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Time was when a tourist driving through Tijuana might have thought this a metropolis of auto-upholstery shops. To a visitor on foot, the ubiquity of curio stores suggested the city was about purses and blankets.

Now, a tourist takes home a new impression: drugstores. They’re everywhere.

The Tijuana phone directory lists over 700 drugstores, but the Asociación de Boticas y Farmacias de Tijuana (Tijuana Association of Pharmacies) says there are about 1000. (Drugstores in the colonias may not have phones or be listed in the book.) If Tijuana’s estimated population of 1.3 million is correct, there is 1 pharmacy for every 1300 residents. By contrast, the city of San Diego has around 125 drugstores, and the county has an equal number. That’s 1 per 10,800 residents.

Mexicans go to the drugstore more than Americans since Mexicans traditionally consult pharmacists instead of doctors about minor health problems. But the fuel propelling the pharmacy trade in T.J. is the American rush to the border to buy their drugs of choice.

It’s price that drives Americans southward. In the United States, according to the pharmaceutical industry, the costs of research, development, and testing add to the price of drugs. Soaring prices have become national political fodder, and because of media reports, it is no longer a secret that prescription medicines are cheaper in Canada and Mexico. A bill pending before Congress — fiercely opposed by the pharmaceutical industry — would legalize the importation of medicines. At the moment, bringing drugs across the border from Mexico for distribution is illegal by federal law.

A few dozen paces past the pedestrian gates into Tijuana, across from the large cab stand, is Plaza Viva Tijuana, a shopping mall for gringos. Compressed into the main courtyard is a kind of quintessential downtown Tijuana tourist district, conveniently relocated to the border. Pushcarts and sidewalk vendors sit just outside the plaza, and inside are curio shops, bars, restaurants, even a massage parlor. And, at last count, 33 drugstores.

Although downtown on Avenida Revolución, hustlers in doorways of shops and bars have shown restraint in recent years, that famous old “take a look” aggressiveness is alive and well at Viva Tijuana. In the open area of the mall, where a mechanical bull hooks tourist bucks, clusters of white-shirted young men hawk their employers’ wares. “Need a Cuban cigar?” “Cold beer?” “Nice blanket?” “Painkiller?” “Viagra?” This shifting line has prompted one nearby shop owner to post a sign warning hustlers to keep a distance from his business.

On any weather-friendly weekend Americans by the hundreds, or thousands, stroll the square, lunch at outdoor cafés, and mosey from one drugstore, or farmacia, to another like bees poking around a flower bed. After alighting to make a purchase they emerge toting small telltale black or gray plastic bags.

One day last spring I watched as a young male trio, planted in a pharmacy for almost half an hour, engage in strenuous negotiations with the clerk. They don’t want to tell me where they’re from, but they appear no strangers to pumping iron. “I come over once a month,” says one well-developed guy, early 20s. “Mostly just to party, but while I’m here I’ll buy some antibiotics.”

Antibiotics? OK. Several pharmacy clerks tell me that bodybuilders come to Tijuana to buy muscle-padding steroids, but they come in fewer numbers now than in years past.

Probably more typical is an American resident of Rosarito who says she stopped at Viva Tijuana while crossing on foot to the United States. “I bought something called Feldene. It’s pretty new, I think. I checked it out first. You rub it all over your fingers and hands, for arthritis. It works fine for me.”

The pharmacies in this plaza pitch directly to Americans, with names in English such as Pharmacy Dixie, Drug’s [sic] 4 Less, Stop Drug Store (featuring a large red stop sign). There are “D apostrophe” stores like D’Garcia and D’Susy, which I’m told are all owned by the same family. D’Susy favors shotgun marketing: window signs offer “Herbal Medicines” and “Original Cuban Cigars.”

Toward the back of the square, next to a shop selling purses and ponchos, is the Payless Drug Store (capitalizing, of course, on the name of the now-defunct American chain). The store was built in the mid-’90s; its current owner, Armando Estrella, purchased it last year, sinking in his life savings of $180,000. (In Tijuana’s colonias, a similar drugstore may sell for a quarter of that price.) His clientele is 99 percent American; 60 percent are regulars. “The average customer,” he says, “spends $200 or $300.” The biggest sale? “Someone bought $2300 worth, mostly diet pills and drugs for hypertension.”

While we talk, an early-30s blond man enters, sporting a generous spare tire. He quickly makes his purchase and leaves. Miguel, the manager, who waited on him, says he purchased Xenical, a “fat blocker.”

“Some places in the plaza,” Miguel states, “don’t explain what the medications are or how to take them. Some don’t even speak good English. And we don’t put pressure on anyone. Some places here say to customers, ‘If you want it, OK. If not, go.’ ” Despite the crush of pharmacies already in the plaza he thinks more will open, with no lessening of profits for his shop.

Serving customers in the Mexican pharmacies is strictly on-the-job training. “My ex-boss made us keep little notebooks,” Miguel says. “We had to investigate on our own, using the PDR [the Physicians’ Desk Reference, the standard pharmaceutical guidebook, published in both English and Spanish editions], what each drug is, for what purpose, what kind of help it gives, what bad reactions to it can happen. That’s the way we learned, by ourselves.” He admits he doesn’t possess the qualifications of a university-trained American pharmacist, but says because he doesn’t have to separate pills out into “little bottles” as American pharmacists do, he doesn’t have to be well trained. “Here, everything is in boxes already counted out.”

Fifty percent of his American customers, Miguel estimates, come from San Diego, and 30 percent from Los Angeles and Orange Counties. “It’s worth it to a lot of people to drive down to save $300 on their medications.” Ordinary tourists from other parts of the United States also buy pharmaceuticals in T.J. “It may be something they don’t need right now but know from experience they may need later, like antibiotics.”

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