Drug use spreads through Mexico's streets

TIJUANA, Mexico — Jacobo Guillen says he discovered god at the barrel of a gun.

After selling and smoking crystal meth for a decade, he was so immersed in a world of strung-out addicts and street fights that he thought he would never leave it.

But his life transformed when a rival tried to kill him over selling crystals on a Tijuana street corner, only to find his pistol jammed.

“I didn’t used to care about anything. I just kept getting high and doing all this crazy stuff,” said Guillen, a stocky 25-year-old sitting in a Christian drug rehab center in this unwieldy border city. “But when I faced death and lived, I knew I had to change. Now I gangbang for Jesus.”

Stories like Guillen’s — of a drug-fueled youth, a turning point and a final redemption — have long been heard in the United States, the world’s No. 1 drug consumer.

But now they are also increasingly being told south of the Rio Grande.

After decades of smuggling narcotics to American consumers, the drugs have spilled onto Mexico’s streets, creating a new generation of users snorting, smoking and injecting.

This burgeoning local market has created its own turf wars and bloodshed. Just as the cartels are fighting over the $30 billion they make smuggling drugs to the gringos, they also battle over street corners and discos from Tijuana to Cancun.

The added layers of conflict have made the Mexican drug war more entrenched and difficult to quell, contributing to the devastating toll of almost 11,000 drug-related killings since January 2007.

“This rising drug addiction means we have to deal with constant battles over the distribution points,” said Salvador Ortiz, deputy attorney general for Baja California. “And it also means we have to combat robbery and mugging by many addicts.”

A government survey last year found there were 460,000 drug addicts on Mexico’s streets — a jump of 51 percent compared to 2002. Ten times that number of addicts had experimented with drugs at least once, the survey found.

But many who work with the issue on a grassroots level say the problem is even greater still.

Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, has followed the rise of addiction closely since the early 1990s.

He estimates the number of drug distribution points in the city has risen from about five in each neighborhood in 2004 to a staggering 20 in each neighborhood this year.

“The rise in drug use here has been exponential,” Clark said. “It is making the city increasingly unstable.”

Many of the new selling points have emerged in Tijuana’s sprawling Eastside, a collection of unruly barrios growing into the hills overlooking the downtown.

A wave of bloodshed in Tijuana last year was blamed on a battle between Eastside traffickers and the dominant cartel running the center of the city.

Known as tienditas, or little shops, the distribution points can be anything from street corners to the parking lots of bars to houses with holes carved out in the doors.

But whatever they look like, all are taxed by the dominant drug cartel, reinforcing the links between street level dealing and the sprawling crime empires in Mexico.

“You have to pay up according to how much you sell,” said Guillen, the reformed addict. “If you run your business right you should have no problem paying your turf and still making money. But there are always some people who mess up and can’t pay. And that is what a lot of the killings are about.”

Guillen was born in Mexico but spent his teenage years in Los Angeles, where he first used and sold drugs.

After being jailed and deported he continued to smoke meth in his homeland. This movement of returning migrants has been a key factor of the rise of drug use here.

But addiction has also increased as smugglers pay their lieutenants in narcotics as well as cash.

“The drugs sell for a lot less in Mexico, but then there is much less risk and you don’t need to have all the contacts in the United States,” Guillen said.

Recognizing the magnitude of the problem, Mexico’s Congress on April 30 approved a special law of narcomenudeo — the Mexican term for street drug dealing.

The law, which still has to be signed by President Felipe Calderon, would empower local police to go after the drug shops — an action currently reserved for federal forces.

It also defines the quantity of seized drugs after which someone will be considered a dealer — 0.5 grams of cocaine (enough for a few lines) or 5 grams of marijuana (enough for several “joints”).

Anyone found with less than this amount would be considered an addict, who would be sent to a compulsory rehab program for the first offense and could be fined or imprisoned after several offenses.

This lax treatment of first-offense addicts has led critics to claim the bill is tantamount to legalization, an allegation vehemently denied by the lawmakers who approved it.

Whether the bill is signed into law or not, the number of new addicts shows little signs of abating.

In Tijuana, there has been a particular rise in the use of crystal meth, the same drug that has torn through American suburbs in recent years.

Guillen says that many cartel killers also use this drug, contributing to the gruesomeness of the drug-related violence, which includes beheadings and mutilations.

“Meth exaggerates the worst of people’s characters. It makes them more violent and more ruthless,” Guillen said, recalling his years of addiction. “When you give it to hired killers, you can get some really evil people.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on Mexico:

Interview: A drug lord's lawyer

Mexican cartels go global

Mexico's liberal capital