20-year heroin user Elena Ruelas prepares a syringe. Fentanyl is likely in it now.
The synthetic opioid, 50 times stronger than heroin, was found in a Mexicali safe-use center’s quick strip test.
Since 2019, “there’s not a single heroin test that does not come back positive for fentanyl,” said Said Slim, who works at Verter, a nonprofit that built the safe-consumption place in 2018 to safeguard vulnerable users.
Consumer overdoses increased in 2022, according to the group.
Authorities report daily Mexicali deaths.
The opioid problem, which kills hundreds of Americans daily, has spread to the million-person city south of California.
Fentanyl dominates US-Mexico relations.
Washington claims Mexican drug cartels produce and traffic most fentanyl.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador disputes that Mexico produces the drug.
He claims that the cartels convert Chinese fentanyl into little tablets for US smuggling.
– ‘Too strong’ –
Ruelas, 50, suffered a near-fatal overdose a year ago, even though she had injected herself with no more than her usual dose of heroin, a highly addictive opioid made from the opium poppy.
“I used the same amount as before but it had fentanyl in it and it was too strong for me,” she said.
Ruelas was lucky to be given naloxone, a medicine that is capable of reversing an opioid overdose but whose sale is restricted in Mexico.
Ruelas, who works as a cleaner, cut her dose in half and almost always now injects herself in La Sala, a pioneering initiative in Latin America.
The organization provides drug users with consumption kits to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and HIV, while also monitoring their health.
Visitors, who include homeless people and sex workers, are greeted by name and given health and other advice.
“They make me feel that I’m still a human being,” said Ricardo Rizo, who has used heroin for 26 years.
He too was almost killed by fentanyl.
“It’s only by the grace of God that I’m here,” he said.
Adjusting to the growing risks has been a major challenge for Rizo, who lowered his dosage to reduce the risk of overdose, the 59-year-old said.
The fentanyl makes users drowsy, leaving them “practically asleep,” said Rizo, who earns a living selling candy on the street.
“People are not stupid… they realize when someone is under the influence,” he said.
– Saving lives –
Every day the Mexicali police department deals with several deaths of suspected addicts, most of whom are believed to have been 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 Red Cross nonprofit humanitarian organization, said that overdoses represented up to 25 percent of the emergencies that the organization deals with.
Thanks to naloxone “we managed to save a lot of lives,” he said.
Without regular access to the drug, emergency workers turn to Verter, which sources naloxone from across the border.
Lopez Obrador has criticized the United States for its provision of free naloxone, arguing that it does not address the root causes of the problem.
He has floated the idea of banning fentanyl as a painkiller.
After his brush with death, Rizo wants to warn others of the danger of taking drugs that may have been adulterated.
“I lived it firsthand,” Rizo said of his overdose in Mexicali, where he roams the streets using a walking frame with two faithful dogs following him.