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'People will keep dying': Mexico's border towns face fentanyl crisis


The sight that confronted Tijuana's paramedics upon their arrival at 'La Perla' bar in the early morning hours was distressing.

Two individuals were in an unconscious state - one corpulent guy lying on the ground while his companion was slouched in a chair - both just holding onto life.

Paramedic Gabriel Valladares reports that the city's emergency services were once again summoned due to a suspected fentanyl overdose, which has been a regular occurrence during nightshifts.

"The situation is deteriorating." The frequency of fentanyl occurrences is increasing steadily, according to his statement.

The synthetic opioid is far more potent than heroin, posing significant challenges for paramedics in their line of work.

"On a typical night, we observe an average of two to three cases of drug overdoses." "However, we have encountered up to six or seven instances in a single call, most likely due to the ingestion of a common substance," Gabriel further explains.

A portion of the team promptly began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on the two patients. At the same time, the remaining members readied dosages of Narcan, the most efficacious medication for counteracting a fentanyl overdose.

The two individuals could have been unaware of their ingestion of fentanyl. Due to its affordability and ease of production and transportation, Mexican drug gangs have started adulterating recreational narcotics such as cocaine with inexpensive opioids.

The Mexican border city is now experiencing a severe and widespread drug crisis. However, the president of the nation, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, has downplayed the issue's magnitude.

"Fentanyl is not manufactured on our premises." "We do not partake in the consumption of fentanyl on these premises," he said last year. After making that contentious assertion, he has vowed to propose novel legislation to Congress to prohibit the ingestion of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

Those working on the frontlines in Tijuana are concerned that the actions being taken may not be sufficient and may come too late.

Dr. César González Vaca, the head of the state's forensic services, informs me that his agency has been doing fentanyl tests on every deceased individual sent to their mortuaries in the border cities of Mexicali and Tijuana for over a year.

According to the research, around 25% of the corpses in Mexicali were found to contain fentanyl. Furthermore, in July of last year, the proportion of bodies in Tijuana containing fentanyl was as high as 33%.

"The proximity to the border is positively correlated with higher drug consumption," adds Dr. González Vaca. "Regrettably, we are unable to make comparisons with other states in the Republic since, in Baja California, we are the pioneering state to conduct this study," he emphasises, imploring his peers throughout the country to contribute to constructing a more comprehensive national overview.

Individuals assisting the Tijuana population assert that the president has misjudged the magnitude of the situation in Mexico.

Prevencasa is a harm reduction facility located in the city that offers needle exchange programmes and medical treatment to those struggling with addiction. The director, Lily Pacheco, arbitrarily chooses two used syringes and two vacant drug containers from their disposal unit.

All four pieces of drug paraphernalia have tested positive for fentanyl. Lily asserts that the city is inundated with it.

"Certainly, fentanyl is in existence." To argue differently demonstrates a failure to acknowledge this fact. "We possess the evidence in this location," she asserts, indicating the testing strips.

"The instances of overdoses and fatalities caused by fentanyl also contribute to the body of evidence." Ignoring the issue will not fix it. However, fatalities will persist.

As our conversation concludes, a more vivid and tangible representation of the situation emerges, surpassing the significance of fentanyl tests conducted on used needles.

Lily is urgently brought outside to attend to an individual experiencing an overdose on the street. She also has Narcan, a US charity supplied due to the reduction of her government funds, and successfully rescues the guy by administering it.

He was fortunate. However, a significant number of individuals were less lucky.

The fentanyl pandemic has significantly impacted the adjacent United States, which happens to be the largest global market for illicit substances. Last year, almost 70,000 individuals perished as a result of drug overdoses.

Elijah Gonzales was one of them.

At the age of 15, he unknowingly consumed a counterfeit Xanax tablet from Mexico, which was contaminated with fentanyl, resulting in an unintentional overdose. Elijah's mother, Nellie Morales, discovered text messages indicating that it was his first attempt at drug experimentation.

His physique was unable to handle the situation.

"I experience a sense of longing for him on a daily basis," expresses Nellie at her flat in El Paso, Texas, embellished with photographs of her son. "He was scheduled to complete his studies and receive his diploma in June of this year." A part of my being perished on the day of his demise.

Regrettably, such fatalities are prevalent in the United States. State officials report that over five Texans succumb to fentanyl daily, and in El Paso County only, fentanyl was implicated in 85% of unintentional overdoses, such as the case of Elijah.

City police compare the situation to the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

El Paso is located on the border opposite Ciudad Juárez, which is known as one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. During our visit, US customs authorities confiscated 33kg (73lb) of fentanyl in a single day, a quantity sufficient to cause the death of every individual in El Paso twice.

Debates around the drug issue have led several Republicans to propose deploying military forces to Mexico in order to combat the cartels. These arguments will play a significant role in the US presidential campaign. Indeed, because of its high transportability, effectively impeding the influx of fentanyl into the United States is an exceedingly challenging task.

While in Ciudad Juárez, I encountered Kevin - a pseudonym - a 17-year-old individual involved in drug trafficking and hired killings for the La Empresa cartel. He presents me with recordings of his criminal organisation transporting narcotics via subterranean tunnels under the border between the United States and Mexico.

"According to him, the cartel earns approximately $200,000 (£160,000) in the US from selling one kilogramme of fentanyl. In contrast, I personally make around $1,000 (£800) for transporting it to the northern region."

Kevin has been collaborating with the cartel since he was nine years old. However, he has never seen anything like fentanyl. He foresees it as the future of the illicit narcotics industry:

"This drug is exceptionally potent, with a chemical composition that surpasses any other substance I have encountered. Consequently, individuals consistently exhibit an insatiable craving for increasing quantities." "It will continue to explode," he adds.

I inquired if he had any regret over the fatalities of American adolescents such as Elijah.

"No, it is simply a component of a larger sequence," he nonchalantly remarks. "We export firearms to the southern region, while we import fentanyl from the northern region." Each individual is accountable for their actions.

At Tijuana, the paramedics successfully revived a patient at the 'La Perla' bar by administering three doses of Narcan.


However, it had become too late for his pal. He perished among the beer bottles and empty glasses strewn over the floor of the barroom.


The paramedics' composed stillness is interrupted by the distressing sound of lamentation. Upon arriving at the bar, his mother received the devastating news that her 27-year-old son had succumbed to the potent effects of drugs. Tragically, his death has become a minor detail during an election year, attracting attention from both the US and Mexico.


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