Disclaimer: I would never endorse a rendezvous of such sorts. It’s also important to note, that I did not make this trip alone, I was accompanied by two others, both of whom help keep me accountable in recovery.
So why Tijuana? Well, for one, we were headed down to San Diego for a social function later that evening,, and also because that’s where I used to buy my drugs, and frankly, I really don’t know of anyone who sells narcotics. So my morning started with a 90 minute drive down the 5 freeway toward the U.S/Mexican border.
Tijuana is known for a lot of things, and having lived there in 2008, I was able to see much more than the perception most Americans hold. Yes, Tijuana, like any large city, has its ugly side, but there is also beauty to be found. Tijuana is a city of industry, of hard-working people who are looking for something that many of us take for granted, opportunity.
Of course, opportunity can also shape ones moral space, and when your desperate to put food on your families table, morals can take a back seat to survival. Ever since the day’s of prohibition, Tijuana has had a reputation for catering to it’s hedonistic tourists, that’s how I first found it. It started as a place for us teenagers to grab a beer and some muscle relaxers. It quickly became a breeding ground for my addiction to much heavier drugs, like Oxycontin.
Almost 7 years later, I returned to the place that — for better or worse — shaped so much of my life experience. We parked our car in a lot on the U.S. side of the border, and walked our way through the gates which separate two drastically different countries. As soon as we crossed, I knew exactly where to go.
I could have easily flagged down a taxi driver, nearly all of them get paid by the pharmacies that sell “off the menu” products; but I decided our first stop would be at my “primary” dealer’s shop. I dealt with him for more than half a decade, and I still only knew him by his street name, “Malo” (español for “bad”). As we approached the novelty souvenir shop he used to run as a front for his more lucrative venture, I saw that the place was all boarded up. However I did notice a familiar face at the shop next door. I asked if he knew where Malo was.
“Malo is dead, he got shot” the store owner said very bluntly.
Who knows if that’s the truth, there was always a pretty high turnover rate in the Tijuana plaza, and every time you’d ask what happened, it was the same answer…
“So in so got shot. But I can help you! What are you looking for?”
So the mystery of Malo will live on, I can only hope that he too is still living. Hopefully he’s doing something better with his life, but the realist in me, says he’s probably dead or in jail.
So we moved on to my former second string dealer, a pharmacy just a few shops over. We’ll just call it “The Friendly Farmacia”. I could see it from 50 meters away, it still had the same sign and it was clearly open, which made me think there was a good chance they were still in the business of selling narcotics. It should be noted, that contrary to popular belief, the majority of Tijuana pharmacies don’t sell actual narcotics. Most of them survive off selling cheap generic brands of viagra, antibiotics, and blood pressure meds.
As we entered “Friendly Farmacia”, I noticed two men wearing white coats, one of whom was my old connection, we’ll call him Juan. It didn’t take a word out of my mouth before Juan’s face lit up followed by a pat on the back.
“Long time, No see” he said.
“Yep, it’s been a while, about seven years”
“You found a different connection, or what?” he asked, with heavy eye contact.
“No, it’s a long story, but I’m actually sober now, I haven’t used since the last time I was in here”
Back in the day, Friendly Farmacia was #2 on a list of about 6 different connections I could use to get oxycontin. The good part back then, was that they never ran out, the draw back, was that they charged a lot more for the pills I was buying. Where as 20 oxycontin would cost me $800 from Malo, “Friendly Farmacia” would charge me around $1,000.
The real reason they had so much supply, was because their one of the first pharmacies people see when walking into Mexico. People with legitimate prescriptions come down in droves to sell their extra pills.
After some brief catching up, I told Juan why we were down there. I asked him if we could get an interview, and as I expected, he was skeptical.
“You’re not working for the cops or nothing are you?” He whispered.
“Come on man, I know it’s been a while, but you know me. I’d never be a cop, and they would never let me anyways “. I had explained to him the whole getting arrested by the secret service part of my story.
Juan still seemed incredulous, pointing out the cameras that the store owner had installed a few years back. I was already starting to think about what plan C was going to be, when he asked the magic question:
“Well, how much will you give me?”
I went down there knowing i’d have to pay for the interview, even though the story was for a website in a different country, even though I promised to use different names and maintain anonymity. I knew it would take some cash to get someone talking.
“Ten Dollars,” I suggested. “I hear the Peso isn’t doing to great these days.”
“I’ll do it for fifty,” he refuted.
We were now in a good ol’ Tijuana bartering war. We ended up settling for twenty bucks and lunch, we strolled over to a taco vendor, and the interview commenced:
Actually my first question is regarding me. Knowing now what i’ve been through, and sitting with me face to face, do you feel bad for contributing to my addiction?
“To be honest, no. First of all, you we’re the one who sought out me, and if it wasn’t me, you would have bought from some other guy. You know that I care for my good customers, I’m happy to hear that you are no longer in this mess, it’s gotten real bad.
What do you mean it’s gotten real bad?
Everyone is doing Black (Heroin) now. We still don’t sell it, but people OD here (in the plaza) almost every day. We get people at the shop buying a Xanax, or a Roxi, and ten minutes later we find them passed out in the bathroom with a needle and a spoon on the ground. Maybe 10 years ago when you were here, its was like 80% of people were buying Norcos or 80’s (oxycontin), but now its like 80% heroin.
What happens when someone overdoses at the store (Pharmacy) ?
Well, we don’t let people use that shit at our store, that’s the main reason we don’t sell it. But sometimes people sneak it in when they are in the bathroom, and we have to carry them out and then we call the hospital (ambulance). But some shops around here, they have had people die at their shops, and they usually get shut down.
I know that you said you don’t feel bad about selling pills to people, but don’t you think people have died from the products you sell, it seems like mixing pills can be just as deadly as heroin?
I understand what you are saying, and I know that the stuff we sell is very dangerous. Of course I hope that everyone stays safe. But still, I know that what happens to people is not my fault. It is up to the person who buys it, and I’m actually glad that we are one of the only shops here that doesn’t sell fake pills either. We only sell what is made by the big pharmacy (pharmaceutical) labs. People always want to blame us for their addiction problems, but why would someone blame me before they blame the pharmacy labs that actually make the pills? Or the Americans that come down here to sell us the pills? Or the doctors who give the pills to the people that sell them to us? Or the police here, that make us pay them, so that we can sell the stuff.
You’re right, there are definitely a lot of people who contribute to the problem, and you probably get the most blame. But still, do you think that makes it ok to sell these? Do you have any reservations about what you do for your job?
I think it’s hard for most American’s to understand our situation. Mexico is very poor, and it is very hard to get a job here. I have 4 children, and sometimes I don’t even make enough money for them to get new clothes. If I didn’t have this job, I wouldn’t be able to feed my kids. I wish the American people would put themselves in my place. I will do almost anything for my family, and this job lets me keep my children. If I was in America, i’m sure I would find a normal job and my children would go to school, and i’d be a “normal” American parent. I don’t like drugs, I wish I could have a better job, but this is how I survive. I have worked at the shop since I was 16. Sometimes I think about trying to become a taxi driver, or get a job at a big company, but it takes money to get a better job here, and even a taxi driver makes the same that I do, and they have to buy their taxi first.
How much money do you make at the pharmacy?
I get 2,000 pesos every week (about $110 dollars) and I work more than 60 hours every week. Sometimes I can make more money though. When our customers don’t have money, they will bring things to trade us for drugs. They bring things like jewelry or iPads, and we sell them a small amount, and then we are able to sell the products they bring us, and we are able to keep a portion of the extra money.
What is the weirdest thing someone has brought down to try and trade for drugs?
One time a guy tried to trade us for gold teeth, like the kind that the rappers wear.
Do you plan to work here the rest of your life?
No, my goal is to save my money and go back to my town near Guadalajara. I want to have a farm and sell vegetables. But this will take a long time, I have to wait until my children are old enough to take care of themselves.
You mentioned that the police know that you guys sell illegal drugs, what is your relationship with them like? And what about cartels, do you guys have to deal with them?
I can’t really answer that question about the cartels, but I will say that they are more powerful and more dangerous than the police. But we pay a lot of money so that we stay out of trouble. It is also a good thing for our customers, because they won’t get in trouble walking in and out of our shop. There are some shops that try to hide their drugs, but they always get caught.
Last question: What are your typical customers like?
We get every type of people. A lot of young people in their 20’s, but our best clients are the older ones. We have older people, 40 or 50 years old, that come down here once a week and spend a few thousand dollars. We get people that come in to buy just one Xanax for $4, and we get people that buy a lot of drugs, even for famous people. Some of our customers come in for 2 minutes, they buy what they need and they leave. Other customers come in here and talk to us for one hour. We don’t want to make our customers mad, but we don’t like when they stay for an hour or more. Usually they are the people that keep using in our shop, and they are happy so they talk a lot because they are high.
They treat us like we are their best friends. We always stay professional but we are still polite. Sometimes they even give us tips, and then the same people who give us tips, come back to the shop the next day when they are sick and beg us for credit, and we don’t give out credit. But I feel bad for the people that think we are good friends, I know they probably have ruined most of their other friendships. I don’t know, maybe for a lot of our customers we are their best friends.