View from the barrio in Peru's drug war

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Along the narrow and rain-slick alleyways of the Corral'on slum, a clandestine battle is being waged for family values. On the front line stands Carmela Moreno, an aproned mother of four whose handshake is wet with dishwater.

It is enough trouble for her to keep her family fed, in good health, and educated. Drug abuse - which is knocking at her front door these days - is a new problem she doesn't need. And she has enlisted to fight it through prevention.

Coca paste, she says, has transformed the neighborhood in just a few short years. ``Before, there was no drug addiction, and now at almost every door they're smoking ... they go all night breaking in the doors of homes. I think they may never leave,...'' says Mrs. Moreno, who has enlisted as one of 33 parent and youth antidrug activists in this neighborhood.

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Amid this community's squalor, taking the time to prevent drug abuse seems a luxury. Community activism is not a tradition among those consumed with scratching out a living. Moreno isn't a loud crusader; she's an earnest citizen trying to protect her children.

The prevention program is modest and has been slow to catch on in this barrio, say participants, whose main activity is to promote a quiet resistance in the community through education about the drug problem.

``It's a semi-clandestine activity,'' explains Antonio Lara, who coordinates the Face-to-Face prevention program for the Center of Information and Education for the prevention of Drug Abuse (CEDRO).

``We try to integrate it as part of health promotion. There's too much danger in trying to go openly'' against such a socially ambiguous problem, he says.

Many in the slums use the drug and don't consider it wrong, and many others sell the drug because they desperately need an income to improve their conditions.

Though drug abuse has developed deep roots here, prevention is still viewed as the highest priority among drug abuse experts, says Roberto Lerner, assistant director of CEDRO.

Rehabilitation is too expensive for an already taxed, and nearly nonexistent, public health system, which views drug abuse as more of a mental health problem. Further, the rapid spread of coca paste abuse makes prevention all the more urgent, Mr. Lerner says.

In the past two years in the Corral'on barrio, coca paste use has surpassed alcoholism. Alcoholism is also the No. 1 abuse problem in Peru, he says.

Today, says Lerner, middle-class schools that two years ago had no interest in drug abuse are requesting CEDRO's help in introducing prevention programs.

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