TIJUANA, MEXICO — In one of her earliest memories, she is crouched under leafy green stalks, hiding from Mexican soldiers. By the time she was in grammar school, she was driving a four-wheeler through those marijuana fields.
By 15, Mildred Barreras Godoy lived along the border, with a boyfriend who each morning disguised himself in an orange construction vest and work boots and drove truckloads of methamphetamine into California, while she waited for his text message: “I scored the goal.”
That was how the habit started for this green-eyed, vivacious daughter of Mexico’s drug-war generation: by proximity. Drugs were always around — someone planting or tending or buying or selling or injecting or inhaling — until she began herself, first snorting lines of crystal meth at parties and then smoking it with such obsession she tore her eyebrows out.
“In my world, everyone uses,” she said.
The drug abuse that has become a defining feature of American life is increasingly emerging in Mexico as well, posing a daunting challenge for health officials and feeding the country’s soaring violence.
For decades, Mexico regarded addiction as an American problem, even as the flow of drugs through this country sharply escalated — and narcotics began seeping into the domestic market. Police and politicians routinely helped the drug cartels in exchange for bribes.
“We produce it in Mexico, that is a problem, and we export it, but every year more stays here, and people begin to consume it,” said Manuel Mondragón y Kalb, the head of Mexico’s National Commission Against Addictions, part of the Health Ministry.
Now Mexican officials must reckon with rising heroin use in the border town of Ciudad Juarez; cocaine circulating in Acapulco’s beach scene; and meth addicts filling rehab centers in the western Jalisco state.
While rates of drug use here remain far below those of the United States, the percentage of Mexican men between 12 and 65 who have used illegal drugs nearly doubled over the past decade (to 15.8 percent) while the percentage of women more than doubled (to 4.3 percent), according to the latest national survey.
“We don’t have a boom, but in some states, yes, we have a problem,” Mondragón y Kalb said.
Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, is one of the problem areas.
While precise numbers are unavailable, the number of drug addicts here has surged, with some estimating it has doubled in a decade. In this year that could shatter Mexican homicide records, more than 1,400 people were killed in this city through October — more than ever before. That is more than twice as many homicides as in Chicago, which has a million more people.
Many addicts in this city use heroin or methamphetamine, or both. Cesar Corona, 27 and unemployed, calls this combination the “Belushi.” On a recent day, he was injecting it into his neck as the sun set on “El Bordo,” a cement expanse along the border populated by drug addicts and deportees. As the drug took hold, his eyes rolled back, his knees buckled, and he began to smile.
“Drug use has exploded here in an incredible way,” said Florina Righetti Rojo, who runs a rehab center, Casa Corazon, for women in Tijuana. “What has this brought us? How many dead?”
Beyond tourist revelry
This gritty border town of 1.7 million people has a well-worn reputation as a sin city, a place where drugs, booze and prostitutes have long been accessible to Americans and Mexicans alike.
The current drug crisis, however, extends far beyond tourist revelry, as methamphetamines have flooded the neighborhoods that house workers in the city’s booming factories.
Mexico’s growing consumption is partly driven by a vast supply. Long a marijuana and opium poppy producer, this country took on a bigger role when its cartels became major transporters of Colombian cocaine to the United States in the 1980s.
Over the past decade, the amount of drugs in circulation and crossing the U.S. border has soared. Between 2013 and 2016, driven by a ravenous U.S. appetite, Mexico more than tripled the amount of opium poppy it produced, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And as U.S. authorities cracked down on American meth labs, production shifted to Mexico. The nearly 54,400 pounds of meth seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in fiscal 2017 is triple the amount captured five years earlier.
Some compare the border to a dam: As the U.S. government has tightened security in the post-9/11 era, drugs have pooled on the Mexican side. Cartels have flooded the border “with enormous amounts of meth that could not be crossed into the U.S. as quickly as it arrives, so mid- and lower-level distributors push it out into the local markets,” a U.S. law enforcement official who works in the region said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The people dying in drug- related violence are generally not important figures in the cartels, said Victor Clark-Alfaro, a human rights activist who teaches at San Diego State University.
“They are minor players who are killing each other,” he said. “But they are killing because it is an enormous market.”
‘I was looking for acceptance’
Mildred grew up in the rural outskirts of Los Mochis, a coastal town in the Sinaloa state, a place where drug lords such as Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán were considered folk heroes by locals who benefited from their largesse. She didn’t know her father. Her mother, who was 17 when Mildred was born, would travel to California for months on end to earn money. The girl was left with her grandmother, who grew corn and tomatoes.
On neighboring farms, Mildred discovered Sinaloa’s more famous crops. She would tag along with relatives when they tended marijuana plants. She sometimes worked as a spotter, carrying a whistle and a radio as she watched for soldiers. The cat-and-mouse game was exhilarating, another adventure for a girl who enjoyed racing through marijuana fields on the rugged four-wheelers common in the area.
“I loved it,” she said.
In 2011, Mildred’s family moved to Tijuana to find jobs — her mom as a beautician, her new stepfather as a factory worker. The city had become so saturated with methamphetamine that the price had plunged. In Mildred’s working-class neighborhood, El Florido, teens would gather on the sidewalks and soccer fields to hawk plastic bags of the drug.
In her new home, Mildred felt uprooted and alone. As she entered her teens, she gravitated toward the rough neighborhood kids.
“I was looking for acceptance, to be part of a group, a family,” she said.
When she met a handsome 20-year-old at a New Year’s Eve party in 2015, she fell for him. The man drove a pickup truck and always had money. He had also recently finished a jail term for drug trafficking, she learned.
Her mother, Azucena Barreras Godoy, tried unsuccessfully to keep the teenager away from her new boyfriend. But with her own marriage falling apart, the mother finally relented when Mildred moved in with the older man.
“I didn’t have any other option,” the mother said. Her fights with Mildred were turning into screaming matches. “So I said, ‘Okay, live with him, maybe you’ll find some maturity and discover that this is not how life works.’ ”
Instead, at her boyfriend’s house, Mildred would smoke marijuana and meth. She helped him by packing crystal meth into large zip-top bags, she recalled. Every morning, like a traditional Mexican wife, Mildred would wake up by 4 a.m. to make her boyfriend breakfast and pack his lunch for the day’s crossing.
He would be home by late afternoon. Their money piled up.
“With what I saved in two weeks, I could buy a house,” she said.
‘I only wanted to do drugs’
As Mildred became entwined in the drug business, the violence around her escalated.
One evening, three armored white pickup trucks pulled up in front of Mildred’s house. Inside were cartel members who hadn’t been able to reach her boyfriend after he had taken a shipment into California. Panicking, she grabbed her boyfriend’s .45-caliber pistol from a closet and waited by the door.
“I thought I’d better shoot them before they could shoot me,” she recalled.
Eventually her boyfriend returned and the misunderstanding was resolved.
As the drug market in Tijuana has grown more lucrative, the battle for the right to sell has become bloodier.
“We know that the violence is surging now because of the drug dealers,” said Juan Carlos Moran, the federal police commander in Tijuana.
Drugs aren’t the only factor in the high homicide rate. There is pervasive poverty. And the decline of the once-dominant Arellano Félix cartel has led to the arrival of other cartels and a splintering of criminal organizations, which have branched into activities including robbery and kidnapping.
On one occasion, Mildred recalled, some cartel members asked her to feed a woman who was being held for ransom. The sight of the elderly, blindfolded woman, who reminded her of her grandmother, unnerved Mildred so much that she called a taxi and helped her escape.
“I have a heart, too,” she said.
When Mildred was a girl, her grandmother used to serve her marijuana tea to treat colitis. But in this conservative country, using hard drugs tended to be taboo.
By age 15, though, Mildred was smoking meth several times a day, enjoying the feverish intensity of the high.
The drug made Mildred’s pupils dilate and the hair on her arms stand on end. She would go into frenzies of housecleaning that lasted hours. In a bout of trimming her eyebrows, she plucked herself clean.
Like many meth users, she went days without sleeping and lost her appetite. Gaunt and jaundiced, she dropped out two months before finishing middle school.
“I hardly ever bathed,” she recalled. “I only wanted to do drugs.”
She fought her mother’s efforts to get her into rehab. Then, one day in June, Azucena Barreras Godoy invited her daughter home for a visit with some cousins. She offered the girl a vitamin capsule that she had secretly filled with the tranquilizer Clonazepam, the mother later recalled.
As Mildred relaxed, the family pounced, tying her legs with a belt.
They hustled her into the car, two cousins guarding Mildred in the back seat, and set out for a rehab center. Mildred frantically considered throwing herself out the window. But the tranquilizer was sapping her strength.
By the time Casa Corazon’s metal door locked behind her, she could no longer resist.
A failing ﬁght
Florina Righetti Rojo opened the center four years ago to cater to the growing population of female addicts. She wants to open another facility for adolescents but hasn’t been able to raise the money.
“Drug use starts in middle school now,” she said.
Mexico is woefully ill-equipped to handle the intensifying addiction problem. As part of a retooling of narcotics laws in 2009, the country planned a major expansion of drug treatment services. That has failed to materialize because of a lack of funding and shifting political priorities, according to public-health experts.
In Baja California, the state where Tijuana is located, the majority of the roughly 200 treatment centers are private, which means they are beyond the means of many poor Mexicans. Some facilities have faced accusations of abuse. Casa Corazon costs $300 per month but treats some women free.
Mexican officials say they are working hard to raise awareness about the drug problem. The National Commission Against Addictions has developed partnerships with the military and public schools and established state- level councils to promote prevention. In Baja California, a new television ad campaign warns of the dangers of drugs. But there is no sign the trend is being reversed.
“Basically, we’re failing in this fight against addiction,” said Jaime Arredondo Sanchez, a researcher at the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission, who studies drug issues in Tijuana.
Surveys have found only a fraction of the people who are dependent on drugs are in treatment.
Mildred is one of the lucky ones. After five months in Casa Corazon, she has been “reborn,” her mother says. The teen has regained the 35 pounds she lost while using meth. She plays soccer three days a week. She passed the test to graduate from middle school. She laughs easily and often.
In therapy sessions, Mildred has retraced the path that led to her addiction.
“I know that what I’ve lived, and what I’ve done, has not been good,” she said. “I was sick before.”
Now she’s ready to begin a new life, she insists, with a new goal. She has decided to become a nurse.
“I want to save lives,” she said.
Her mother still worries about the 16-year-old’s release, expected early next year. She is working on a plan to send the teen back to Sinaloa for school.
She knows the risks in Mildred’s old neighborhood are ever-present. And the lure of meth has not fully dimmed.
Mildred, smiling, recalls it as “delicious.”
“I think the cravings will never stop,” she said.
Ana Ceballos in Tijuana and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.