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They sell newspapers on street corners. They wander around swap meets selling candy. They offer pamphlets in restaurants, taco stands, supermarkets, parking lots, malls, and homes. They carry around little wooden penny banks and ask for donations. Their skin is usually sunburned from walking the city streets under the sun. They wear a credential around their necks that identifies them as patients of a rehab center. They tell their stories at a fast speed, their voices raspy from repeating the same speech to anyone polite enough to listen. Right before they ask for a donation, they mention the benefits of drug rehabilitation. Most of them are young men, but it is possible to spot women as well. They usually sell chocolate, lollypops, canned sodas, water, and even incense. They’re all over Tijuana, but after awhile they become transparent, invisible. Drivers don’t even look at them; diners don’t even say “No, thanks”; people get used to the sadness of their stories, which end up sounding suspicious most of the time. Ultimately, these men and women become uncomfortable fixtures of the city rapidly going about its business.

Marco Antonio Morales, director of CRREAD

Addiction has many stages. The complexity of the drug problem in Tijuana increases year after year. I’ve been working with addicts and women in jails since 2008, and I have heard many stories — most of them end with someone being locked up, a heart broken, a missing family member, or someone feeling guilty for a loved one’s death. At first, most addicts stay at home. Some of them work and manage to pair their addiction with a regular life, but gradually their lifestyle starts to change. They often visit picaderos (crack houses) or they move out of their homes and into the crack houses. Sometimes they operate tienditas (literally, tiendita means “little shop,” but it also refers to houses where drugs are distributed in Tijuana). Some of them shoot drugs at the curve along Avenida Internacional, where the road turns to follow the border. A lot of them end up working as prostitutes in order to pay for their habit, but when they run out of options or start to lose their looks, they move to the Tijuana River canal or start living inside city storm drains. A lot of them die in traffic accidents. Heroin users lose limbs from infection, but even after that, one can still see them cleaning windshields for tips or showing their wounds and begging for money. It’s only when things get this bad that these addicts or their families search for help at a rehab facility.

It’s hard to know how many people are addicted to drugs in Tijuana. Authorities say there are 100,000 addicts, but social investigators say that there are at least 200,000. This means that between 10 and 20 percent of Tijuana’s population has some kind of addiction problem. These numbers make it one of the cities with the highest concentration of drug addicts in Mexico.

According to the Centro de Integración Juvenil (the only government rehab program that operates in Baja), the drugs of choice before 1994 were marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. But in 1994, crystal meth came into the picture and became the main reason why people searched for rehabilitation. Marco Antonio Morales, director of CRREAD, the first independently registered rehab center in Baja, says that meth is “the drug of the decade” because, since 2000, 75 percent of the recovering addicts that have come to CRREAD have been meth users; 15 percent are addicted to heroin; 10 percent use cocaine, alcohol, or marijuana.

A Tijuana heroin addict shoots up near the border fence.

There are 105 registered rehab centers in the state of Baja California, and there are at least 50 unregistered centers. Some facilities are private with nice rooms, a pool, a sauna, and offer yoga and English horseback-riding classes. As one might expect, these centers are expensive and few people can afford them. The Centro de Integración Juvenil has three facilities in Baja, two of which are in Tijuana. Each of these government facilities has only 29 beds and helps less than 400 addicts per year; however, with the streets awash in illegal drugs, the need for drug rehabilitation has become more critical, and government programs are not enough. Nonprofit rehab centers offer 5000 beds to addicts of all economic and social backgrounds. There are also rehabilitation programs in jails, where 5000 prisoners have access to rehab programs. The bad news is that it’s hard to stay clean in the jails.

CRREAD rehab center, the first independently registered center in Tijuana

The majority of Baja’s rehab centers are independent facilities that operate as “mutual help centers,” which means they are owned, operated, and supported by recovering addicts and their families, and their survival depends almost entirely on donations. Their funds are limited, so they are not able to grow quickly. The premises can start with an abandoned house or an empty lot that volunteers turn into a more livable place. Some build rooms, some paint, some do the plumbing; others work the kitchen and gather donations (cinder blocks, bricks, concrete). Occupational therapy is part of their program. There’s always some uncertainty about which materials they will be able to get, which is why some of the centers end up looking like architectural collages with all sorts of colors, textures, tiles, and details on walls. The same uncertainty applies to their menus, since a lot of their food comes from donations. At one of the rehabs that I visited, I could see boxes of old vegetables against the wall. I didn’t have the courage to ask if they were garbage or if they would be cooked and eaten.

Stuck in Limbo

Rehab centers in Mexico are in a sort of legal limbo. While not jails, they do keep people in confinement. They are not mental hospitals, but they do administer prescription drugs and offer different kinds of therapy. They are definitely not home, but they do often have rules like homes do. And temporary residents at the centers can end up feeling as though they are in a big dysfunctional family.

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