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One addict says it’s 100 times better than heroin or cocaine. He’s talking about the methamphetamine that Mexican cartels provide to U.S. users in huge quantities but have tried to ban in Juárez. Dealers were even warned recently that anyone trafficking in meth locally would be killed in a “cleansing.” Even so, meth use has surged in Juárez, wreaking the same destruction on users there that it does in the U.S.
Fifth In A Series
CIUDAD JUÃREZ – For the longest time, meth was “forbidden” on the streets of this gritty metropolis.
When people say “forbidden,” they don’t mean by law, although methamphetamine is as illegal in Mexico as it is in the U.S. What they mean is forbidden by the cartels.
But there is so much meth now flooding this border region that the drug has begun leaking into the local market, hooking addicts from poor barrios to well-off neighborhoods and sparking friction between the Sinaloa Cartel – a major meth producer – and the Juárez Cartel, which preferred until recently to push heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
Both cartels use Ciudad Juárez as a gateway to the lucrative U.S. drug market, and the city has fallen victim to a trend as old as the existence of borders between nations.
“If you look back in history, anytime there is contraband transited through an area, eventually people along the route start using the product,” said Will Glaspy, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso field office, which covers New Mexico. “It also goes to show if there is methamphetamine on the street in CJ, it’s coming through here in pound quantities.”
Drug seizure statistics show it’s coming by the hundreds of pounds locally and tens of thousands of pounds borderwide.
Meth busts in New Mexico and West Texas by the DEA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have surged.
DEA’s El Paso field office saw methamphetamine seizures rise more than 500 percent in five years to 1,389 pounds in fiscal 2016 from 227 pounds in fiscal 2015. CBP reported a similar exponential increase in meth seizures at ports of entry over three years, to 1,358 pounds in fiscal 2016 from 271 pounds in fiscal 2014.
Borderwide, methamphetamine seizures by law enforcement at all levels have more than doubled in five years, to more than 38,000 pounds in fiscal 2015, the latest year for which data is available from the National Seizure System.
A highly addictive poison in liquid or crystal form, meth fueled a spike in violence in 2016 in Juárez like the city hadn’t seen since the end of a bloody drug war four years ago.
‘Better than coke’
A 26-year-old man wearing a puffy Denver Broncos jacket, sweat pants and fuzzy slippers shuffled to open the door to a design business that he runs with two young women in a tidy, middle-class neighborhood. He asks to be quoted as “Alfredo,” his middle name, to protect him from the secrets he is about to share.
Alfredo is a former hard-core meth addict, still an occasional user – one of the city’s early addicts to a drug that took hold locally only in the past few years. He began using in 2009 when the drug war was raging and the Sinaloa Cartel was fighting for control of drug routes into the U.S.
“Crystal meth back then wasn’t very well-known, when the narcotrafficking war was at its worst,” he said. “It was extremely dangerous to use because it wasn’t a drug that the cartels permitted here.
“Meth is forbidden again,” he says, using the word prohibido, prohibited or forbidden. “Prohibido means that the cartels in Juárez don’t permit it to be sold. Meth hooks people; it’s cheap; there is a lot of it.”
The Sinaloa Cartel is said to have control over drug routes through the southeast side of Juárez and the generally lawless area that is the Valle de Juárez south of the border, east of El Paso. That is where meth sales are the strongest locally, where addiction is at its worst, but it appears to be growing across the city.
The Juárez Cartel, and its enforcement arm, La Línea, are said to control the heart of the metropolitan area, from the middle-class neighborhoods around a private golf course and high-end shopping malls, through the city’s main thoroughfares to the border, to the slums of Anapra on the city’s western outskirts that lie south of the New Mexico border.
Mexican authorities attribute the rise in violence last year – murders topped 500 for the first time since 2012 in a city of 1.3 million – to the Juárez Cartel’s fight to keep meth out of its market. Murders at the height of the drug war surpassed 3,000 in a single year, 2010.
“The spike in homicides has to do with local drug trafficking,” said Jorge Nava López, the Chihuahua state government’s top prosecutor in Ciudad Juárez. “The people who normally sell marijuana and cocaine are against any synthetic drugs coming into the market, so that is why there is a fight among the people who control retail drug sales in Ciudad Juárez.”
Mexico’s major meth labs are in Mexico City and the states of Sinaloa and Sonora, Nava López said.
There is more evidence of how “forbidden” meth was in Juárez until recently, how tightly the Juárez Cartel and La Línea controlled the heart of the local market, and how lucrative drug sales are in this border town:
“Intelligence sources tell us that, given the difficulty of getting the product into Chihuahua, (the Sinaloa Cartel) was producing meth in Sonora, crossing it into the U.S., taking I-10 and crossing it back into Ciudad Juárez from El Paso because of the organized crime groups working in Ciudad Juárez,” Nava López said.
That’s more or less what Alfredo knows to be true, from his street-level view.
“That’s why there has been violence,” he said. “Because if crystal meth comes in, it will beat all the other drugs. It’s 100 times better than coke. It’s 100 times better than crack. It’s 100 times better than heroin. And it cuts your expenses.”
“With a 50-peso dose,” about $2, he said, “you are good for two or three days. So it’s not convenient for La Línea, which manages heroin sales here. If they lose a heroin client to meth, that client is lost to them.”
But what is also clear is that some criminal factions within or associated with the Juárez Cartel and La Línea had another idea: If you can’t beat them, join them. They began to sell meth in the heart of the city, intensifying the conflict.
A couple of months ago, a text message arrived to an unknown number of cellphones in the city with the typical elements of a cartel threat. A lanky small-time drug dealer in his 30s was one of the ones who received it.
“It said that that day, after 11 p.m., there was going to be a limpia” – a cleansing, said the man, who gave only his first name, Saxon. “That whatever car, motorcycle, person walking on the street, all the meth heads and meth dealers were going to be killed. All of us involved in this, drug dealing, we’re all connected. From the moment I buy from one guy and sell to someone else, we’ve made a link. That’s how the messages get to us. It was a warning.”
Saxon cut a dark figure, wearing all black, as he rolled a joint at a friend’s house.
He grew up in Ciudad Juárez, he said, and used to work as a mechanic making about 1,200 pesos a week, or about $56. He had been using marijuana and cocaine since his early 20s and discovered he could make up to 3,000 pesos a day – $140 – delivering drug orders on his motorcycle.
He sold pot, pills, acid, mushrooms – but not meth. He and the dealer he worked for knew it was “prohibited to sell crystal unless you are part of the cartel.” Which cartel, he wasn’t sure, but he knew he was too low-level to play in that dangerous market.
“It’s hitting all social classes, from fresas” – well-off people are known as “strawberries” in Mexican slang – “down to the very poor. People with prestige – doctors, government ministers – consume crystal.”
Down a dirt road in the middle of a busy neighborhood is a white building, framed with barbed wire and barred windows, emblazoned with the words “Volver a Vivir” in gold. The “Live Again” residential rehabilitation center treats addicts with the means to pay $28 a week – roughly the salary of a maquila factory worker – plus a $70 inscription fee for a six-week treatment.
Eighty percent of the 35 or so men interned in mid-December were struggling with meth abuse, according to Miguel Angel Miranda Reyes, the center’s director. Behind his desk, framed certificates covered the wall and a crown of thorns hung on a nail.
“About 10 years ago, the drug with the biggest impact was cocaine,” he said. “Today it’s crystal meth. Crystal meth is the drug that is taking off here, especially among young people 16, 17, 18 years old.”
Miranda Reyes gave a tour: humble dormitories crowded with bunk beds, a courtyard for recreation, a small kitchen and dining hall. On a cold, gray afternoon, men were gathered in a wood-paneled room to recite the Serenity Prayer typical of Narcotics Anonymous groups.
Meth addicts are his toughest clients, Miranda Reyes said.
“We can control a heroin user’s withdrawal symptoms in three or four days,” he said. “But a user of crystal meth, we’re talking about a month or two months to control their withdrawal. Why? Because crystal meth upsets all of the senses. It damages the central nervous system. Meaning, I have to bring their biological clock back under control first, because the meth has kept them awake for days. I have to help recover their digestive system,” – because users tend not to eat – “and to do that it takes at least two to three weeks. In addition, the paranoia, tremors, nausea, convulsions.”
For several years, the Mexican government funded a program that paid residential rehab costs for some criminal addicts. According to the city’s daily newspaper, El Diario de Juárez, that money dried up last year.
“Methamphetamine is one of the most addictive street drugs that are out there,” said the DEA’s Glaspy. “If rehab is just starting to see it, it’s probably just the beginning.”
As an extra bonus to our readers, Lauren Villagran provides additional background and insights about the local drug trade in Juárez.
About the reporter of today’s investigation
Lauren Villagran is an award-winning journalist who has covered the borderlands and the U.S.-Mexican relationship for more than a decade. She joined the Journal in 2013.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she has covered the financial markets in New York, the drug war in Mexico and Latin America and immigration and border security in New Mexico.