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These Americans are crossing into Tijuana to seek rehab for opioid addiction

Due to the high cost of U.S. healthcare, immigrants whose children are addicted to opioids have begun taking them to rehab in Mexico. We visited one such clinic in Tijuana.
24 Ene 2018 – 04:08 PM EST
Ivan Velazquez, 27, was born in Los Angeles, California, to immigrant parents. He’s been clean for over six months. Crédito: Isaias Alvarado

TIJUANA, Mexico—Young men chat in English in the courtyard of a home in Playas de Tijuana, near the border between Mexico and California. Barely 20 years old, it appears they’ve known each other for their entire lives. But they’ve just met, after arriving here for drug addiction treatment.

Ivan Velazquez, 27, has been clean since he arrived six months ago from Los Angeles.

"I was a zombie," he said. "This clinic saved my life."

The clinic, Clínica Nuevo Ser (“New Being Clinic”), has become a thermometer for the impact of the opioid crisis on the children of Hispanic immigrants in California, Arizona and Texas. In the last three years, the number of young people in recovery here has doubled. It’s a phenomenon never before witnessed in the clinic’s 20 years in operation. Some 30 to 60 percent of patients now come in with opioid addiction.

“It’s doubled in a period of three years,” said Francisco Lizarraga, the center’s coordinator. “Their dependency is higher so detox and treatment is riskier.”

The majority of the patients are the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants. Their parents leave them here, in the Baja California peninsula, for a number of months because the cost of treatment is significantly lower than in the U.S. Sometimes their parents trick them by saying they’re going to visit Tijuana, but end up hospitalizing them against their will. In the U.S. that would be considered kidnap.

“In Mexico they allow us to hold them against their will,” said Antonio Marchina, a representative from the clinic. “Only parents can authorize their children’s release. In the U.S. we’d need a judge’s order for that.”

In the U.S., drug abuse, and heroin abuse in particular, has been intensifying since 2012. In October, President Trump directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Almost 64,000 Americans lost their lives in 2016 due to drug overdose, mainly from opioids. That’s 11,200 more than the year before, which had been an historic high.

Many of the deaths stem from misuse of a medical prescription, like painkillers. Addiction is often the result of consuming illegal substances, like heroin and fentanyl, as well as legal, prescription pills, like oxycodone, codeine or morphine.

The children of immigrants

Velazquez was born in Los Angeles, California, to immigrant parents. He was just 17 when a high school friend offered him crystal meth during a break from class. He thought it was cocaine. He was worried to learn he had consumed a much more addictive substance, but he figured it wouldn’t affect him in the long-term. He was wrong.

“I fell in love with crystal,” he said. “I had no idea it would steal my life.”

Velasquez spent entire nights smoking methamphetamines. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat or sleep for two weeks at a time.

“I felt I was on top of the world, no worries or problems, with extreme energy. I would get so hyper; I wasn’t ashamed to talk to girls. Freaking awesome,” he said.

Eventually his parents found the substance in his room. But their scolding and advice did nothing to reduce his love for the drug. He went from consuming one gram a day to four. His life revolved around the substance. Then he met a girl who injected the drug intravenously. She introduced him to a world which led him to rock bottom. In the end he was living out of a car.

Many young people arriving at Clinica Nuevo Ser come addicted to opioids and methamphetamines, according to Lizarraga. “That has a catastrophic effect. The majority of them arrive hallucinating, with psychotic breaks.”

A patient who consumes opioids can take around a week to detox. But Lizarraga said it can take up to 15 days for many of these patients. During that period they are observed by a doctor and given control medicine.

"Then recovery is possible,” he said.

The treatment’s second phase, at a house downtown in Playas de Tijuana, includes psychotherapy, group sessions, physical activity, volunteer work and family visits. That process lasts about six months.

Ninety percent of patients at the center are children of immigrants to the U.S. The majority live in California, but they also come from Arizona and Texas. Some arrive without fluency in Spanish. They are mostly between 18 and 26 years old.

According to clinic specialists, heroin addicts have a 50% chance of relapsing after being released; that’s higher than for other substances.

Velasquez arrived to Clinica Nuevo Ser on June 3, 2017, after five days straight spent consuming methamphetamines and another five days in jail. He had been to jail at least 10 times prior, for theft, drug possession or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Some of his charges are still pending, which is one of his greatest worries now that he is sober.

“I didn’t care about anything because of my addiction,” Ivan said. “Now I’m hungry to live.”

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