November 24, 2004


The ‘Ice’ Economy: Methamphetamine Addiction Soars In Tijuana

By Victor Clark Alfaro

TIJUANA, Mexico—U.S. law enforcement agents consider this border city a key entry point for illegal drugs destined for U.S. markets. But a boom in methamphetamine production for consumption in these streets has created a new local business class and propelled Tijuana (pop. 1.2 million) into a city where an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 live as addicts.

In the last 10 years, drug-selling stalls and places where the addicted smoke or swallow “crystal” or “ice” have sprung up in every poor neighborhood. The tienditas and picaderos, as they are called, have become so popular that researchers reckon three to five of the enterprises have appeared in each of the city’s 729 low-income barrios.

Crystal and ice are aimed at consumers among poor youth. They’re cheap, and have largely displaced heroin and cocaine in these colonias, as the neighborhoods are known.

Four years ago, Juvencio, 48, who doesn’t use drugs, faced a worsening economy and invested his savings in a drug business. Today he produces just enough of the stuff to make himself comfortable but maintain “a low profile.”

“Why should I grow my business more?” Juvencio asks. “If I become very well known, the police will come after me to give them more money than I already do.” Juvencio possesses four houses, and says he makes $100,000 to $150,000 a year, after paying just two employees.

To produce crystal, Juvencio hires not just any cook — crystal chefs are few and expensive. It’s a dangerous process that only an expert can perform without risking an explosion from chemical reactions.

On the second floor of a colonia apartment complex, Juvencio and two workers prepare. “First you need a glass pot of the kind sold in places specializing in chemical products,” Juvencio says. “It costs from $1,000 to $1,500.

“We have a stove, but you can also cook in the patio on a grill. You can get thousands at a time of Sudafed, Actifed, Afrinex, Sedebil, Lobarin — anything that has pseudoephedrine as an ingredient can be used.”

Juvencio is as preoccupied with inputs, figures and inventory as any small businessman. This time he invested $30,000: $22,000 in pills; iodine at $160 a kilo; powder called “the red,” which is also used for explosives in mines, costs $220 a kilo; 120 liters of alcohol; lighter fluid and 20 liters of acetone, the ingredient in nail polish remover, which comes cheap at local hardware stores. He uses tanks of frion gas, a bag of caustic soda, a gallon of sulfuric acid, table salt, drinking water, ice, 20 meters of good cloth (the quality of sleeping sheets), numerous containers, a scale, two empty gas tanks, plastic hose that handles high temperatures and masking tape.

The day will be a long one for the cook and his helper, more than 48 hours without sleep. They are modern alchemists, transmuting common cold medicine not into gold, but drugs that will reap millions in profits. The everyday nature of the materials, processed with garage tools and kitchen utensils, belies any notion that a complex network of production and distribution is needed to create a booming population of local addicts.

They put 5,000 allergy pills to soak in alcohol for 8 hours, to separate out the ephedrine. They empty the liquid into an electric Teflon pan, heat it to a white paste, then mix a precise amount of ephedrine with water, the red powder and iodine in the glass pot. They do it slowly because a chemical reaction emits a biting odor and smoke that hurts the eyes and nose. They connect a hose to the mouth of the glass pot to take out the vapor, and leave it on a low flame for hours, when the brew is transformed into a red liquid, and strained through the fine cloth. The cook must remain alert so the hose remains unblocked.

Assured a sample is clear, Juvencio watches as the cook and a helper add frion gas, caustic soda and ice to incite the reaction and separate out the crystal. What emerges is a white-colored mass, like cheese, and eventually the crystals themselves, which they examine with a flashlight. The topper: the men add a horse vitamin to dilute the mix. Some is placed undiluted in water for 24 hours to sell as more expensive crystal, called ice.

This 18-pound batch will sell for $108,000, about $6,000 a pound. Juvencio’s costs include $20,000 for the cook, $2,000 for the helper, and $5,000 to $10,000 for police protection. In the little tienditas, the value of the drug will be multiplied, sold in ounces or fractions of ounces. Cheapest of all is the portion called a “balloon,” at just $5. In the picaderos, the young will inhale, smoke, or inject it. An aficionado may roll up a sliver of crystal into a tiny ball with toilet tissue and take it with coffee.

In a tiendita in his colonia, a maquila worker named Rodrigo buys one of the balloons cooked by Juvencio. It’s his daily dose, and “I have no idea what else is in it,” he says, ignorant of the toxics like charcoal, the sulphuric “red” powder and the other poisons.

Juvencio details the effects of long-term use of his product, without apparent remorse. “The addicts lose their teeth, blotches come out in their faces, and if they use the stuff over enough time, they end up crazy.”

Victor Clark Alfaro is director of the independent Bi-national Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, Mexico.

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