico paint a far more complex picture of the drug problem than the one conveyed by Mexican authorities. Nowadays, Mexico is an important consumer of illegal drugs.

In the run-up to the recent passage of President Bush’s anti-narcotics Merida Initiative, high-ranking Mexican officials repeatedly scolded the United States, the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, for stoking their country’s growing problem of narco-violence. Appealing for shared responsibility, Mexican officials urged the U.S. to crack down on drug consumption at home and curb the illegal trafficking of arms across the border.

A growing number of reports from Mexico, however, paint a far more complex picture of the drug problem than the one conveyed by Mexican authorities.

Nowadays, Mexico is an important consumer of illegal drugs.

“We are not just a transit country for drugs,” said Jose Antonio Ortega Sanchez, president of the Mexico City-based Citizen Council for Public Safety and Legal Justice, “but also heavy producers and consumers as well, since we are tripling on average the production of drugs including marijuana and heroin.”

According to Ortega, marijuana production in Mexico grew 44 percent between 2004 and 2006, a period of time when the U.S. government was publicly praising the Fox administration for its anti-drug war and photos of Mexican soldiers busting illicit pot plantings graced the Internet.

Regarding another popular drug, cocaine, Ortega estimated that Mexico internally consumes between 70 and 80 tons of the substance per year, with as many as 20,000 sales outlets scattered across the country. About 50,000 pounds of the white powder goes up the noses or down the lungs of users in Mexico City alone every year, he said.

Ortega’s statements coincided with other reports of increased use in Mexico of illegal drugs like methamphetamine. While Mexican officials point to the United States as the cause of the drug violence ripping apart regions of their country, a close reading of many incidents reveals that much if not most of the ongoing slaughter has more to do with competition over internal markets than external ones. The recent execution of “El Caracol,” a street dealer in Ciudad Juarez’s Azteca neighborhood, is a story repeated thousands of times across the country.

Drugs of Tradition and Fashion

A popular substance, especially in the northern border region, is heroin. While use of the drug in Mexico is nothing new, the heroin sub-culture continues to seduce new generations.

Recently, a journalistic team from the Mexico City weekly Proceso toured “picaderos,” or shooting galleries, in Ciudad Juarez to get a first-hand look at the world of processed poppy dreams. Thousands of picaderos, some serving as many as 100 customers a day, are said to exist in Ciudad Juarez.

In the Alta Vista neighborhood above the banks of the Rio Grande, lookouts were everywhere as members of the Aztecas gang went about their business running the heroin trade. Many customers encountered by the reporters were young, including an 18-year-old woman who shared her thoughts about the addict’s life. “The drug transforms us,” she said. “I am capable of killing anyone for it.”

Researchers have detected another disturbing trend: the mixing of different illegal drugs into one dose or the invention of new drugs.

“Yaba,” for example, is a mixture of meth and caffeine. “Palitos mojados” are marijuana cigarettes dipped in ether. In a cyber-age twist to the old practice of inhaling paint thinner or gasoline, huffing compressed air used to clean computers is the in-thing among some youths.

“The kids use drugs at the same time, in the same event and in the same entertainment space,” said Alfredo Nateras, a researcher with the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City.

“They make a mixture and suddenly don’t know what they are consuming, and this is very risky,” Nateras said. “They are recycling old drugs while new ones are on the market, and a very frequent modality is the consumption of mixtures.”

LSD, which figured so prominently in the lives of Mexico adventurer and US novelist Ken Kesey and his friend Neal Cassady, who died after being found unconscious on the railroad tracks near San Miguel de Allende, is a staple at some Mexican youth parties these days.

The Social Backdrop

Current social indicators give a strong hint why drugs are becoming more popular in Mexico. The Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OCDE) recently reported that 60 percent of Mexican jobs are in the informal sector-without labor contracts, benefits, pensions or long-term job security. Many of the “jobs” consist of spending endless, mind-numbing hours selling goods of all kinds at street side stands.

Perhaps it’s no accident that the hot dog seller on the corner also retails crack or pot.

For young people, unemployment is a significant problem. “Youth unemployment exceeds 6 percent, which is a reflection of a serious problem in the linking of school with the job market,” said Stefano Scaretta, senior OCDE analyst. “It’s also clear that the rigid nature of the federal labor law does not encourage the hiring of young people; on the contrary, it discourages and stops it.”

If Mexican youths find decent job prospects slim, many also discover they are blocked from even getting an education. In 2008, the nation’s 12 largest public universities rejected 363, 161 applicants. Although academic criteria are used to determine admissions, virtually all observers of the Mexican educational system readily acknowledge that limited resources and space are the real reasons legions of young people are turned away at the door of higher education every year. Slapped with a rude awakening, some youths have formed a new movement to demand the right to higher education.

Fifteen-year-old Gilda Yarza Covarrubias considered herself lucky. A music lover whose high test score landed her a spot in high school, Yarza said overcoming poverty and resisting drugs are two of the biggest challenges confronting her generation. The Mexico City adolescent would like to see more educational opportunities and security for those who are “left outside” the system.

Alternatives

Current Mexican anti-drug policy mirrors that of the United States.

Treatment programs are very limited, and control of illegal substances is viewed as a law enforcement issue. Increasingly, however, influential voices advocate other approaches. Chihuahua Gov. Jose Reyes Baeza recently suggested Mexico should debate decriminalizing certain drugs. A decriminalization law passed the Mexican Congress several years ago, but it was blocked by the Fox administration after Washington protested.

Writing in La Jornada, Jorge Carrillo Olea, a retired Mexican general and ex-governor of Morelos state, contended Mexico has lacked a long-term drug control strategy since at least 1992, opting to follow the path of Washington rather than pursuing “effective control over the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs.” During Carrillo’s governorship, drug cartels gained a big foothold in Morelos.

A recent socio-economic study of Ciudad Juarez, “The Social Reality of Ciudad Juarez,” could be an important contribution toward understanding and controlling the drug problem plaguing the border city and other parts of Mexico.

Published by the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez and partially funded by the Ford Foundation and the Chihuahua Business Sector Foundation, the study examined questions of economic growth, development, crime, and social services.

Although Ciudad Juarez has grown tremendously due to the expansion of the maquiladora export industry, the authors noted that many young people live in a state of anxiety in which there is no “certainty of the permanence of work, of the permanence of income.”

In such circumstances, the temptations of momentary, drug-induced bliss and easy money are everywhere.

Clara Judisman, a former director of social development for the Mexico City government and coordinator of the study, urged the establishment of a broad social pact that involves the business sector, non-governmental organizations and academia. The goal, said Judisman, should be to cultivate “human beings capable of confronting the risks of organized crime. Special emphasis should be centered on building up the capacity of young people to “resist the invitation of drugs,” she added.

Contrasting simple anti-poverty programs with genuine social development, Judisman asserted that any effective strategy must address psycho-social, public safety and cultural development needs. The social activist urged different sectors to “sit down,” compare notes and get to work on a joint plan.

Sources:
• La Jornada, July 24, 25 and 26, 2008. Articles by Karina Aviles, Laura Poy and Jorge Carrillo Olea.
• El Universal, July 23, 2008. Article by Jorge Alejandro Medellin.
• Agencia Reforma, July 21, 2008. Article by Karla Portugal.
• Proceso/Apro, July 2 and 6, 2008. Articles by Patricia Davila and editorial staff.
• Lapolaka.com, July 13, 2008.
• El Diario de Juarez, May 21, 2008 and June 19, 2008.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

For a free electronic subscription email fnsnews(at)nmsu.edu



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