A few steps from the metal turnstile gates that spin you from one country to another, the banter begins.
The narrow calle that visitors are funneled into as they make their way into Mexico is lined with farmacias. Men in white coats stand outside and shout over one another to everyone who passes: "Pharmacy?! Pharmacy?! Pharmacy?!"
Store windows and walls are plastered with signs for popular drugs such as Soma, Valium or Premarin.
Photography by Jackie Mercandetti
"Lowest prices in town," they assure the steadily flowing crowd. "Señora, whatever you want. You want Viagra? I give you free samples," they call to an Anglo woman who smiles and walks quickly toward the colored blankets and silver bobbles on the corner.
Traditionally, however, most people don't walk away. They're here to buy drugs. Although numbers are uncertain, enough tourists cross the border looking for "prescription medications" to support an estimated 100 pharmacies in Nogales, Sonora, a town of 200,000 people.
The availability seems a little overwhelming at first, a little like Pinocchio taking his first steps onto Pleasure Island -- before he indulges in the decadence around him and turns into a jackass.
Many gringos come in search of cheaper drugs -- which they need for their medical conditions, and can little afford in Phoenix drugstores. Prescription drugs just south of the border are often 50 to 70 percent cheaper than in Arizona, and with HMOs refusing to cover certain pharmaceuticals and brands, many frugal retirees and lower-income patients find treating what ails them more affordable in Nogales.
But an equal number come to Nogales for the drugs they know they can score either on the street or after a quick trip to a doctor who sells them a prescription for narcotics like Valium or Xanax for about $20.
The river of humanity flows both ways in border towns, and economics drives inhabitants of each side of the international dividing line to look to the other country for what they cannot get at home.
The recent arrests of Americans purchasing controlled substances in Nogales without bothering to jump through the hoops required by Mexican law have been big news in Phoenix and Tucson, yet what the press labeled a crackdown is more aptly business as usual for Mexican authorities.
The bottom line is, the laws haven't changed in Mexico.
Despite the mainstream-media-fed scare, the number of Americans incarcerated in Nogales for purchasing controlled medications and related charges is about 12 (most in their 30s or younger) -- which American consular officials in that city insist is status quo.
So why all the hype?
Much of it is because of Chris Burkhart and his family. Burkhart's 66-year-old stepfather, Ray Lindell, says he didn't know he was breaking the law when he purchased 270 Valium pills without a required Mexican prescription on May 19. Last week, the Phoenix man was released from an eight-week stay in a Mexican federal prison where he could have faced a 10- to 25-year sentence.
As for Burkhart, he launched a very public campaign aimed at pressuring the Mexican government to drop the charges against Lindell. He spoke to news media, senators and congressmen. Members of the Phoenix family spent weekends in Nogales handing out fliers to tourists with information about Lindell's arrest.
Mexican authorities released Lindell without comment, but it's believed in Nogales, Sonora, that because the publicity cut into the town's economy, business officials were finally able to pressure police into dropping the matter.
In an interview before Lindell was let go on July 13, Bob Feinman, a member of the Board of Directors of the Nogales, Sonora's Chamber of Commerce, affirmed that "businesses of all kinds are off because of this issue."
"Some of the information is factual, and other information is quite negative. It doesn't take much to scare people [in the United States] when you talk about Mexico."
Commerce on the border can be simple and safe, Feinman says, and he emphasizes that it remains so for those whose business in Nogales is legitimate. But, he explains, "you have to know what the laws are! Lindell did not know what the laws are."
Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, Burkhart agrees, although it seemed to be the very excuse that he used to pique the mainstream Arizona media's interest in his stepfather's case. The story became:
An elderly Phoenix man intent on nothing more than helping his sick, elderly wife went to corrupt Mexico to buy pills -- because her cheapskate insurance company insisted she get a cheaper generic version that she felt was less effective -- and he was arrested by venal Nogales authorities and thrown into a jail that makes Sheriff Joe Arpaio's hellish Tent City look like the Phoenician. What a travesty!
But the truth is somewhere south of that notion, though nobody's saying Mexico isn't wildly different from the United States. The fact that it's a country Americans tend to love for its bargains and lax regulations didn't play into Burkhart's media campaign. And while Lindell went to Mexico because he could make a Valium purchase that wouldn't be available in the Valley, he apparently didn't bother to find out the Mexican modus operandi used by countless thousands of others who had done it before him without much of a problem. The comfortable American didn't bother to follow the rules in another country.
"It's no excuse for Americans not to know the law when they are in Mexico, just as it's not an excuse for Mexicans not to know the law in the U.S.," Feinman says. "Two different countries, two different sets of laws."
Ray Lindell's arrest and that of several teenagers last spring -- who were dealing large quantities of Mexican-bought Soma in Valley high schools -- has hurt Nogales' image north of the border.
Pharmacy owners in Nogales are hurting. There are reports that tourists feel safer journeying to Los Algodones, about a three-hour drive from Phoenix, just south of Yuma, where there may be less heat from Mexican police.
It's true that recent events in Nogales have been good for Algodones street rats like Martin, 26. Nogales is full of young men who latch onto American tourists and help them find whatever they are looking for. But in Algodones, Martin is one of a hopeful handful of such "tour guides," and he's banking on the scare in Nogales bringing him more business.
Martin can provide tourists with everything from Soma to marijuana -- 48 kilos of it, he brags, just waiting for a buyer.
On a recent weekday afternoon, he leads a young couple past sidewalk souvenir stands to a back-street pharmacy where no prescription is necessary, no receipt is given and prices are double the amount imprinted on the box of "Neo-Percodan" -- which, it turns out, is not Percodan but a form of Darvon in a deceiving package.
Recreational drug users (like Martin's Percodan-seeking clients) have "burned" Nogales, he explains, meaning they have exploited the system to the point where authorities have been forced to react.
"Too much partying, too many problems. We don't have that here in Algodones," he says, smiling. "Yet!"
Los Algodones (population 5,000) is a swap meet of goods and services, mainly pharmacies, and optical and dental clinics. Most of the nearly two million tourists a year coming to the town to do business are in their 50s or older, most savvy enough to know the law, and have had less use for Martin's services than the young people who are starting to arrive.
Nogales is more of a party town, a cleaner, smaller version of Tijuana, where men like Oscar, 32, are part of the economic engine that drives the bustling place.
Oscar's what is known in Nogales as a "fixer," and, like Martin, he swears he can get "anything you want -- anything!" Most people come to him looking for narcotics and strippers, usually both.
"Pills and titty bars" are Oscar's professed areas of expertise. For each tourist he delivers to a pharmacy, he receives $5. Each strip club customer nets him $2, and certain restaurants pay him 50 cents for each table of gringos he directs their way.
Dressed in an oversize purple jersey, shorts and spotless running shoes, Oscar's face is somewhat pinched, his eyes everywhere at once. He's been up for a few days and looks it, but he's more wired than tired. It appears there's more than just hustle in his bloodstream.
Oscar hails from Ciudad Obregon, an agricultural town in Sonora. He has worn many hats since leaving his home for the north. Today he wears none; his black hair is buzzed, the left side of his head notable for a large patch of pure white about the size of a baby-jar lid. "A birthmark," he explains.
Later in the day, a dazed man carrying a plastic sack full of discarded soda cans will stop him on the street and tenderly touch the white spot while closing his eyes and murmuring something under his breath.
"It's a benediction," Oscar says, somewhat shyly. He means that the white in Oscar's hair is a symbol that he has been touched by God. "They think it is a blessing I am giving them. It happens all the time."
Oscar was a coyote in '92, he says, and brags of a daring run across the border in plain sight of immigration authorities, with him leading a group of 48 migrants at $20 a head. He doesn't do that anymore, he says. He's more of a broker for sex and drugs than a partaker these days. "I don't drink. If I want to smoke a joint or do a line or two, I do that at home, alone. I don't want any more trouble."
In 1994, Oscar says he worked for Cox Cable in Phoenix and rolls up his sleeve to show a nasty scar over his entire forearm. An accident with a sand blaster. He was working with false papers at the time, and says even though he had been with the company for six months, he had no medical insurance. "I talked with many lawyers and wanted to sue, but they said I couldn't because I'm Mexican."
He did some prison time north of the border, was deported and now is happy working the streets. "People want things, and I get them."
And what do the people whom Oscar meets want?
"Everything," he says, as he winks both eyes in quick succession.
Oscar navigates through Nogales quickly, crossing in the middle of the street at times without looking up, jumping off road obstacles with abandon.
The sidewalk merchants he passes are greeted with a handshake or a quick "Que onda 'mano," as Oscar cruises along the narrow sidewalks headed for the first stop on his "tour."
He turns off Obregon Street to Vasquez and begins to climb, telling a story along the way of an adventure last week.
Oscar met a man from New York and, for a price, helped him find an out-of-the-way hotel where he could hole up and shoot heroin. When they got to the hostelry, the man asked Oscar to find him a girl. Oscar obliged and returned shortly with the man's date. But the guy didn't answer repeated knocks on his hotel room door. Oscar was concerned, he says, and opened the door to find the man blue on the floor, not breathing. Oscar says he quickly began performing CPR, and as soon as the guy was breathing again, he called for help.
And what did he get for his trouble? He says police confronted him a few days later and beat him up, suspecting he had provided the heroin to the New Yorker. Oscar swears he didn't, quickly wiping his dripping nose. "I saved his life, and for this they kick and punch me?" he asks, holding his hands up to the sky as if he's expecting an answer.
Oscar stops a moment in front of his sister's house and quickly ducks into an alley, pointing to a cavernous opening about two feet off the street. He has arrived at the first stop on a tour he's giving. The area around and inside the tunnel entrance is a pungent sea of garbage.
This is one of several ways into underground Nogales, the filthy drainage system that keeps the city from flooding. It's a netherworld highway with several exits north of the border, most notably in the parking lot of a Church's Chicken in Nogales, Arizona. Oscar will move drugs through these tunnels for his U.S. clients, he says.
For a tip, and the commission he gets from the pharmacies he works for, Oscar can make getting drugs in Nogales trouble-free -- that is, with no hassles from Mexican police or customs, he boasts.
"You give me the prescription and the money, and I will fill it for you and meet you somewhere. Or, if you are nervous, I can meet you in a bathroom and pass it under the stall," he says.
"But if you want, I can buy the pills and meet you right before you cross la linea [the border].
"And if you are really nervous, on the other side. It's easy for me. I am smart, I think about things before they happen. I can walk into one of those tunnels and come out anywhere. No one can catch me."
In other words, when buying drugs in this border town, wise gringos play the game.
Ray Lindell claims he encountered a young woman on May 19 who offered him one of the same services that Oscar advertises.
Lindell says he was approached at a curio shop by a Mexican woman who wanted to mule the $200 worth of Valium he had just purchased across the border -- for a fee. He refused the offer, convinced that he had bought the 270 tablets legally.
He spent the next 56 days in prison. There is no bond for this kind of crime in Mexico, and many arrested on similar charges spend nearly a year in prison just awaiting trial.
A former electrician at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, Lindell is an unlikely criminal.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think he would be in prison," says Chris Burkhart, his stepson.
Fifteen years ago, Raymond Lindell lost his daughter in an accident at a church camp. Ten years ago, his son was murdered by an acquaintance. The deaths weighed heavily on his wife, Norma, and resulted in a nervous condition, Lindell explains, which she has been treating with Valium for years.
On January 1, the Lindells' insurance carrier decided it would no longer pay for prescriptions for brand-name Valium, and Norma was convinced that the generic equivalent was substandard.
Out of pocket, the cost of the premium narcotic was about $600 a month. Which forced Lindell, Burkhart's earnestly told every media outlet that would listen, to do what lots of senior citizens on limited incomes do.
He started traveling to Mexico to get the medication for his wife. Lindell made his first visit to Nogales and picked up a two-month supply for $120. Same m.o. as the time he got caught, he says. No problem.
"There's a good reason my mom takes Valium," Burkhart insists. "Since [these tragedies] happened, she's become a recluse. We pretty much take care of her."
Although Burkhart says he knows generic and brand-name medications are exactly the same, his mother couldn't be convinced. People who take prescriptions for nervous conditions are often hesitant to switch to a generic equivalent, contends Burkhart, as he begins to tell his stepfather's story. The Lindells informed their physician they would be going south of the border to purchase the medication, he says, and the doctor wrote her a prescription for three months' worth of the narcotic.
On May 19, Lindell took his wife's prescription, left his beautiful Moon Valley home and headed south in his gleaming white Cadillac for his second pharmacy run. He made his way to a pharmacy just across the line, although he couldn't say which one. Lindell could only recall seeing the word "discount" on the storefront, but most every pharmacy in Nogales advertises discount medicines.
Lindell presented his wife's Arizona prescription and handed over the $200 in cash. He didn't get a receipt for the 270 pills.
Lindell left the pharmacy and walked down the street, pausing at another store to look for a wallet for himself and a necklace for his wife. The young woman approached him, telling him she knew he had Valium in the bag and that it was illegal for him to carry very much across the border. She offered to walk it across herself, for $150, and he recoiled.
When Lindell exited the store a short while later, two plainclothes policemen stopped him and asked what was in the bag. They looked inside and inquired, "Is this for you?"
Lindell, whom his relatives maintain is painfully honest, said no and was arrested and taken to jail. He believes the situation would have been better for him if he had answered that he was purchasing the narcotic for personal use.
He was charged with illegal possession of drugs, possession with intent to transport and possession of drugs in a quantity for sale.
It was later that night that he was allowed to use the phone and called home with the names of a few Mexican attorneys he had been told about.
This was Wednesday night, and he informed his family that he wouldn't be allowed by police to see them until Saturday, at which time Burkhart traveled to Nogales to meet the lawyer he had hired over the phone and paid a $2,500 retainer for Lindell's defense.
Lindell's arraignment was set for the following Monday, and the attorney made a flurry of requests. He wanted medical records that would document Norma Lindell's nervous condition, a letter from her doctor, even a marriage certificate. It was all to be presented to the court on Monday.
Burkhart says he scrambled to put the records together that weekend, but was informed in court on Monday that it was too late to present such information and that Lindell would be formally charged on Thursday.
At that time, a judge threw out the two counts of possession of narcotics and possession with intent to sell, but kept the count of possession with intent to transport across an international border. Lindell was given a choice: either accept the charge and wait one to two years for a trial, or appeal. The latter could take two to three months for a court to consider, at which point Lindell would be allowed to present the evidence the judge refused to hear at his arraignment.
Naturally, Lindell appealed.
At first, Lindell had slept on the floor of his jail cell using his shoes as a pillow. The family soon found out they could bring him supplies, went to Wal-Mart on the American side of the border and bought food, a sleeping bag, a cot and some stomach medication, since Lindell had become ill from eating prison food.
"He had been incarcerated with the general population for four days," Burkhart says, "until we learned we could move him into a better area for $600 -- that is, a pod where he has room to set up his cot in a hallway."
Each Saturday, Lindell's family visited him, bringing supplies, money and mousetraps to keep rodents away from his small cache of victuals.
Lindell slowly learned the system.
"The inmates have to buy their own water, and they have to pay the guards $2 for phone access," says Burkhart. "Everything down there has to do with money. When he [went] out in the general population, he'd be the American, the new guy, and they knew he had money, at least $2 for the phone. He'd get swamped by people begging. When we'd go to visit -- these are cattle stalls with bars -- there was so much noise and confusion we barely [could] hear him."
Although Lindell's situation drew the attention of Sonora's governor Eduardo Bours, it originally stirred little reaction from the offices of government officials in Arizona, whose aides told Lindell's family that their hands were tied. The bottom line: A U.S. citizen buying drugs illegally in Mexico is on his own.
"What I want to ask them is if this was their father, would he still be in jail?" Burkhart fumes. "I don't think so. Why are they targeting a senior citizen with a valid prescription?"
When Burkhart brings up this "valid prescription" argument -- and he does it often -- he fails to mention that Lindell never got the necessary Mexican prescription. Which, it turns out, is why the pharmacy charged him almost twice what legally purchased Valium would cost in Mexico.
Burkhart, who's vacationed in Mexico frequently but apparently never fully realized he was in a foreign country with its own way of doing things, says the experience has soured him on America's southern neighbor for good.
"Even when you are going down there to have a good time, it's still stressful," he now says. "You get back across the border, and there's a sense of getting away with it. I used to go down there scuba diving and fishing, but no more. There are too many things in this country I haven't seen. If I want to scuba, I'll go to Hawaii; if I want to go fishing, I'll go to Alaska.
"Down there," he says, bitterly, "you never know if you are doing something wrong."
If Lindell had done just a little research, he would have known exactly what he was doing wrong. Warnings about the dangers of purchasing prescription drugs in Mexico abound.
Auto insurance companies such as Mexadventure caution that "just as in the U.S., the purchase of controlled medication requires a doctor's prescription."
The U.S. Department of State says, "Americans who commit illegal acts have no special privileges and are subject to full prosecution under the Mexican judicial system. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Mexico's laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned."
The U.S. Embassy in Nogales advises citizens not to go to Mexico solely to purchase prescription drugs. Its officials say the quality of medications cannot be verified, and purchasing narcotics and other controlled substances puts American citizens at risk while south of the border.
The People's Guide to Mexico's David Eidell has written extensively on buying prescription drugs in Mexico. First and foremost, he says, Americans must realize that "Mexico is a stable, regulated Republic with established rules and laws regulating drug manufacturing, distribution and sales."
But compliance with Mexican law while in Mexico was the last thing on Lindell's mind. He thought the U.S. prescription he claimed to possess and the money in his pocket was enough while in the Mexican border town. What he was really worried about, he states, was getting his wife's stash past U.S. Customs agents on his return to Arizona. Meyer, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says American citizens are permitted to enter the country with a three-month supply of prescription medication, provided they declare it at the border and have a valid U.S. prescription.
Days after his release, Lindell is recovering from his experience. On a recent weekday morning, he sits comfortably on a luxurious white sofa in the living room of his 3,600-square-foot, $278,000 Moon Valley home. The walls are covered with grand oil paintings, some bought, some the work of his wife. Original Hummel figurines perch on antique end tables as the morning sunshine filters through elaborate stained-glass windows.
The surroundings are quite a change from the cot he called home for the past eight weeks, and undercut his media portrayal as an impoverished senior.
While her husband's busy talking about his time in prison, Norma Lindell putters around the kitchen area murmuring to the couple's two bouncing Yorkshire terriers. Although she's only a few yards away from where Lindell sits, he says she's indisposed and unavailable for interviews. Protectively, he says, the ordeal has taken its toll on her already fragile nerves. While her husband was in the slammer in Mexico, she was forced to buy her drugs at a local pharmacy.
Lindell bristles at some of the remarks made by Nogales Police Chief Ramses Arce Fierro. "He must be quite a medical doctor," Lindell says. He's particularly annoyed at Arce's comment to a reporter that his wife must be taking a gargantuan dose of the narcotic to justify Lindell's large purchase.
"She's got several problems," Lindell explains. "She has problems with her feet, she lost a husband in a plane crash, there have been some traumatic experiences in our lives. She's been under the care of our family doctor for 20 years, and the doctor knows whether she should be taking [Valium] or not."
Lindell delivers the same message that he delivered to the media before his release. "I want to get the news out. I want senior citizens not to have the kind of problems I had." He says that no one should go pill-shopping in Mexico because it's "too risky with the amount of corruption they have to deal with."
What's corrupt, in Lindell's estimation, is that police focus more on the buyer of illegal drugs than the seller. He skirts the fact that if he had gotten a Mexican prescription, even the large amount of Valium he purchased wouldn't have been illegal in Mexico.
Lindell says his wife is prescribed three 10-milligram pills a day. That means that if he were bringing in a month's supply of 270 pills for her, she would have to be taking three 10-milligram pills a day.
Lindell goes on, "If a teen or senior is arrested buying pills off the street, then they should be arrested. If a person walks into a pharmacy with a prescription and the pharmacy sells it to him, the police chief should be busting the pharmacy."
He is, of course, referring to his U.S. prescription.
Lindell wonders how he got away with his "crime" in March and not in May. "The first time [purchasing Valium] I was not arrested," he says, contending his protocol was the same. "The second time I was. They're not enforcing the laws."
Ed Schwer has worked with various U.S. law enforcement agencies for 14 years. He is currently on disability. In his mid-30s, Schwer has been a customer of Mexican pharmacies, as well as an investigator of cases involving drug purchases in Mexico. Schwer buys antibiotics and thyroid medication in Mexico for his wife regularly. When you live close to the border, it's the thing everybody does because, if you know what you're doing, it's easier and cheaper.
"I've never had a single problem in 20-plus years," he says.
Based on the cases he's worked, Schwer says, people tend to have problems when they buy large quantities of drugs like muscle relaxants.
Schwer says that over the past few months, coinciding with the publicity over Lindell's arrest, people are expressing more caution about buying prescription drugs in Mexico.
He says many Americans demonstrate a lot of "attitude" when they go south to buy controlled substances.
"Some Americans behave as if [Mexicans] should be thankful they are there spending money," Schwer says. "If they break the law, they expect Mexicans to look the other way."
Or be convinced to do so for a few pesos.
Schwer says Mexican law enforcement has changed since the late '80s and early '90s when it was common to buy your way out of small offenses through a bribe, or mordida. "Law enforcement down there is more professional, there's an eagerness now [to stay on the straight and narrow]. They are paid more, trained better and taking more pride in their jobs."
Americans should not be critical of a country for enforcing its own laws, he stresses. Imagine how little sympathy authorities would have for a Mexican if he did not follow U.S. law and was discovered with the amount of narcotics that Lindell possessed.
A U.S. citizen should know that he's committing a crime in Mexico, Schwer says, when he obtains "medication that he reasonably should know is a controlled substance in the U.S." without a Mexican prescription.
Even though Burkhart and the mainstream media tried to garner sympathy for Lindell because of his age, Schwer says age has nothing to do with guilt or innocence in the United States or Mexico.
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"It's ridiculous to bring that up," he says. "It doesn't matter how old he is. Lindell broke the law when it would have been easy and inexpensive to get a prescription from a Mexican doctor."
Lindell got himself jailed for nearly two months, Schwer says, over "a matter of $20."
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