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Drug use spreads through Mexico's streets

Mexicans increasingly turn to drugs, including crystal meth.

One of the border fences that separates San Diego in the U.S. (left) and Tijuana, Mexico (right), in Dec. 9, 2005. (Fred Greaves/Reuters)

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.