by David Werner

In Mexico today, widespread use of addictive drugs has become a major social and health problem, especially among youth. In this newsletter we discuss how extensive trafficking and consumption of drugs have created new challenges for the community health and disability programs we are involved with, and we describe a groundbreaking initiative run by and for disabled persons who got hooked on drugs and are now trying to stay off them by devoting their lives to assist others in need.

Mexico’s Drug Crisis

Back in the mid-1960s, when I began community health work in the Sierra Madre, cannabis, and opium poppy were already grown by some villagers, largely as cash crops to supply the demand by pot and heroin users in the United States. But local consumption was minimal. Not until Mexico became a major pipeline for cocaine from South America to the US did drug use in Mexico begin to escalate drastically. Traffickers from South America intentionally hooked youth of the Sierra Madre on cocaine, so they would swap their home-grown goma (raw opium gum) for coca (cocaine). By so doing, the traffickers could greatly multiply their earnings. The amount of raw opium they paid the equivalent of US$300 for in the Sierra Madre would sell as adulterated heroin in Los Angeles for as much as a million dollars!

Once cocaine use began to spread in Mexico, it led to growing use of other substances—everything from glue-sniffing by street kids to opioid painkillers and “Roche-2” by urban youth. The last decade has seen an explosion in use of crystal methamphetamine—known as cristal—which is not only highly addictive but pernicious to both body and mind.

Aggravating the drug scene in Mexico is the aggressive WAR ON DRUGS spearheaded by the US government, which has fueled both the powerful drug cartels in Mexico and the pervasive corruption at every level of government of both countries (but more conspicuously so in Mexico). In recent decades the Mexican cartels have become so powerful and well-armed that they often hold the upper hand over the police and sometimes even the military. The cartels’ massive armaments—including machine guns, AK47s, hand-grenades, and other military assault weapons—flood across the border from the United States. In the US they are easily purchased because of the lack of effective regulations, thanks to the overpowering “right to arms” lobby of the American Rifle Association.

All in all—considering 1) the massive US demand for illicit drugs, 2) the easy procurement of weapons from the US, and 3) the counterproductive War on Drugs—the United States is in large part responsible for the escalating drug crisis in Mexico. The manifold damage is far-reaching. Linked to the spiral of trafficking and addiction, in the last decade there have been over 100,000 drug-war-related homicides—and at least 27,000 disappearances—most with impunity and frequently with suspected police or government complicity. With the staggering levels of unresolved crime, corruption, and human-rights violations, Mexico is close to becoming a failed state. On top of all that, the gulf between the wealthy and the destitute continues to widen—as it does in the US and in most of the world. Meanwhile, Obama and Trump’s massive deportation back to Mexico of millions of undocumented workers, not only increases joblessness and hardship south of the border, it drives millions of the desperate unemployed into crime and drugs.

Impact of the Drug-Scene on the Community-Based Programs

In previous newsletters we have written about how the increase in the growing, trafficking, and use of illicit drugs has changed village life in the Sierra Madre—and how, in turn, this has affected the villager-run health and disability programs. Mountain communities that traditionally had a strong sense of unity and mutual self-help have become increasingly divided, stratified, and distrustful. More and more youth got hooked on drugs, and many began to steal to sustain their habit. Drug gangs proliferated and in time turned to bribery, extortion, kidnapping, death-threats, torture, and murder to establish their turf and power. Meanwhile PROJIMO (the village Program of Rehabilitation Organized by Disabled Youth of Western Mexico)—which had originally been an easygoing, friendly collective set up to help meet the needs of disabled children—increasingly became filled with troubled young drug-runners and -users who had become disabled from bullet wounds.

With all the drug growing and trafficking eventually the situation in the whole Sierra Madre became intolerably oppressive.

As PROJIMO became widely known as one of the few places in Mexico where spinal-cord injured people could survive and be functionally rehabilitated, paraplegic and quadriplegic persons from all over the country found their way to the small village center. Of these, 80% had been disabled from bullet wounds—mostly drug-related. Because so many came out of a subculture of drugs and violence, the program had to add psychosocial rehabilitation to its services. But even so, incidents of drugging and violence occurred within the program, and its former tranquil, trustful atmosphere was compromised. Understandably, fewer families brought their children to the program.

With all the drug growing and trafficking—coupled with robbery, kidnapping, extortion, and killing—eventually the situation in the whole Sierra Madre became intolerably oppressive. Little by little the local villagers—many of whom had lived in the mountains for generations—moved out to coastal towns and cities which, in those days, were somewhat safer. Now they no longer are. The PROJIMO team valiantly hung on in the village of Ajoya as long as it could. But eventually it split into two separate programs, one of which moved out to the coastal area three years before the other. The first—which covers a wide range of community-based rehabilitation needs—moved to the small town of Coyotitán near the old international highway. The second—which focuses on making individually-adapted wheelchairs for children—moved to the small village of Duranguito, even nearer the coast. The two programs currently function independently.

Use of Addictive Drugs by Program Workers

Despite efforts by the PROJIMO programs to move far from the area with the most pernicious drug scene, it was not long before the coastal villages they’d moved to became overwhelmed by competing drug gangs—and by the proliferation of addictive drug use. By then crystal methamphetamine, concocted in makeshift clandestine laboratories, was the most popular hard drug. Sold by “vigilantes” of the local drug gangs, it was available at a modest price on almost every street corner.

The village of Duranguito, where the PROJIMO wheelchair-making team had been formally invited to rebuild their workshop, was, at the time the program moved there, a tranquil little pueblo. There was a fair bit of alcohol consumption but little use of hard drugs. Two years after the wheelchair program moved in, however, the village became the outpost of a branch of the Sinaloa Cartel—and drug use escalated. More and more local youth began to experiment with hard drugs—mostly *cristal—*and sometimes they came by the wheelchair shop to get their motorcycles welded, or just to hang out. In time, friendships and camaraderie developed. It was no great surprise that a few of the disabled team-members in the PROJIMO workshop began to experiment with popular drugs … and little by little get hooked.

As it happened, some of the disabled team-members who got into drugs were among the most caring and innovative workers. They’d shown concern that the wheelchairs they built optimally met each child’s needs. But sadly, under the influence of cristal—on which they became increasingly dependent—the quality of work deteriorated drastically. Also they grew moody and defensive. They began to steal to satisfy their cravings—and to make and carry weapons. Meetings were held and remedial efforts made … but in vain. Eventually those who were most deeply hooked were asked to leave the program. For some, this proved disastrous. And their departure was a great loss to the program and to the children they could be helping.

We (PROJIMO, HealthWrights, and friends) have helped some of these addicted team-members to participate in AA-type drug rehab programs. Mostly run by former addicts, such programs abound in urban Mexico. While interned in the centers, the addicted people become drug-free and committed to stay clean. But too often their good intentions are short-lived. Even after months of rehab, after they get out they tend to relapse. After all, they return to the same drug-saturated environment.

The larger community sees them as losers. Branded as disabled as well as druggies, they have a double cross to bear. They are treated with a mixture of pity and contempt, and are subject to discrimination. They have great difficulty finding a job. Depressed and deflated, they seek out the company of others who are down-and-out, and despite their best intentions, slip back into drug use.