Bolivians awaken to tragedy of child drug addiction. Juan Carlos, age 11, boasts about how he steals to buy `petillo'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Juan Carlos Gutierrez Aguilar, alias ``el Chino,'' is 11 years old and a drug addict. He freely boasts about how he steals to buy petillo, raw cocaine paste mixed with tobacco and smoked in tinfoil pipes that produces an almost instant high. Juan Carlos, interviewed with other child drug addicts soon after police brought him into a rehabilitation-detention center, brags about smoking the drug, but says it does not make him feel good.

``It makes me feel afraid,'' he says, shaking his hands to imitate trembling and the obsessive paranoia the drug brings. ``I feel afraid soldiers will come and take me away unless I can escape.''

But when his supply runs out or he needs to satisfy the intense hunger that is part of the aftermath of the high, he goes out and steals to buy more.

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There are no formal studies of how many children are among the estimated 100,000 drug abusers in Bolivia, producer of roughly half the world's raw material for cocaine. Those who are working to help the children say there are now at least 800 young abusers, including some who are only six years old. Rising drug abuse among children is part of escalating social problems resulting from the cocaine industry and Bolivia's inflation- and recession-wracked economy.

``It's terrible, terrible,'' says Ximena Rava, a psychology student who has worked with child drug addicts for the past six months at the San Mart'in de Porres Center, the only rehabilitation center for such children in Cochabamba. ``It represents the worst that is happening with the economic crisis in my country. They are children who have no idea of how to take care of themselves. They have no type of values, or aspirations.''

Some of the children live at home, but many roam downtown streets in small gangs, smoking the drug and huddling together to sleep at night in local parks.

Phoebe Milne, an Australian nun in charge of the Cochabamba rehabilitation center, says that most of the children using drugs are abandoned or come from broken homes. Many are abused by adults or become involved in prostitution to support their drug habits, she adds. Some police officers sell drugs to children or extort money from them in exchange for not taking them to jail.

Police detective Demetrio Orellana says the problem of child drug abusers is an outgrowth of the hundreds of poor Bolivians who flock to Cochabamba to make a living off the coca trade that flourishes here.

``These children are not interested in anything,'' Mr. Orellana says. ``All they do is get drugged and eat and rob to be able to do it again. It's the only thing they know. It's the parents' fault.''

Bolivians are just beginning to realize that the coca industry -- a powerful force in the nation's economy -- creates serious domestic problems. They have not seen the need for facilities to treat such children, nor established prevention or education programs. The Cochabamba center is one of the few facilities in the country.

The building where it is located is a former orphanage donated to the Franciscan Order of Brothers in Cochabamba by the Bolivian government's regional agency for minors. It only has beds for some 35 children and there is little in the way of security. In the future, center administrators hope to relieve current crowded conditions and increase the center's capacity to 70 beds.

Children are brought to the center by the police or can admit themselves, but most are soon back on the street. Within hours after Juan Carlos was interviewed, he climbed over the stone wall surrounding the property and escaped.

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