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Border Towns' Best Ally In Drug Fight: Families

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 1998


In a garage-like, cement-floored community center offering nothing more than two bare light bulbs against the falling night, the mayor of this dusty Pacific resort town has come to enlist the help of families in the city's latest battle.

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"We are here because the problem we have is too big for us to address alone," says Hugo Torres Chabert, the mayor of Playas de Rosarito. Flanked by representatives of local law enforcement, health, and other social service agencies, Mr. Torres tells the shivering but attentive audience of mostly Indian-featured faces, "We're calling our program Somos Familia [We're Family] because we have to all be in this together."

The problem the mayor refers to is drug abuse and the crimes that accompany it. Torres and his police chief, a psychologist, a drug-prevention specialist, a sports director, and others have come to Morelos, a poor community of dirt streets three miles out of town, because growing drug abuse in Mexico is wreaking havoc even on isolated settlements like this.

What's remarkable about the Morelos public meeting is what it says about changing approaches in Mexico toward both drug use and government-citizen relations. After years of denying that drug abuse was an important problem, Mexican officials now openly acknowledge that a growing part of the drugs shipped through or produced in Mexico stay here, leading to rising drug abuse.

At the same time, Mexico's deepening democratization is fostering a new focus on community involvement. In the case of drugs, this means new emphasis on reaching youths, prevention, and police-neighborhood cooperation, where before there was only distant and mistrusted law enforcement.

"We've come to the conclusion that to really address [drug abuse] and make prevention work, you have to make it a project of the community, where they feel it is theirs," says Walter Beller Taboada, director of crime prevention and community services with the federal attorney general's office in Mexico City. Before Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar took office in December 1996, he says, "this kind of thinking didn't exist."

In the eyes of many observers familiar with drug use in Mexico, it's coming a little late. Government surveys, while somewhat sketchy, show that drug use has soared over recent years - especially among young Mexicans and along the northern border. These surveys reveal that drug abuse is setting in at younger ages, affecting more women, and involving ever-harder drugs.

A 1993 survey by the National Health Secretariat showed that about 4 percent of the population was using drugs, with the numbers higher in Tijuana (almost 7 percent) and in western, drug-producing states.

The most popular drug by far was marijuana. More recent studies by both government and nongovernmental organizations indicate much more widespread drug use, with exposure to cocaine, methamphetamines, and other "hard" drugs doubling and tripling from previously marginal levels.

Mexican officials say drug use took off sometime after 1993, at about the same time the Gulf cartel of Juan Garca Abrego (now in prison in the US) began taking its payments from Colombian cartels in drugs as well as money.

"The object [of the Mexican cartels] became not simply to pass on all the drugs [to the US], but to generate a market here," Mr. Beller says.