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On the Mexico-US border, fentanyl poses a growing hidden danger

Elena Ruelas prepares heroin for injection in a safe space in Mexicali, Northern Mexico

Elena Ruelas prepares heroin for injection in a safe space in Mexicali, Northern Mexico

Elena Ruelas prepares a syringe of heroin, a drug she has been using for 20 years. These days, however, she’s almost certainly hooked up with potentially deadly fentanyl.

A rapid strip test at a Mexican safe-use center in the city of Mexicali near the US border confirms the presence of the synthetic opioid, which is 50 times more potent than heroin.

The result is no surprise.

Since 2019, “there isn’t a single heroin test that doesn’t test positive for fentanyl,” said Said Slim, who works at a non-profit organization, Verter, which created the safe place to consume in 2018 to protect vulnerable users.

The group’s records for 2022 indicate that overdoses among consumers have doubled in one year.

There are deaths every day in Mexicali, according to authorities.

The city, located just south of California and home to one million people, is suffering the aftermath of the opioid crisis, responsible for hundreds of overdose deaths every day in the United States.

Fentanyl has become a major theme dominating diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico.

Washington accused Mexican drug cartels of controlling most fentanyl production and cross-border trafficking.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador denies the drug is made in Mexico.

He says fentanyl destined for the US is imported from China and processed by the cartels into pills that are easy to smuggle because of their size.

– ‘Too strong’ –

Ruelas, 50, suffered a near-fatal overdose a year ago, even though she had injected no more than her usual dose of heroin, an opioid addictive from the opium poppy.

“I used the same amount as before, but it contained fentanyl and was too strong for me,” she said.

Ruelas was lucky to receive naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose but whose sale is limited in Mexico.

Ruelas, who works as a cleaner, has halved her dose and now almost always gets the injection at La Sala, a pioneering initiative in Latin America.

The organization provides drug addicts with consumer kits to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and HIV, while also monitoring their health.

Visitors, which include homeless people and prostitutes, are greeted by name and given health and other advice.

“They make me feel like I’m still a human being,” said Ricardo Rizo, who has used heroin for 26 years.

He too was nearly killed by fentanyl.

“It’s only by the grace of God that I’m here,” she said.

Adjusting to the rising risks was a major challenge for Rizo, who lowered his dosage to reduce his risk of an overdose, the 59-year-old said.

Fentanyl makes consumers drowsy, leaving them “practically asleep,” said Rizo, who makes a living selling candy on the street.

“People aren’t stupid … they know when someone is under the influence,” she said.

– Saving Lives –

Every day the Mexicali Police Department deals with several deaths of suspected drug users, most of whom it is believed were unaware of exactly what they were taking, according to its deputy director Carlos Romero.

“Many are overdoses,” Romero said.

“The presence of fentanyl has grown a lot in the city,” he added.

Julio Buenrostro, who works for the non-profit humanitarian organization the Red Cross, said overdoses account for up to 25 percent of the emergencies the organization deals with.

Thanks to naloxone “we were able to save many lives,” he said.

Without regular access to the drug, rescuers turn to Verter, who procures naloxone from across the border.

Lopez Obrador has criticized the US for providing free naloxone, arguing it fails to address the root causes of the problem.

He floated the idea of ​​banning fentanyl as a pain reliever.

After his bout with death, Rizo wants to warn others of the danger of taking drugs that may have been adulterated.

“I experienced it firsthand,” Rizo said of his overdose in Mexicali, where he roams the streets using a walker with two loyal dogs following behind him.

jla-dr/caw

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