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Use of Illicit Drugs Soars in Latin America

By Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, Wednesday 15 September 1999; Page A18

BUENOS AIRES Raul, a 30-year-old father of two, tried to make it through the exit. Two months ago, he checked out of a public hospital for severe drug addicts that takes in 100 new patients a month. But two weeks later, he checked back in after injecting cocaine into his spindly arms again. And so he has returned to fidgeting in his room, his cheeks sunken and his eyes red.

"I don't want to make excuses," said Raul, a dry cleaner who asked that only his first name be used. He shares a room with two other addicts at Argentina's National Center for Societal Re-Education, a treatment center whose patient population has grown 15 percent during the 1990s. "But when you get out of here, back in your neighborhood, the [cocaine] is everywhere, man. And it's cheap."

Drawn faces walking the center's hallways are among many illustrations of an increase in illicit drug use in Latin America that has become increasingly apparent during the 1990s as traffickers create markets at home for inexpensive and abundant drugs.

Although the region has long cultivated and exported illicit drugs, local consumption is rising. Now, in big cities such as Buenos Aires, where about 4 percent of the population acknowledges having used drugs, the percentage of users has begun to rival that in the United States.

For Latin America, which historically has considered illicit drug use a problem for far-off places such as New York, Washington and Los Angeles, the hike in domestic consumption is bringing the issue home as never before. Nations here are facing not only increased drug-related violence, but also higher transmission rates for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, among intravenous drug users, as well as the disintegration of families forced to cope with addiction.

"I think we're all waking up to the reality that drug use is no longer just something that's happening in the United States," said Eduardo Amadeo, president of the Argentine Planning Secretariat for Counternarcotics and Drug Prevention. "Drugs are now being sold on the corner near the schools my children attend, near our [social] clubs and [soccer] fields. It's a problem right here, and one that we are now going to have to deal with."

Although no one likes to see consumption grow, it could end up helping the United States in the drug war. U.S. officials, whose approach to the drug problem is often criticized in Latin America because of the view here that the problem is not one of trafficking but of U.S. demand, have been quick to seize on the fact that illicit drug use is "no longer just a gringo problem." Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, made that clear on his visit to Latin America last week, saying local drug use is strengthening the political will to combat trafficking.

Consumption of illicit drugs in Latin America still does not approach levels in the United States, which remains the world's biggest consumer by far. In addition, some of the deadliest drugs, such as heroin, are virtually absent from most Latin American cities. But the percentage of drug users here is growing fast.

Governments are scrambling to launch new prevention and law enforcement programs as drug use takes a toll on public health and public coffers. One report from Brazil estimates the cost of medical care for drug addiction soared from $902 million 1993 to $2.9 billion in 1997. At the same time, the percentage of AIDS cases from intravenous drug use moved from 2.5 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 1998.

In Buenos Aires, a city of 12 million, the first official government poll on drug use showed consumption at 4.1 percent of the population, similar to levels in Washington, Chicago and New York, according to McCaffrey's office. Nationwide, the number was 3 percent. Although that is half the U.S. rate, local authorities compared it with estimates of only 1 percent here early in the decade.

In Mexico City, the number of people who said they have tried drugs at least once increased to 7.3 percent, up from 4 percent in 1993.

In Chile, an official 1998 national survey showed 5.3 percent of the population between the ages of 12 and 62 had used marijuana, cocaine base or refined cocaine during the past year, up from 4.3 percent in 1996, with rates higher than the national average in the capital, Santiago.

In Peru - mainly in Lima and other major urban centers - the number of people between 12 and 50 saying they had used cocaine at least once rose to 3.2 percent in 1998, compared with 1.3 percent in 1988. Those saying they had used marijuana jumped to 8 percent from 5.3 percent during the same period, according to the Lima-based Center for Information on Prevention and Drug Abuse.

In Colombia, the most recent official national survey showed an increase from 5.9 percent to 6.6 percent in the number of people who had used an illicit drug in the past year. The most recent survey was done in 1996; the previous one, in 1992.

Latin Americans take drugs for many of the same reasons North Americans and Europeans do. But traffickers are also making illicit drugs more affordable domestically, pushing the excess product they can't sell abroad.

In Peru, for instance, efforts to prevent the transport of Peruvian coca - the plant used to make cocaine - to large Colombian refineries has fostered primitive local refining and domestic marketing of often dangerously impure forms of cocaine, counternarcotics authorities say. On the streets of Lima, bazuco, a derivative of coca paste smoked like crack cocaine, can be bought for 10 cents a hit – the lowest price in three years, officials say.

"Suddenly, you had all this product in everybody's backyard and nobody to buy it," said a Western diplomat in Lima. "It was sort of like having grass clippings, but these clippings had a high worth. So they just turned around and found another market – here."

Larger supplies have driven prices down in the relatively affluent southern part of South America, too. In Buenos Aires, cocaine powder sells for $5 to $20 a gram, about half its price in the 1980s and a major bargain compared with $80 to $150 on the streets of Washington, drug enforcement authorities say.

Governments are trying to cope with the rise through new law enforcement initiatives and national and local prevention programs. In Argentina, drug use has generated a boom in the number of private rehabilitation centers catering to middle and upper class users. Statistics show that the largest pool of heavy drug users here is the relatively large middle class, with the very wealthy only a shade lower on the totem poll than the poor.

"We in Argentina are becoming more like Europe and the United States, but not in the way we once wanted," said Leonardo Perelis, director of Program Renewal, one of dozens of nonprofit private rehabilitation clinics that have sprung up here.

In a room in the chic Buenos Aires neighborhood of Barrio Norte, seven drug addicts at Perelis's rehab center have gathered to talk about temptation. Anibal, a 37-year-old manager for the Buenos Aires subway system, gave up cocaine in February, but keeping off it has been hard. In part, he blames the new drug culture, which he says has exploded since Argentina, like other Latin American nations, opened its economy in the early 1990s.

"It's like nobody really thinks it's something bad anymore," said Anibal, father of two, whose wife left him last year because of his addiction. "When I used to smoke marijuana at school, it was a scandal among the other kids. You know, everyone was very traditional, very Catholic. But more recently, when I did coke at parties - even openly at work - nobody ever said a thing. Unless they asked for a line."