Eight a.m. The man glances around quickly. He saunters toward the high wall. Then, like a cat positioning for attack, leaps to the top. He hesitates for a moment, then is gone down the other side. He reappears across the street, reaching the crossroads before the shout goes out. “Fuga! Fuga!— Escape! Escape!”
DOGS IN THE COMPOUND REACT IMMEDIATELY TO THE WORD with noisy barking. Guards leap from roofs and out from buildings and cram through the narrow door in the wall. The dogs dash out with them. Men and dogs spread out along the street. They race around the dusty corner by the school, past the half-built American mission, toward the workers’ little houses scattered in the ravines.
One of the dogs stops at a house and barks. Three guards run up and fan out around it. As the escapee goes out the back door and tries to leap a fence, they catch him and hold him on the ground. The dogs keep up their barking.
Now they’re bringing him back in a straggling procession, through the iron door and into the quadrangle. Soon everyone will know he tried to escape. His head will be shaved, and at the next junta (meeting) he’ll be at the front of the class, and they’ll be yelling at him.
“That’s how it’s done here,” says the short, wiry man with the coal-black eyes, Gilberto-Asiano, called “Doctor” Asiano. “If they keep trying or cause trouble with fights or bring in drugs, we shave their eyebrows. If that doesn’t work, we expel them. It’s necessary. We have everyone from drunks and thieves to businessmen and lawyers come in here. Many are desperate.”
We’re standing on the iron fire escape of a building within the compound, looking down at the quadrangle and the roofs with guards standing on each of them. “These people are normally coming down from heroin. They need more, or they’re in depression, or their joints ache. They are desperate for drugs. So when they run away, we bring them back. We try to persuade them that it is better to stay.”
The young man in the blue sweatshirt in the quadrangle below is the escapee from the story Asiano has just related. The man’s hair now shows a week’s regrowth. He’s helping an older man fit a rear window into a car outside the center’s body shop.
“See? Now he’s working. Now he understands the program. Now he says ‘Well, I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m happier without the drug. I don’t need it.’ Now there’s nobody standing behind him. But sometimes they go out from here, they get away, and we’ve found them in the street using drugs. We take them and bring them back. We kidnap. But only with the people who were here before. Sometimes they say, ‘Hey! You kidnapped me.’ We say, 'Don’t worry about it. You are in the same place. You stay here, and later on you will say thank you.’ ”
From our vantage point, where the staff s quarters are, CIRAD #3 looks like Tijuana’s famous open prison. Guards at the gates and on the roofs, inmates standing around the courtyard, others working on cars at the outdoor, makeshift body shop or building a wooden roof over a paint shop or practicing boxing at a hanging bag in a corner. CIRAD #3 is one of six volunteer-run drug rehabilitation retreats that have sprung up in Tijuana over the last four years, testament to the city’s careening drug problem. It’s half vocational center, half prison. But the crimes these people committed were against themselves. Drugs, alcohol, and the disasters they bring with them. Everyone here, from the shufflers to the guards to the administrators themselves, are addicts, prisoners to one chemical substance or other.
ClRAD stands for Centro de Integracidn y Recuperacion para Infermos de Alcoholismo y Drogadiccion. Center for Integration and Recovery for Sufferers of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction.
The Betty Ford Clinic it is not. For a start, it is free. It is, of necessity, run very frugally. And it was built entirely by addicts and is run by addicts. It is no center for casual meetings. Here you come full-time. When you sign on for three months, you stay inside for three months. You do not leave. Period.
I’ve heard there are Americans down here kicking drugs the tough Mexican way, because the more coddling, more expensive American clinics didn’t work. As soon as you got out, you went back to your drug of choice. Medications didn’t do it, because they confronted your chemical problem, but not you. They didn’t call you to answer to the failure of your moral fiber. They didn’t make you admit to yourself where you let your life slide.
I have come with my friend Eugenia Valles. She’s a regular. They know her here. She has a school friend inside who’s trying to kick heroin. She brings him coffee or bolillos from the Mexican bakery where she works in imperial Beach or, in winter, warm clothes for the inmates. Besides, this CIRAD center is in her home territory. Here in Colonia Obrera II, in the hills beyond the end of Boulevard Revolucion, is where she was brought up.
We show our papers to the guard sitting on a well-used chair at the narrow metal entrance door. Eugenia goes looking for her friend Jorge.
I can hear low moans. They’re coming from inside a bunk-crowded room next to a sort of office. In the dim light I see a pasty-faced boy of 18 or so twitching and moaning on a bed.
Another, in the bunk behind, sweats profusely, hanging on to the bunk’s pole. He has an IV line in his arm. Gilberto Asiano hangs the drip-feed from a hook in the low ceiling.
“Withdrawals,” he says, coming to the door. “Some of these guys can’t eat for weeks. I have to give them this 10 percent glucose drip. I add B-I2, iron, and calcium to help them make it through the first three days.
“It’s their bones. When they’re coming off heroin, their bones hurt too much. Particularly the joints.”
The boy’s been on heroin three years. This is his third day, sweating it out, going through the gut-wrenching withdrawals.
This is the place where people on drugs first come when they walk through the door, where they face the worst part first. “This sickness is triphasic,” says Asiano, “because it attacks the physical, the mental, and the subconscious. The first step is the detoxification of the physical body.”
He leads me to the lower section of the main building, where all the bedding and clothes are stored. We work our way through to a tiny cubbyhole inside a small office. He finds a chain of keys. (Carpenters who are expanding the place, pushing the walls out, step back while he unlocks the door. We squeeze into a tiny office, just wide enough for one folding metal chair, surrounded by four walls of shelves loaded with medicines. “I have control of the medicine,” Asiano says. He points to sedatives like Valium, which he uses during that first difficult phase, or the paracetamol for the muscle cramps and Prozac for depression. These sit behind locked doors, and Gilberto carries the key around his neck.
“Of course,” he says casually, “I’m not a real doctor. I used to work as a counterman at an auto parts store in L.A. But since coming here, I’ve learned a lot. This,” he waves a fat, floppy reference book, the Diccionario de Especialidades Farmactuticos, Edicion Mexicana 1990, is my bible. Formulas, reactions, indications, doses, it’s all there. There are many new medicines like antibiotics since then. I haven’t got them. But it has enough information for my needs.”
Everything here is donated, a lot of it by sympathetic workers at the General Hospital of Tijuana. “Not doctors,” he says. “They don’t like to see me doing this. It takes away business from them because I am free. But I love it. Every time I have spare moments. I’m in here reading this, learning more about more drugs.”
Gilberto Asiano is also a patient, one of the internos here. He’s no better than any of the people he treats. His drug addiction — alcohol — ruined his life. Lost him his family and children. He’s 47 and has no one left who will call him father or esposo. He did get help from Alcoholics Anonymous in Tijuana at the point when he was drinking 96 percent alcohol, medical alcohol, and suffering delirium tremens.
“This was four years ago. I was fighting death for one month. I had heard about this place, but I was living alone downtown. Very lonely. All you do is think about alcohol. Then September last year I met Martin Marroquin in the street. He is the one who started these CIRAD places.” He takes a smoke, opens the window behind, and lights up. “I used to go to the bullfights, alone. Everybody else drinking, being happy. So Martin Marroquin said to me, ‘You’re in danger, because you are alone. You have to keep busy. A lot of people are waiting for you to come and help.’ I had done a first-aid class, but I’m not a professional. He said, ‘You can go work there, live there, help people, and help yourself.’
“So I’m living here. I don’t have a salary, nothing like that. But I have a home, I have food, I have clothes, and this is my family. I’m not alone. These people, who have been through what I have been through, I love these people. If there is a sick person, I sleep with him to help him through. It’s a satisfaction for me. I’m living and I try to help another person to live too.
“But there are so many things we don’t have,” he says. He brings down a bottle of Intralipid emulsion, an IV drip. “It’s for people with diarrhea,” he says. “I can’t get it this side of the border. And I need things like cold medicines and antibkHks.” It’s not only drugs and alcohol that Asiano has to deal with. “Sometimes the hospital sends someone very sick here to live out their final days. In all the time I’ve been working here, I have had no deaths, except people dying from those other illnesses.”
He’s not afraid of heroic medical measures either. “I had one young man. His mother brought him in. Cocaine. His blood pressure was low. He had a fever, but he was cold. He was in a cold sweat. He was breathing with difficulty, as if he had asthma. Then he had an epileptic fit. His heart stopped. So I immediately injected adrenaline. Long needle. Straight down into his heart, third rib up. From a little bottle like this.” He holds a membrane-topped drug bottle. “The heart jumped into action. Then I gave him pseudoephedrine, a nasal decongestant. Any of those decongestants work. They calm down the heart. But every day I am learning more. Now I feel strong enough in myself that I can have alcohol, medical alcohol, here in the supply, and even Mexican brandy. Just for medical purposes.”
Junta, companeros!"The call to meeting goes out across the compound. Soon, men, most of them young, appear from around the perimeter and crowd up the narrow stairs to the second floor. The one sacred rule is that everything said here never comes out into the world.
Sergio’s not going to the meeting. He’s in the courtyard helping with wiring. He doesn’t have to go to all four meetings every day. He’s been here long enough. “I am an electrician. I used to work for Cox Cable. Also Nacom company in San Diego.” He speaks of it as if it were another life. “I came here because of drink and drugs. Any kind of drugs. Heroin especially. Heroin I had been taking about 12 years. The first weeks here, I took 35 days before I started sleeping. It was hard. My bones hurt a lot. I couldn’t eat anything for 6 days. My stomach was in knots. I only got medicine for the first 3 days. But I had to stick it out.
“When I was working with the electric company, before the drug problem took over, I had two houses. I had a wife and two kids. Now I don’t have nothing. My two houses my kids have, thanks to God. But my cars, my money, everything, gone. When you taste it, heroin, somehow you’ve got to get that stuff. You don’t know how, but you’ve got to get that. You’ve got to steal, do anything to take that, every day, four, five, six times a day. A hundred dollars a day, at least. Your morals die.
“I escaped three times from here. Nobody caught me. But I came back. Up there in the meetings, they told me a lot about me. Real things. You got too many things on your mind you can’t attack. You’re too angry. Here you can talk about it. You must talk about it. Up at those meetings. The terapia is very, very important. Heavy therapy. They tell you what kind of people you are really. It’s not easy to hear that about yourself. Before, nobody wanted to tell me what kind of a person I really am. But here they tell me just like — straight. ‘You stole. You lie a lot. You’ve been in jail too many times.’ I had to admit I had lost everything. I had to admit...that my kids have got another father.” Sergio looks away. He is hurting bad. He’s not tough. He has the worried face of a thinking man. “You have to face these truths about yourself. But then what you learn is, if you don’t love you, you don’t love nobody. When I was a kid, I had everything. It’s me. I’m the problem. People say, ‘My father beat and raped me.’ No. It’s my fault, what I'm doing. That’s what you’ve got to face before you can start getting back. That, and learning just to get through one day. Get through today. And then tomorrow, another 24 hours. Because we’ll never be cured. We must face this for the rest of our lives.
Up the cinderblock stairs at the junta, the “tribunal” system is in full flower. A sea of ruddy faces lit by glass blocks sucking light through the cement walls. All eyes are on a speaker walking toward a podium.
There’s an intimate feel, partly because the wooden ceilings are low. Dotted around the walls and on the crossbeams, messages lovingly carved in wood spell out the philosophy of hope among the desperate. “Gracias por Vivir. ” "Bienvenido a CIRAD. ” “Servicio, Amor, Integracion. ” “Mi Vida Esta en Tus Manos. ”The faces are teenaged, middle-aged, and everything in between. Gangsta-cool with check shirts. Chargers caps and T-shirts, and country cowboy jeans and boots, it’s all here. A cross section of Mexican manhood united by one weakness and by the strength to face it.
The bullshit’s gone here because this is the tribunal. Everyone has to get up and tell his tale to people who know when he’s branching into self-pity or blaming others or walling himself off from them. And behind the speaker is Salvador, the take-no-prisoners meeting coordinator. After you’ve spoken, he’s going to tell you what he thinks. And he’s been through enough alcohol and drugs to know every pain, every self-deception. He’s Camus’s original judge-penitent. His sin qualifies him.
“My name is Marco Antonio,” says the young man, standing in front of a painting of lesus in his crown of thorns. “I am a drogadicto.”
“Animo, Marco!” the room calls back. It’s the standard reply, an encouragement to make Marco feel he’s among friends. He coughs and spits politely into a bin before he grips the lectern and speaks. “I was here four months, and now I am out in the street. One month. I am working, earning honest money again, welding. I pay my own transportation. I earn less than if I was selling drugs, but it feels good because it is honest money. I don’t have to run from the police. I can work with my head held high. But I come back here today because out there, staying at my brother’s house, I always have to be mentally alert. My brother, all my friends, they take crystal, speed-balls. They break that light bulb, and they heat that stuff, burn it in the bottom, breathe the fumes.”
He takes a breath, perhaps to get rid of the memory. "Learning to live clean is like learning football. It takes practice.
That's why I come back here, every lunchtime, every weekend. Because here my mind can relax, be open. And besides, out there I am lonely. Here I know I have a lot of family, brothers of the same pain.
I can’t do this alone. I need...us. I’ll sleep here tonight. Saturday night there are a lot of temptations on the street. Friends drinking and using drugs at my brother’s house. So I come here. This is the only place people listen to me. And I don’t want to make a mistake. For this 24 hours at least. I’ll be sure."
Marco’s peers applaud. They know his is the most difficult phase of recovery — going back into the world, changed, while the world has not. “It is better to work for less money, honestly,” says Salvador.
“Let us all say thanks, God, for the last 24 hours.” He looks around the room with his eagle eyes, then down at his notes.
Guillermo stands up reluctantly at the front. He’s in his late 30s. Rumpled face. Sells ice cream from a cart during summer, bread during winter. He says his introductions, then starts laughing. “I’ll stay the three months, and then I’m out of here and back drinking my beer and smoking mota. Why not? I enjoy getting high. The only thing I’ll give up is the heroin."
The room falls to a chill. Here’s someone who doesn’t bejieve. Who figures he’s got it all under control.
“We’ll see what happens,” says Salvador. “There was a time I felt like that, when a judge sent me to Narcotics Anonymous. I tried to drop them. The result? Two years on the streets till I felt like a dog. I had two wives before who gave me drugs. When I came in here finally, I spent three days on a toijet with a blanket. I will be an addict the rest of my life. I recognize that. We’ll see what happens to you.”
Later, out in the courtyard, Guillermo remains defiant. “He’s only here because he can’t sell ice cream in the winter,” says Andres who’s also out from the meeting. “He’s not doing this for himself. His family made him. He just doesn’t want to lose his kids. And money, what it was costing him for four or five hits of heroin a day. But he’s not serious in here. He thinks he can beat it, just stopping heroin but keeping on with the others.”
“Sure. I think I can shake heroin,” says Guillermo. “Why? Because I am going to go to the south of Mexico with my family. My father and mother and my wife and kids. There is no heroin down there.”
“I didn’t come here because I couldn’t sell ice cream,” says Andres, an intense 22-year-old. “I came here because I was tired of the life I was living. I needed a change, because I lost a job, I lost a car. I was losing my family. I was already at the end of my rope.
“I live in Vista, but I have family here in TJ. I have been to other places in San Diego. This is the best. Because when you go up there to the podium and you talk, everything that you think that you know is hurting you inside, you let it out, and then when you get off the podium, ^ou feel better. You’ve got to let it out or else it’s always going to be killing you inside. It’s kind of like a cellular phone connected to God. Everybody considers their own God, but it’s a higher power you’re talking to.
“This is the house of life here. They’re trying to give you a new life. And if you try to escape, they’re kind of like rescuing your life. Rescuing you from going out there into the world and doing it. They’re kind of like guardian angels. I was inside the detox room, and I was trying to tear down the walls. I held everything inside, and I couldn’t handle it.” Andres was a shipping clerk until heroin started taking over. “I had to start stealing from my mom’s house. Despite her dreams for me. She thought my life would be big, an engineer or some profession that pays a lot of money. And instead, I stole from her. And after a while she kicked me out. I started living in a friend’s house. After that I started sleeping in abandoned houses, and my friends started calling me a heroin addict, even though I didn’t consider myself a heroin addict because I didn’t slam [inject], I only smoked. I didn’t even know that I was. But that’s when they started turning their backs on me. They had a problem too. Crystal. But that’s beside the point. It made me feel bad, but it just made me do that shit more.
“I was losing my family, I was losing my friends, I was losing myself. I didn’t feel nothing anymore. Mom would cry to me and tell me to talk to her, and I would rather go do that shit than talk to her. I wasn’t myself anymore. She called my aunt, and my aunt heard about this place. A friend of my uncle is in one of these. So I came down. Thank God I did.”
The '86 Chevy van rumbles and bumps off the asphalt and onto the dirt. Dust plumes up in the headlights. Ahead there’s black.
Just black, except for two tiny lights, which could be either stars or little spots of civilization. Our headlights bounce momentarily across signs, hand painted on dusty boards. “Se Renta, Tierra," "Se Venden Nopales.’’ And finally, “Canon de Sais."
“I hope this is the right valley,” says Eugenia as we climb alongside a dry arroyo. We’re going to Rosarito, to CIRAD #1, the original, where they’re having a party to celebrate two internos staying clean for one whole year. “We’ll just call in at the rancho,” she says. “It’s a little Christian place. The poorest of any of them. But they have been good to friends of mine.” We weave around cactus and brush and can just make out the darker walls of the canyon looming into a sky that carries the glow of Tijuana somewhere in the distance. “I know it well,” says Efraim. “We’re on the right road.” He should know it. Efraim was here once for six months, praying nightly for the good Lord Jesus Christ to take the devil off his back. Out of his system. But he left, and like most, he let himself be seduced back to the mother of all lovers, heroin, within a few days.
Even so, he’s willing to bring us here to visit. It’ll be embarrassing; they’ll know he’s back into it, but they’ll understand too.
One of those two lights turns out to be a star. The other is the only naked bulb in the entire canyon. We bump to a stop. Eugenia turns off the motor. In the silence there’s a just a far dog barking in the night. Then the sounds start coming. Men’s voices, chanting. Prayers in Spanish. Behind the wooden wall, under what looks like a pepper tree. The level, nasal tonings sound almost like the codified murmur of Buddhist monks as they cut into the nothingness of this valley. But then, as we walk toward them, the words start manifesting. “Lord, we are all brothers. We are in trouble. We have only you to save us from the streets and sin. Lord, the great Savior, we thank you for the food and the shelter we have tonight. We thank you for the understanding of our families, whom we have betrayed a thousand times. We will not make any more promises, Lord, except to do our best for the next 24 hours.”
Awooooo! The white dog leaps to life when he hears our footsteps in the dust. Another dog races up, but doesn’t bite. “Libre para Servir,” “Free to Serve,” reads a sign above the door. “Required for acceptance: 1) Identification; 2) Medical Certificate; 3) Desire to Change.”
“Welcome,” says a young man. He guides us around the dogs — one white, the other black and tan, with a limp, as though its back leg had been run over, a mongrel of a particularly feral look. .
The dogs follow us to a porch room half filled with men on their knees, leaning over the backs of chairs. Hugo leads the group from behind a lectern at the end of the room. Some men have their heads in their hands on the chair hacks. Others stare up at us as they pray. A couple of children wander out of another room. Near some blue plastic curtains are pictures of Jesus and prayers scattered about. It’s apparent we have interrupted their meeting and their concentration. “Please continue,” I say, and they do, but halfheartedly.
The reverend Juan Carlos Guarista of the Antioch Church of Tijuana shines from behind the desk in his small office as he listens to two young lieutenants. Both are heroin addicts from the States. Hugo is from El Centro and Raul is from San Diego. Raul carries a body full of tattoos and says he got into a lot of trouble in California jails for doing tattoos for inmates. “Now I’m using my art for other things,” he says, showing ink drawings of religious figures along with others of biker ladies.
The Reverend Guarista says that as at ClRAD, people who come here have to commit to a three-month stay if they want to be helped off drugs. But he makes it plain, that’s where comparisons end. “People come here,” he says, “because of love. We operate by misericordia. ClRAD, they are hard. There, strong words. We think they kill people’s self-esteem. We believe people are better motivated by love. There they treat them hard and make their hearts hard. From what I hear, they do it from shame. They punish them by cutting hair or even [standing in a circle and] urinating on them. Here we try to do it by love. We believe in miracles.”
Suddenly, to illustrate what he means, the reverend tells Eugenia to sit down, to stretch her feet up on a separate chair. “See? You have one leg shorter than the other,” he says, squatting, holding her feet square. “Half an inch. Now close your eyes, and we’ll pray. You will see.”
The reverend and his assistants launch into a vigorous prayer, calling on the Lord to help this lady develop even-length legs. Then, with a slap on her left foot, the one that had appeared to be shorter, he brings the prayer to an end.
“See?” he says triumphantly. The two shoe soles are now matched in length. Then he does the same thing with me.
“You see?” says the reverend, convinced the Lord had just lengthened our legs through prayer. “Miracles do happen. We have had 200 addicted people pass through here — free — in the two years we’ve been operating. Forty percent of them have stayed off drugs.”
Miracle or no miracle, it’s clear the main miracle of this drug rehabilitation center is that it keeps going. A rich man who owns most of this valley donated the land after his own son almost lost his mind to drugs. “He asked God for help, and the boy got his mind back,” says Reverend Guarista. But even with the land, the little drug missionaries’ operation is rag poor. They depend on the occasional charity of the municipality to provide tankloads of water and on the Antiochian church downtown to help them with money for food. They have a stove, but most of the time they can’t afford the bottled gas.
“Let Don Luis show you around,” says the reverend. Don Luis is the oldest interno here. He’s 69 years old, a former taxi driver from Mexicali, ex-pollero, and a 35-year heroin user. Here he has become the farmer of the group.
I ask him about money. “It gets worse every year,” he says. “The devaluation of the peso has doubled the cost of everything. We depend on donations of food and clothes. It costs three to four hundred dollars to keep us going each month,” adds the reverend. That cares for a dozen to perhaps 30 or 40 people. “It is sometimes hard to find. But God is always there for us.”
Don Luis — the “Don” is respect for his age — leads us outdoors, joined by the dogs and Hugo and Raul. “This is the water tank. The municipality helps us. But it is often empty. Over here is where we cook.” He points his flashlight to a barbecue pit still warm, under a big pot that smells of beans. “This is our kitchen. We can’t afford a bottle of gas right now.” He walks down the slope a bit. “And this fireplace is where we heat the water when we want to take showers.” A huge blackened cauldron sits above it. I dip my finger in. The water’s still warm. “This wood we burn, it comes from a picture-frame maker. He gives us his waste. We take the hot water in a bucket over there to the shower, and we splash it over.”
He points to burlap-draped wooden shells, the showers. These are lives, essentially, of medieval monks: daily prayers at dawn and dusk, hard work, and simple food.
Don Luis leads us to a bunkhouse with a dirt floor, a kind of addition to the house. There are eight hand-built bunks in here, with more beyond the wall. The “jungle,” where you go for those first, hellish detoxing days, is near the prayer hall.
We feel our way across the big dip of the valley’s arroyo and frighten awake four pigs. They snort into the flashlight. “We’re going to sell two of these. We need the money," says Raul. “They might bring maybe 500 pesos, $60. We give them tortillas, beans, everything spare we have. But they’re not growing. We don’t have enough food to give them. We had to sell the cow yesterday. We couldn’t feed her enough. She ran out of milk.”
In other pens, chickens cluck guardedly. One rabbit flops its ears as he red-eyes into the light beam. “I want to grow corn,” says Don Luis. “Make more gardens, plant more trees. Give us more food, and more good work to do. But right now, we can’t afford....” Hugo says they’re not giving up. He leads us back across the arroyo and up the slope to a little mound whose top has been flattened. Wood beams form a square around it. “This is going to be our church,” he says. “This is also where we hope to build a new house. One for women. We may look poor, and we are, but we have faith and we have plans, and we know we are needed. This place has given me a second chance. I was ruining my life on drugs in El Centro. Now, down here, with no money. I’m clean and doing something I believe in. I am staying on.”
Somewhere far away, probably up where house roofs lip the canyon hilltop, a baby is crying. For a moment it is the only sound in the big night until a distant dog yaps a reply.
“Rock and roll!” The call goes out across the courtyard. It’s nine o’clock Saturday night. The Tijuana band Pachuco blasts out “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and in the gravel, under a blue-and-white canopy, men and women start swinging away. Shyly, most of them, as at a school dance.
Eugenia and I have continued down Highway 1 to kilometer 19, cut left into the hills and crawled down a steep concrete-slab road into another dark valley only slightly less deserted than Canon Sais. It’s a half-settled back section of Rosarito. We park on a crazy angle and pass guards to enter another compound, CIRAD #1. It is a hodgepodge of homemade buildings facing inward onto a long courtyard with balconies on upper levels, probably to help the guards see clearly.
Tonight is special. Two internos are celebrating one year off drugs. This is a big deal. Internos in good standing at the other five CIRADs have drawn straws to get a pass to come here and celebrate. Most important, CIRAD #6, at La Gloria, just north of here, has allowed its internos to come. La Gloria Is the women’s center.
The rules, of course, are strict. No sex. Everybody has to be checked in, and then when the time comes, checked out, single, and trucked back to their CIRAD.
But while the music’s hot and the night is young, you can see people forgetting for a moment that they are drug addicts, drunks, that they have a monkey on their back that will always be there. Tonight, with the help of music and balloons and speeches and food and Penafiel sodas, they can be what they haven’t for a very long time — young again. Innocent again.
Just having the band here is a miracle. Until a month ago, there was no electricity. The place ran on candlepower. Even now there is no TV or telephone, and you have to collect any water you want from the one water faucet, supervised zealously by the guards at the front entrance.
Hovering around the dancing crowd, in the shadows, older internos look on with a combination of pleasure and regret. There are family groups, too, older people feeling slightly awkward, strained yet pleased.
“Jorge!” It’s Eugenia calling. Jorge looks around and smiles. He’s the old friend Eugenia was looking for at CIRAD #3. He’s celebrating tonight, two years clean. And that’s after 30 years on heroin, ever since he was 17. They embrace. I shake hands with him. Jorge introduces his elderly mom, Maria. “I tried everything,” she says. “He lost his wife, his life, all to la heroina. This is the only way, the hard way at CIRAD. Today is the best day of my life.”
“I was brought here by force. They tricked me.” Elizabeth is 19, beautiful, blond, and in the San Fernando Valley, where she lives, she must fit in with the Valley Girl crowd perfectly. Her last job was as a fantasy girl working the lines for a phone-sex company. She’s taking a break from the festivities on a bench painted with a sign saying, “We ask in humility that you keep this place clean.”
“My mom said she was taking me to a party at my aunt’s in TJ. Instead, they came here. I was hitting the car window. They had to haul me out. They signed me in for three months. I was totally shocked and scared and crying and yelling. Mom promised she’d be back in three days. She didn’t come.
“First day, when I came, I was on downers. I fell asleep. Next morning I woke up, I saw, like, three girls next to me. And I was, like, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ I was looking for my mom. I started throwing things, I started crying. And they told me I was staying here for three months. And I said, ‘No, my mom promised me she’d be back in three days.’ But she never came back.
“I thank her now. Because here they teach you a lot. I was really into a lot of drugs. At first you don’t acknowledge it, but it’s worth staying here. They make you strong. They cuss you out. They’ll talk back to you. But it’s for your own good. They’ll say ‘You’re worthless, you’re nothing. Look at you.’ And you start crying, and you say no. For me, I’d run out there and I’d do a line if someone did that to me. But here, now, it’s like you can tell me I’m worthless and I won’t cry. I’ll cry, but it’s not going to hurt me. It makes you stronger.”
She started with ecstasy, and moved up from there. “I wasn’t a drug addict. At least I didn’t acknowledge that. N I want to stay here a long time. I want people to call me a bitch, tell me I’m nothing. And I don’t want to cry too much. I want to be strong so that when I go out there I don’t have to do the things that I did.”
Elizabeth says her mom chose this place for her because she’d heard this was a place that really works, unlike easier places in Alta California. “The word had got all the way up to the San Fernando Valley about this place, that a lot of people sober up here and don’t go back to that bullshit no more.
“I first started to think my mom might have been right when I went to the meetings and I saw everybody open up and cry and say things that you don't say to just anyone. Things of your childhood. I've gone up once, and things come out, like secrets that you had as a child and you never tell anyone. Up there they, like, influence you to open up. They ask you nicely. If not, they do it the hard way. They throw peas at you. That makes you speak. After you open up, something that has stuck in your throat, you just let it out. It's like going, ‘Aaahhhh.’ ” She lets her breath out gently.
“I was molested once by my uncle. It was like nobody cared. I got kicked out of my house when I was 16. I felt like nobody loved me. I never told anyone. I thought I had friends before. But my friends, all they do for me is [set out] a line for me. Here you make friends that give you meaning to it. They’re not offering you a jug. They don’t want your money. There’s no strings attached. I like that.”
I wander back to where the dancing is going on. Pachuco is playing Norteno music now. This sorts out the men from the boys on the gravel dance floor. By far the best dancer is a heavy-set guy about 30, leaning in and dancing with big but accurate steps. He and his partner have done this before, and there’s something of a space around them as others admire their legwork.
This, it turns out, is Martin Marroquin. The jefe. The man who started it all. An immigrant from Guatemala.
He and his lady stomp through three different numbers and then finally come and sit down in the seats set up under a white canvas awning. You certainly sense a respect as he walks through the crowd. Nothing slavish, just a politeness.
He looks a thoughtful man, as though he’s stepped off some university campus. But Martin Marroquin wants me to know first that his story is like everybody’s around here. He is one of them. “I’m an alcoholic addict,” he says, when I sit down with him. “I started using serious drugs at 13 years old. In Guatemala. I was really strung out — sniffing glue,, pills, marijuana. I started going to jails. Then I started to wean from drugs, but started using alcohol instead. I went to juvenile hall.
“Every time I was in jail, locked up, I’d make a promise to my mom that I wasn’t going to use any more and that I was going to straighten up. Then I’d get out and still be doing the same thing. It was hard for her, because she was separated from my father. She used to worry every time she’d hear a siren or a bullet shot. She’d think something had happened to me.”
Then he left Guatemala, came here to the frontera, tried to make a life. “It was the hardest part. Everything was different. I didn’t know anybody. After I was here about a month, I found there was a zona, by the cahuela, the ghetto. I stayed there about a whole year. I lived by hustling.
“Sometimes I used to work, but other times I lied, stole. I turned into a male prostitute so I could get money for alcohol. I had nothing good in me. No conscience. I didn’t have the guts to do robberies, so it was easier for me to prostitute myself.”
He moved south to Jalisco, doing the same things. “All this time I had a lot of fights. I was being stabbed, shot. All my body is full of scars. I lost all my faith. By that time I didn’t want to live any more. I tried to kill myself three times.”
That’s when he went to an alcoholics group in Guadalajara. “In that group they taught me I can get out of my personal problems. And it was very important to live day by day, 24 hours a day, without making any promises. People helped me out. I stayed in that group for about three months.”
He then joined a group like CIRAD. “When I was out there [in Jalisco], I learned how to give injections, to cook for the people, I was a guard. I kept training myself. I learned how to take care of the alcoholics when they used to get attacks [DTs].
“That gave me an idea that maybe I could do something. After my first year sober in Guadalajara, I came back to Tijuana.
In ’88 I bought this land around here to get this place started. In ’91 we started getting serious thinking about forming this center. I wanted a more ample, open group [than AA or NA], where you could have both alcoholics and addicts. I got different ideas from the different groups I had been involved in. That helped me build what we’ve got today. I had the land. I had some money saved, which supported the home for the first year.
“We started out with two helpers and 3 addicts. In the first year, about 60 people came. I wanted to have maybe 80 addicts. But now it’s come to the point where there are six centers, each place has about 100 people. And we can expand some more.”
I ask Marroquin if this is a religious program. I’ve heard a lot of mention of God in CIRAD. No, he says. It is not religious, political, or secret. But he has started to feel a higher calling. “After I started the program, I got to the point where I felt a higher power. What made me succeed is what I gave to the addicts. I believe that I am a tool of the higher power to help others. It’s a gift given to me. It’s a mission I have to complete, to help another addict. I hope you don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying I was sent by a higher power. I feel for the addict because I was an addict.”
These are challenging times for Marroquin. “Now kids of 12 are using crystal and heroin. Before, kids used to sniff glue. Now they’re using hard drugs. We’re trying to extend the program to help younger addicts. The big man, the pusher man is coming out with new drugs, with new chemicals. And kids are being hooked younger. So we believe now we’ve got to work harder. We have no goals. But next year we’re going to create new places, one in the Divina Providencia neighborhood in Tijuana.”
CIRAD is different from AA and NA (which are active in Tijuana), Marroquin says, because this way cannot be part-time. “We take in the addict. We feed him, clothe him, give him rnedication. Wc have things like body shops, mechanics, body and fender, welding shop, carpenter’s shop, to help earn money and to train people for a better, honest life. Those are the differences. But we respect the other places. We don’t have any political or religious tendencies.”
And what about this “hard” reputation? Why the guards? The hair shaving? The reports of urination as a humiliation? Marroquin acknowledges his people have sometimes gone over the top. “But as soon as I hear about it, we stop it, right away.” The guards are necessary for when addicts are detoxing, going crazy, he says. These are people who have usually been signed in by relatives. They want them to stay. But if someone is desperate to leave, is fighting, then they won’t stop them.
“We go all the way down to the sickness. Here the idea is, you can’t harm what has already been harmed. We try to break the ego of the person. You have to get to the person. After some experience, you can tell if someone is going to succeed. I’m not God. I’m interested in getting close, to help. We’ve got to work very hard to make this work. Nobody pays us to do this. The government doesn’t give us anything. We have donations. We support ourselves. Like, we go out and offer services. We’ll fix a car, do carpenter work, clean up lots, construction, and sometimes we sell sodas at the border. But we don’t go knocking door by door for collections. We don’t sell candies. We do it in a formal way.”
He reckons the annual budget for all six centers combined is maybe 70,000 pesos, perhaps less. “I don’t really know how it comes, except it comes from the higher power. Say $10,000. About $1200 each center, annual budget. Maybe $3000 comes in from all the work. No, it must be more, because donations is always less. But often people pay us with food or things we need.”
The big question is, does it work? According to Marroquin, 75 to 80 percent go back to their old ways. But 20 percent will stay with the program, clean.
And of course, all the time he has to fight on with his own internal tigers. “This is my fifth year clean now. Things like Christmas are still difficult. Last Christmas I was cooking a cake and injecting wine into the mix. I looked at the bottle of wine. One glass would feel good, I thought to myself. I was tempted. So tempted. I asked the higher power. I remember it like it was now. If I had taken that drink, maybe I would not be here. I would have become a drunk again. I would be here as an interno not a director. I haven’t seen God, but I sense His presence. I’m 34 years old. I hope that I never lose this gift.”
Later, I’m waiting in the dark at the entrance, hoping Eugenia hasn’t taken off without me. The band music has faded. Now there’s just the chatter and shouts of men and women making for the entrance. Some of them come through the shadows holding hands, but once they’re here, they separate. Back into groups. People count heads. Guards call off names. The visitors have to be checked out as they were checked in.
I suddenly notice that the guy standing next to me is tall, fair, a true gabacho — a blond, blue-eyed, all-American Anglo boy.
“Visiting?” I say.
“I guess,” he says. “Extended visit.”
He’s Steve, 27, from Fallbrook. “You look younger than 27,” I say.
“Ha!” says his friend Pepe. “Right now, maybe. But before, when he first came in, he was like an old man, like me. Like a stone in the peach.”
“I was using heroin and crystal,” says Steve. “My parents heard about this place, and they told me to come over here. I wanted to get out of California for a little while anyway. I was getting in too much trouble in the States.
“I grew up on our ranch in Fallbrook. I started growing pot. And there was a lot of partying. But my friends, they didn’t get into what I did. I kind of separated from them and did my own thing. Just got into too much heavy stuff. It’s easy to do. If you’ve got money, you can get into it. My parents are fairly well off. They have the ranch. Grow avocados, oranges.
“I really didn't want to come here. I pulled up in the town here and — no, I don’t want to go here. I had seen Midnight Express [about a young American kid in a Turkish prison]. I had always thought about that movie, and now it scared me. Here I was. But I had no choice. I ended up just walking in and going into the “jungle” for two and a half weeks. They were crazy. Crazy people all high on drugs when they come in. And the first four days they give you drugs, depending on what drugs you’ve been doing, they give you something similar to that to bring you down. It was hectic. I’ll show you where it is.”
We walk back through the crowds to one of the main buildings. We climb up steps past a guard who wants to know what we’re doing. Steve tells him, and we lean in through the door, to the jungle. Once again, it’s bunks crowded together. There’s only one person in there, a young man, curled in a fetal position. Two friends lean over him.
“I was on this bottom bunk here,” Steve says, pointing to the right. “When I was here, the jungle just had dirt floors and a bucket to go to the bathroom in. They didn’t have as many beds. There were two people to a bed. You became bunkmates real quick. But I was hurting. I didn’t sleep for two weeks.”
He didn’t eat for four days, either. “I never liked beans. My whole life I never ate beans, and that’s all they have here is beans and rice. So after four days of starving, I started to eat beans and rice and get used to it, and now I love them. But I didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to leave every day I was here. No TV. No telephone. Crazy people all around me. And I felt lousy. I wanted drugs. I’d think about escaping. But they had the guards.”
Was the discipline tough? “It was to some people. I knew what was up. I knew what not to do, even though I didn’t understand Spanish, just from what people did wrong, I learned from that. You can’t fight, can’t cause any trouble or try to escape. If you did any of that, they’d shave your head. That was it. Nobody wanted their head shaved. They’d sit you at the front of the meeting and yell at you and tell you were wrong in what you did and not to do it again. But wild people come in here, and it’s like taming wild horses, you know?
“Even I am like them. A hard case. I was pretty much a wild man. I stole to get drugs. But I always worked and had money, but when I was doing speed. I’d steal just for the pleasure, just for the high. Just for the thrill. I was bad.
“My dad’s got a ranch, but he had a business before that in Long Beach, and I was working there for seven years, an oil field supply company. And my brother ran that, and I helped him. And then the oil business started going downhill, so we eventually had to sell out. That’s when I started getting into heroin, up there in L.A. And I would be running the place alone. My brother would be out getting business, and I would be there answering the phones and taking care of customers, and I would be gone. I’d have to go and score drugs at lunchtime, and I’d be gone two or three hours. People would be calling in, so business was dropping off.
“But most people that are here have all gone through so much more, over and over and over and over. So it needs to be tough like that. Because I’ve been to programs in California before where everything’s nice, and they talk to you nice, and it doesn’t do anything for you. This teaches you a program here. It teaches you when you get out to understand things, to respect things, like bathrooms. Subconsciously it teaches, you know? You don’t realize it when you’re in here. You just think, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get out of here. I hate this place.’ But you learn to respect things, like food different than beans and rice.
“There’s plenty of crazy people here that have lost it using drugs. Completely gone. There’s a few that have been here for years. Have no family. Just stay here. It’s so sad. At least it’s a place for them to be. Better than being in the streets. It scares me.
“I used to do speed for years, and I knew a person that was here when I came in, and he was totally normal. And while I was still here, he left and went out. He came back in a month, and his brain was gone. Lost. From speed. The speed is different down here. They make it with poisons, rat poison, I hear. Weird stuff.
“When I was a kid I always thought of a junkie as someone in an alley, a needle stuck in their arm, passed out. Disgusting thought. Said I’d never do that. Never. A girl talked me into it. That’s how it happened. She and her mother and father all used. They were all addicted to it. And, I don’t know, I felt sorry for her or something. I’d take her to go score her stuff, and she’d do it, and I’d never do it. She would never want me to. But then I just, for some reason, two weeks later, I just went, ‘Come on, I want to try it.’ And that was it. That was heroin.
“I wanted to stop doing speed for years and years. I was doing it for nine years. By the fifth or sixth year, I just wanted to stop. But I didn’t know how to go about my life without using it, and I thought this was the key. Do [speed] for a little while and get off of it, never do it again, and then use heroin for a little while and then stop using that, which I did. But I couldn’t get off the heroin. I went to methadone clinics, and they didn’t work.
“These people here, they’ve been clean for quite a while. You learn to respect these people. You want to follow them. Try and do the best you can. Be the best you can. Do what they say. They’re doing a great job, and they’re learning as they work too. I think there’s a future in this way of doing it. Possibly in San Diego.
“I was only going to stay three months, and then I just decided to stay another three months, and after that I think I’m going to stay, what they call solo por hoy, day by day. Just for today. I just feel it will be more of a responsibility to know if I want to leave, I can leave. Like now I know I can’t. That makes it easier. When I know I can, that will make it tougher.”
He’s even trying to persuade a friend to come down. “My best friend’s little brother, who is one of my best friends too. His parents paid $10,000 to send him to a place in Arizona, which he went to for a month. He came back, and the next day he woke up and he did crystal. And his parents were very mad. They said they’re going to take that money out of their will from what they were going to leave to him. He doesn’t know what to do. So he
said, ‘I want to come down there with you.’ He speaks a little bit of Spanish. I’m going to try and get him in.”
In the meantime, Steve has a job. A big strapping man, Antonio, comes up and asks him if he’s ready to work. “What’s your job?” I ask. Steve laughs. “To stop people getting out. I’m a guard.”
“I remember when I wanted to kill my daughter,” says Leticia, quietly, through the tears. “And of all my children, she was the one who loved me most. Despite what I did to them. I was the one who was dead inside. But she interfered with my heroin. How many times I came out of jail, I came clean, and I’d say, ‘Yes. This time I can do it.’ And then from the door, what did I start doing? Partirme en mi madre! Go do fucking drugs. Kill myself. I know [now] if I leave this door, I’m going to do this same shit. This damned door! The devil makes everything look so nice out there. But if I go through that door....”
The dozen women and the two dozen men automatically look out through the little doorway into the night. This is La Gloria, CIRAD #6, a hilltop center for women and men, a few miles from the party. All the women have returned and gone straight into a midnight junta. A junta of decision for the ex-prostitute Leticia.
Two mustachioed men sniff and wipe away tears. The little room is silent and electric. Leticia doesn’t know what to do. Stay or go? She has done her time. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, what I’ll do. But I want to find my babies. I’ve packed everything already. And then I feel mad, resentment, because first thing it will be, ‘Here baby, take a pill. It’ll make you feel better.’ You feel happy because I’m leaving. It hurts me that you want to see me go. Me, La Soberbia, the haughty one. Now I’m staying. I’m not going. I know...I know. I have a lot of anger. I never think how I affect other people when I get mad so quick. It blinds me.”
Down the hillside, the orange flames of a wood fire shine into the night. The open kitchen. Two cooks send sparks into the sky as they toss more wood on. Then their shadows leap and yaw as they lean over to dip pitchers into a great cauldron of coffee hanging over the fire. The smell of smoke and coffee wafts up the hill. The junta will need this tonight.
“My first three months, I didn’t get anything from this place. In that first three months, I didn’t do anything. I had a friend there who gave me pills.
“I’d use pills when I went to sleep; and when I came to the meetings, I was high on these pills. The pinche drugs make me hurt myself. Things I never did in 15 years I did in six months. I never sold my body before, but now I have to. I know how to steal very well. I know how to get people across the border. From that I feed my vices. But what happened? But I’ll never be a good prostitute. I did it because I needed to. I can’t do it alone. Now I know. And yet I must decide.”
She sits down. All eyes are on the coordinator.
“You were killing only yourself, Leticia. I don’t believe you love your mom and your kids. I say that to you because I am a tecato [heroin addict] too. At moments when some of my family died, I didn’t feel anything for them, just nothing, not even one tear.
“How is it possible that I should fall to such a place in my life as that? Just now I’m starting to have feelings again. I start to think with my brain, and say, ‘Now I think again. Now I feel something for my mother, for my sons, for my wife, my brothers, and say I love them.’ But it is stupid on my part. I was a hypocrite to myself to say that I loved them. Because if I loved them, I shouldn’t hurt them. A lot of hurt. So I can go out from here, back to the world, and build back something I destroyed.
“Maybe you can get something back from what you destroyed. But, with you, Leticia, the only thing that will happen is, you will destroy what is already built. Now your family has love, peace, joy, tranquillity, because you’re not there. Your mother is tranquil. More so because she knows you are here.
“Because the problem is us, not them. They don’t use drugs or alcohol. We are the problem.
“You have to give thanks to God that they have your kids. Because if they give them back, what are you going to do with them? [If] you don’t love yourself, you cannot recover. You can’t be responsible for yourself; how can you be responsible for your kids?
“Think of yourself first. Don’t think of things out there. Concentrate on what you came here for. And with all those thoughts, you’re not going to fix nothing. Whatever you plant will grow. Today you must confront the consequence of all that happens, good or bad.”
The coordinator looks straight at Leticia. “Don’t cry about the things you’ve lost. Fight for the things you have left.”
Ten minutes later, as the cooks pass hot, sweet coffee around and bowls of Faro cigarettes, Eugenia and I make our way out into the cold night. As we’re leaving, an older man named Alfonso takes the platform. He tells about how his wife tricked him and took all his kids away. How, yes, heroina made him do bad things. How, yes, he had raped a young gabacho in a San Diego jail, how he accepts he will never see his kids again.
The air outside feels chilling and good.