October 17, 2010

Mexican Addicts Living In Fear

Ciudad Juarez, the notorious Mexican border city at the heart of a wave of brutal drug violence, is home to thousands of drug addicts, and the number continues to climb.

Abandoned by authorities, these drug addicts live in fear of gangs who threaten and often kill them for no reason. There has even been brutal killings at drug treatment centers.

A drug user who called herself Carla, said these drug gangs will now even "enter houses and kill us. We keep this window open so we can at least try to escape over the roof."

Groups of drug addicts huddle in hundreds of abandoned houses and buildings throughout the city across from El Paso, Texas, from which thousands of wealthier residents have fled in recent years.

The local government counts more than 5,000 heroin addicts alone in Ciudad Juarez.

Many shoot up right in the open, like Ricardo, who sits on the back of a pickup truck next to the factory where he works as a security guard.

Users continually visit the truck during the day, sometimes aided by another addict to inject themselves.

"You have to be discreet and avoid the drug trafficking circuit. I don't sell, you need to ask the gangs permission for that. Even without selling it's become very dangerous," Ricardo said.

Like authorities, Ricardo blames the killings of some 6,500 addicts in the past three years on a move by the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel to take over gangs dominated by the Juarez cartel.

Health activists visit drug addicts in the city daily to change or clean their needles. The addicts will often tell them of others who have been killed for unclear reasons.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who launched a military crackdown on drug gangs in 2006, also puts blame of growing violence on the thirst of the gangs to supply a growing local drug market.

Activists and health workers say the government has failed to bring the same commitment to tackling drug use as it has to fighting drug gangs across the country.

"They promised help and resources but we're still waiting for them," said Jose Antonio Rivera, director of the public, autonomous, Center for Youth Integration.

A first public detoxification clinic has just opened, with 30 beds, while most addicts who seek treatment attend private clinics, some with public funding. But these centers have also been attacked by drug gangs, which have left at least 47 dead in three such attacks in the past year.

"Sometimes I realize that my mother watches me when I wash cars in the street," said Carla. "With the situation as it is, it's enough for her to know I'm still alive."