Border Towns' Best Ally In Drug Fight: Families

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.

"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.

With both surveys and anecdotal evidence showing younger children attracted to drugs and drug trafficking, Mexican authorities have decided to focus their preventive work on younger children.

Do sports, not drugs

One idea is to team after-school sports activities with drug-prevention programs. "We realized we needed more than just brochures in the schools," Beller says. "We needed activities for our target group that would keep them busy while exposing them to the dangers of drugs and building self-esteem. If you're involved in sports," he adds, "there's less chance you're taking drugs or getting into trouble."

With a new direction but only marginally greater resources, drug-prevention officials are looking to piggyback onto existing sports programs and to use existing sports facilities where possible. In other cases, new outdoor basketball courts are being built - with neighborhood participation - and lights are being installed at existing sites so winter programs can continue until parents are home from work.

In Ciudad Jurez, federal drug-prevention officials are using an established afternoon activity program to reach kids. But in Tijuana and Rosarito, the program is starting practically from scratch.

"It's taking quite a bit of work to establish the trust so people will participate," says Sal Sols Ocegueda, the federal attorney general's prevention coordinator in Tijuana. Having switched from crime investigation to prevention last May, he says much of his time in marginal neighborhoods has been spent "convincing people we're not the enemy, we're part of the answer."

The public's reluctance is understandable. Tijuana has been the scene over recent years of a drug war that has blackened law enforcement's already poor image. Investigations into a number of high-profile killings revealed federal and state police officers fighting on the side of drug-trafficking organizations.

Learning to trust the police

But the public is coming around, Mr. Sols insists. A "summer without drugs" program centered on soccer earned drug-prevention workers some entree with target children, he says. On the boards are plans for three new sports fields in Rosarito, and renovating others in Tijuana to be used with the antidrug sports program.

Sols's office is also introducing the antidrug mascot "Dino," whose name means "say no." By dialing DINO-66, Tijuanans can anonymously report drug activity in their neighborhood.

His office only received 66 calls from January to June. But after the DINO line was set up and the community prevention programs began, "We finished the year with 1,185 calls," says Sols. "The volume is a measure of the trust we're establishing."

With about 80 people crowded into the Morelos community center - and a handful of cautious adolescents peering in through windows - the Rosarito meeting is another sign of public concern over the drug issue.

Juana Aguilar Valdivia, the neighborhood committee president, says Morelos has "a lot" of drug addiction and drug selling, but the evening meeting is the first sign anyone wanted to do anything about it.

"This is new, and you can see people are responding," she says. "Let's hope it's not a one-night thing."

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