Continued Street Drug Sales in Tijuana Puts Users at Risk of Coronavirus

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A coronavirus outbreak in the Mexico border city of Tijuana has not stymied street-level heroin and methamphetamine sales, putting its large population of drug users at high risk of contracting and spreading the disease.

Tijuana, which has recorded more than 2,000 positive cases and over 500 deaths from the coronavirus, is a hotspot for drug consumption, with about 10,000 intravenous drug users.

The city is also in the grips of a methamphetamine crisis. Between June 2016 and August 2019, police stopped an average of 300 people a month for drug possession, according to an investigation by Tijuanapress.com, which obtained court data through an information request. The majority of people arrested were carrying methamphetamine, known locally as “cristal.”

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Killings in the city have soared in recent years. In 2019, the city recorded nearly 2,200 homicides, making it one of the most dangerous in Mexico. Though reminiscent of the carnage in the late 2000s when cartels warred for drug smuggling routes, the bloodshed in Tijuana now is largely spurred by gangs battling it out for corner drug hotspots.

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While street drug prices have increased in the United States because of coronavirus lockdowns, the opposite has happened in Tijuana, where drug gangs have maintained or even lowered their prices to keep business running.

A dose that cost 50 pesos (about $2) is now being sold for 45 or 40 pesos, Luis Alberto Segovia, president of Prevencasa, a Tijuana nonprofit that provides health services to drug users, told InSight Crime. He added that the informal jobs drug users relied upon — such as washing cars, cleaning tables and collecting recycling — have dried up with the lockdown, and dealers have dropped prices to accommodate them.

And while precursor chemicals to make synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl had been in short supply in Mexico, thanks to stoppages in shipping and air travel, there are signs this may be ending.

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Some 170 kilograms of fentanyl precursors were discovered on May 25 at a Baja California port, concealed in powdered soap shipped from China, according to Zeta Tijuana.

Fentanyl is laced in supplies of heroin known locally in Tijuana as “China white,” said Lilia Pacheco, projects coordinator at Prevencasa. The organization assisted with a 2019 study that found traces of fentanyl in 55 of 59 drug samples of what Tijuana users said they believed to be heroin.

While lethal overdoses from fentanyl, which can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, remain a top concern, Pacheco and Segovia both said they must also now contend with keeping the large population of intravenous drug users free of COVID-19 as well.

The overcrowded and close quarters in which users live — in dilapidated buildings or under bridges — make them susceptible to contagion. Many are already in poor health, with open wounds and respiratory problems.

To keep users safe, Prevencasa has increased handouts of syringe packets, soap and hand sanitizer. The clinic has also remained open, with new health protocols, to test patients for the virus.

Several methamphetamine users have already tested positive.

“We believe that when the first cases are seen in populations of intravenous drug users, we are going to surely see multiple contagions,” Segovia said. “At that moment, things can easily spiral out of control.”

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