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Prevention Intervention

Why's Mexico Taking Drug-Fighting Advice From Us?


Daniel Herrera runs the Michoacan Mental Health Center, a treatment facility on the outskirts of this central Mexican city that offers outpatient services for drug addicts. The addicts have become ever more frequent visitors.

"We have an expression, which of course is a bit of an exaggeration: you can find someone selling alcohol on every block and someone selling drugs every half block," says Herrera.

Herrera has been a witness to Mexico's rapid transformation from producer and transit point for drugs into a drug-consuming nation. Greater availability of drugs on streets and a growing middle class with more disposable income has encouraged that transformation. Across the border, the United States is close to finalizing a major, multi-year aid deal to fight Mexican drug cartels whose feuds have left more than 3,000 dead in the last year. One element of that aid package is likely to be funding for drug-use prevention, according to Luis Astorga, a drug policy expert at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. This is a strange new twist in the complex partnership between the U.S. and Mexico to fight drugs. And the U.S. isn't in much of a position to tell anyone how to prevent drug use.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other illicit drugs are cheaper, purer and easier to get in the United States than ever before. A 2006 survey by the University of Michigan found that more than 48 percent of high school seniors have reportedly tried illicit drugs.

When the U.S. cracked down on domestic meth production early this decade, Mexican cartels adept in trafficking cocaine and marijuana jumped at the chance to supply a new product. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, seizures of meth originating in Mexico increased over 1000 percent between 2004 and 2005 in Kansas, a state with among the highest meth consumption rates in the United States.

Drug use in Mexico is still far below that of the United States and European countries like Spain. But in a 2005 survey of 25,000 patients, Mexico's Youth Integration Centers, or CIJ, found that nearly 90 percent had used methamphetamine and marijuana. That study showed that meth had become more popular than cocaine among the group surveyed, according to Ricardo Sánchez Huesca, director of research and teaching at CIJ. Mexican health and law-enforcement experts say meth first appeared in Mexico in 1995 in Tijuana, which is close to San Diego, a key meth production and distribution center. The drug has traveled south, and is now available in every major city.

"Mexico's market is not big, but it has grown, mostly in urban zones," said Jorge Chabat, a crime and security expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "Availability has certainly contributed to consumption now that meth is produced in Mexico."

While President Felipe Calderón initially focused on the United States as the source of the demand for the drugs that are cultivated in and pass through Mexico, pressure has mounted to address domestic demand and consumption. In July, he called for the drug testing of students in more than 8,000 schools, and recently he announced, "Society is demanding a coordinated response from the authorities to confront this social cancer."

The shift in rhetoric towards acknowledging Mexico's drug-consumption problem has caught the country's public health system by surprise--currently, drug prevention and treatment services are very weak. According to the National Council Against Addictions, only one peso is spent on prevention of drug use in Mexico for every 16 pesos spent on fighting drug traffickers, or 6.25 percent. Meanwhile, the United States spent 14.6 percent of the fiscal year 2006 budget on prevention, according to the National Drug Control Strategy.

The change has profound implications for U.S.-Mexico relations. Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, routinely blamed the United States for all of Mexico's difficulties with the cartels. Calderón has been more willing to admit that his country's own consumption are now part of the problem.

According to Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Calderón's admission of fault is borne out of self-interest.

"There is no sense that Calderón wants to please the United States," said Selee. "He sees the drug problem as a national issue and is willing to collaborate with the United States as long as there are benefits for Mexico."

Mexico stands to reap many kinds of new assistance from the U.S. aid package, including technology, training and equipment. Included in the new technology is a wiretapping surveillance system, funded by the U.S. State Department, to help Mexican officials track drug traffickers' e-mails and cell-phone calls.

But this increased involvement also suggests that the United States is taking on a far more paternalistic role in its relationship with Mexico, towards the ends of controlling the drug trade. Though the Mexican government has always been wary of the United States overstepping its sovereignty, the heightened fears about violence and drug consumption have lowered its reservations about U.S. involvement.

In the meantime, Mexico is waiting to find out how many millions of dollars will be available through the new aid package. The deal is expected to be announced August 20 when President Bush will meet with Calderón and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Quebec. According to Astorga, Mexico should look to other countries on how to attack its drug consumption problem. "The United States is not the best example of how to prevent drug use, but Latin America has to follow Washington on everything if it wants aid," says Astorga.

By Eliza Barclay