December 1, 2008 / 11:31 PM / 9 years ago

Mexicans catch meth habit in shadow of drugs war

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Drug violence, including decapitations and grenade attacks, has killed some 4,500 people in Mexico this year but thousands of others are falling victim to a quieter crisis: addiction to methamphetamine.

Mexico is now the largest producer of methamphetamine for the U.S. market and traffickers have recently found a growing number of users at home, many of them minors.

Meth, which can be taken in pills, snorted or injected, is cheaper than cocaine or heroin and has a long-lasting high. But the drug is highly addictive and is very difficult to treat.

Meth use in Mexico has quadrupled in six years, according to a survey by the health ministry. The study, to be released in the coming weeks, shows 0.5 percent of the Mexican population has tried meth, more than double the 0.2 percent of the U.S. population who have used it.

One 23-year-old who gave her name as Violeta started using hard drugs like crack-cocaine as a teenager working in a Mexico City strip club. She tried meth for the first time when dozens of pills were passed around on a tray at a party.

She once stopped breathing after a bad hit of the drug, which accelerates the heart rate.

"The last thing I remember is having a great time dancing. Then I woke up in the hospital. Apparently I was convulsing in the bathroom," she said.

As U.S. authorities cracked down in recent years on the sale of the drug's ingredients, busting "mom and pop" labs in blue collar garages and bathrooms, Mexican gangs that already smuggled huge quantities of cocaine and marijuana into the United States moved in to meet the demand for meth.

They are now churning out tons of meth in "super labs".

The trade is a part of a bitter fight in Mexico which has pitted rival drug gangs against each other and the security forces. The conflict has worsened this year with a record number of murders.

Last year, Mexican police found $206 million. a world record drug cash haul, in the mansion of Chinese-born "meth king" Zhenli Ye Gon. He made his fortune importing meth's ingredients from Asia.

BANANA FLAVORED DRUGS

In Mexico City's historical center, meth labs are hidden in the basements of normal-looking houses. Dealers take the drug, sometimes banana flavored, to schools to sell.

Addicts shooting up in the dry ravines in the shadow of the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana were the first wave of meth users. Many were deported immigrants who got their first taste of the drug in the United States.

"It's really easy to find. First they give it to you for free but later you have to buy it," said one slight 10-year-old who called himself Gilberto at a drug treatment center in Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego.

The drug began spreading south, showing up at raves and clubs in pills in a wide array of flavors and colors, and with names like 'the elevator' and the 'ying-yang.'

The health ministry survey -- the only national data available on drug use in general -- found the number of women taking drugs in general in Mexico doubled between 2002 and 2008 and the number of addicts over all jumped by more than 50 percent.

Strict U.S. border control, the increased availability of narcotics, Mexican army and police action against cartels trying to smuggle drugs to the United States, and looser social norms are all blamed for the increased consumption in Mexico.

"When you crack down on the drug trade, cartels start paying (middlemen) in drugs, which they then have to turn around and sell," Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said.

Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Anahi Rama in Mexico City; Editing by Kieran Murray

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