Naive Gringo Pill Popped Below Border

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.

"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!

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Susy Buchanan