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Mexico drug use soars as U.S. meth labs shift south May 9, 2005 - reuters.co.uk
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Crouched down a few yards south of a border fence dividing Mexico and the United States, vagrant drug addict Marco Aurelio takes a battered syringe and searches among the running sores on his skin for a vein to inject.
Pushing the charger in to the hilt, he slips into a $5 burst of euphoria that the Mexican says "neutralizes" life on the streets of Tijuana, one of the roughest cities along the border.
Cheaper than cocaine or heroin and with a longer-lasting high, methamphetamine has been widely snorted, smoked and injected by blue-collar drug users in towns and cities over the border in California for decades.
But a crackdown on the chemicals used to cook up the synthetic drug known on the streets as "meth" or "crystal" has pushed production and use south of the border to Mexico's Baja California state, U.S. and Mexican authorities say.
The booming trade in the stimulant has given powerful Mexican drug cartels a hefty shot in the arm and fueled a growing wave of addiction in the state's cities and resort towns, where it can easily be bought on street corners and illegal kiosks.
Analysts estimate that as many as 60,000 of Tijuana's 1.2 million residents use the drug, while state health services say referrals to local rehabilitation centers for meth addiction have doubled in the past five years
"Alcohol and tobacco used to be the drug of choice for youngsters in northern Mexico, but now it's crystal," said Hector, a reformed drug user now running a busy rehabilitation clinic in the city. "More and more are turning to the drug."
COOKING UP CHAOS
Large-scale meth production originated in California in the 1960s, when criminals linked to outlaw motorcycle gangs cooked it up from widely available stimulants ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in improvised laboratories known as meth labs.
Sale of the two chemical precursors was restricted by law in the United States in 1996 as abuse spiraled, forcing a "dramatic migration" of production south from the California to Mexico, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said.
Using chemicals bought wholesale from rogue suppliers in China, Mexican cartels have set up "super labs" in cities including Tijuana, Mexicali, and the resorts of Ensenada and Rosarito, churning out loads of high-grade meth.
"We are seeing a dramatic decrease in meth super labs that used to plague San Diego, and the majority of the methamphetamine that we are now seeing is of Mexican origin," said Misha Piastro, the DEA's spokesman in San Diego.
In October, the State Department announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Mexican drug capo Ignacio Coronel, known as the King of Crystal, in response to the booming cross-border trade.
As U.S. law enforcement agencies in California battle to halt the flow of drugs into the state, they offer a stark warning to residents of Baja California about a problem they have observed first hand for decades.
"The social ramifications of this drug are staggering," Piastro said. "This is a powerful stimulant that heightens aggressiveness, paranoia, unpredictability. It's to the point that where there is meth, there is violence."
COUNTING THE SOCIAL COST
In Tijuana, some 300 people were shot, stabbed and beaten to death last year, many of them in slayings linked to the trade in illegal drugs including marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.
Analysts say the social costs are also rising as cartels flood the streets of the fast-growing city of maquiladora export assembly plants with cheap meth, where it finds a ready market among working people on low incomes.
"Synthetic drugs are low cost and affordable, whereas cocaine was somehow costly and elitist," said sociologist Victor Clark of San Diego State University. "Big cartels are also paying for services in kind, which drives up local consumption."
Clark estimates that there are up to 5,000 drug kiosks, known as "tienditas" or "little shops" across the city, many of them doing a booming trade in $5 bags of meth known on the streets as "globitos."
Addicts say demand for meth is so high that some users line up down the street to buy the drug, which is even available in some apparently legitimate stores in the border city.
"I used to get my drugs at a pharmacy next to a tortilla maker," Jorge, a recovering addict and former meth dealer said. "People lined up like they were going to make calls at the pharmacy, but in reality they sold globitos," he added.
As the trade grows, addicts like Marco Aurelio scratch around looking for their next hit. In the moments of jittery lucidity between soaring highs, they count their losses.
"I don't see my family any more because I feel worthless," he said with tears in his eyes. "Drugs help me to forget what I lost."