Strange Miracles in the Desert

The U.S.-Mexico border provides a unique advantage for people struggling with heroin addiction.

Narcotics Anonymous, A flauta restaurant, heartbreak, The Cielo Vista Walmart, Two baby Chihuahuas, Los matachines, Confusing fear with exhilaration, Hell’s Angels, Transitional homelessness

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By Patrick Sean Gibson

Scott Comar tries his best to stay under the radar. The 6’3″ University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) history professor got his bachelor’s degree at age forty-four, wrote a book about his heroin addiction few have read, and teaches 600 students a semester. He has enormous eyes, an egg-shaped head, and the energy of a bull rider, exhausted but perpetually on edge. His emotional switchboard toggles between desperation and hope, and at some point in talking to him, the two feelings start to sound like the same thing.

Comar is fifty-four years old. His friends call him a miracle for having survived twenty-five years of active heroin addiction. Before he moved to El Paso, Comar lived in Ciudad Juárez for nine years. First, while he was addicted to heroin, and then later as a student at UTEP. As both an addict and a sober student, he’d wake up around dawn and walk north over the Santa Fe Bridge, the pedestrian check point between the United States and Mexico. As a junkie, he’d spend his days approaching countless border crossers with a story about needing money for a bus ticket to New York. When he cleaned up, he’d get to El Paso everyday right when the sun came up, carrying floppy disks so he could print out his homework.

For a heroin addict, Ciudad Juárez is Mecca. It’s cheap, drug possession charges result in just a couple of nights in jail, and the ability to earn U.S. currency by begging or doing odd jobs in El Paso significantly increases a person’s buying power in Mexico. These are things Comar learned after he abandoned his trucker job and moved from New York to Juárez in 1998. It’s also what several U.S. citizens who suffer from long-term addiction have told me makes Juárez the perfect place to live. And there’s no reason why they’d ever want to go back.

“I thought the border was really a great chance to redefine myself and rearticulate my identity,” Comar tells me. “I wanted to cash in my old life because I wasn’t happy with it anymore, and I wanted to get a new life. Becoming something new is the essence of recovery.”

Heroin and methadone go for half the price than in the U.S., and users can benefit from needle exchange programs in Juárez, which are illegal in Texas and in ten other states. What’s more, as Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at UTEP and long-time researcher of overlooked borderland communities, puts it, border junkies acquire a bicultural aptitude that greatly increases their access to resources in both nations.

The image of Juárez as an addict’s paradise only came into focus in the mid-1990s. Much of it as a consequence of U.S. immigration policy, the emergence of foreign-owned assembly-plants called maquiladoras, and the city’s escalating economic problems that plague the vast majority of its 1.39 million inhabitants. If Comar was still living there and strung out today, his days would be made even more miserable with increasingly longer lines to cross the border and unpredictable waves of violence. But for those U.S. citizens who live the way that Comar did, anything’s better than the hand-to-mouth existence up north.

Comar still loves to talk about Juárez, even though he rarely goes back. His speech is slow and rounded, every word pronounced like the voice on an English-learning CD. I first met Comar at a flauta restaurant in El Paso, and then started going with him to Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. I liked him immediately because he has this perfectly-timed sarcasm that always goes with a just so slight tilt of the head.

The summer of 1998 Comar had been six months clean when he parked his truck in El Paso on a delivery run. On instinct, the first thing he did was cross over the bridge into Ciudad Juárez. The city was experiencing one of its momentary flashes of prosperity mainly due to the success of the maquiladora industry. The once uninhabited patchy desert areas had evolved into bustling streets and neighborhoods. Most of the city had running water, and more elementary and middle schools had started to pop up.

Mexican heroin does the job and it’s half the price than up north. Comar did a couple of more delivery runs before he sold the truck for a quick $5,000 and moved permanently to Juárez. Soon, he was renting a small one-room house for $50 a month. Finding a network of shoot up buddies was easy, too, and Comar was a loyal and honest customer. “I was lucky there,” he said while telling a story about someone grazing a knife on his stomach when waiting in line to buy drugs. “You’re dealing with narcotraficantes but you’re also dealing with country people who are sincere and aren’t one-hundred percent corrupted.”

Nearly thirty years of front-page stories on drugs and murder have eclipsed any other kind of reputation Juárez could possibly have. It’s easy to romanticize dark and seedy places, and writers and journalists have long been drawn to the low flickering cantina lights and inexplicable large piles of rubble that surround Juárez’s complicated networks of drug dealers and killers. But there are taxi drivers who will convince you to sing along to the radio with them, Cubans selling fried food on the sidewalks, and miles upon miles of brown barren land covered in countless cement and wood dwellings that makes the visitor contemplate the mystery of it all.

Deep in the badlands is where Pastor José Antonio Galván runs a mental hospital and rehab center called Visión en Acción. He’s a tall, tubby figure with impeccable Richard Gere hair and addresses all of his hundred-plus patients as if they were his children or grandparents. He’s married several patients in group weddings and has hired some of the stabilized ones as full-time staff. In fact, the only non-patient worker is a nurse that comes in a few times a week.

El Pastor is what everyone calls him, and he wears merlot-colored robes and black Chinese silk from head to toe. While showing me the facilities, we enter the main yard where some fifty patients are spending the day standing around. When he rests a hand on a patient’s shoulder or gives them a high-five, they gaze up at him like he’s the shining white light they’ve been waiting for.

Just like approximately half of Visión en Acción’s population, El Pastor was also a drug addict. He spent twelve years living in Los Angeles working as a foreman before he was arrested for drug possession and deported in 1985. “I ended up a crazy person living on the streets of Juárez, the largest insane asylum of them all!” He says. “One day, I was walking around drinking a forty and smoking a doobie when a preacher saw me and screamed, ‘Repent you son of a devil!’”

That was his awakening moment. He then started to build his ad-hoc mental asylum in the desert and drove around picking up the strung out and mentally ill and bringing them in. Patients don’t pay a thing to stay there, and every year, he receives around twenty people who were deported from the U.S.

The late borderlands chronicler Charles Bowden was good friends with El Pastor. Bowden kept thorough records of femicides in Juárez, and in his writings made the city out to be as depraved and miserable as the headlines. Galván has a three-panel poster of pixilated photos of Bowden in his office, and showed me a strange slow-motion video of him talking on a couch. In his book Murder City, Bowden referred to Visión en Acción as “the crazy place,” and called El Pastor “a small lens, and if you look through this lens, you see these invisible people because he is their last and only hope.”

I don’t see any hope in Anthony who arrived at Visión en Acción a few days ago. He’s been sleeping in a cage just slightly wider than the width of his body while he withdraws from crystal meth with the help of several medications.

“We’re in Juárez?” Anthony asks me. Anthony’s parents told him that they were bringing him to stay at a friend’s house. “[They] threw me in here and then were like, ‘bye,’” he says letting out a nasaly laugh.

We talk at a picnic table. He rests his head on his skinny elbow because he’s dizzy. The thirty or forty big black flies that swirl around us camouflage into his neatly-trimmed beard. A tiny woman with no teeth walks up to us and pets my head. “She’s cute,” he says. He likes everyone he’s met at the center so far, but doesn’t think he needs help.

Anthony’s twenty-five years-old and has lived in El Paso his whole life. His parents are U.S. residents from Mexico, and as Anthony puts it were, “all of a sudden just too concerned about me.” He blames them for not knowing about the magnet program at his high school, which according to him, could have put him on a better path away from drugs.

Anthony starts to cry when I ask him how he got started using meth. “I tried it because I had a crush on this guy, and I didn’t like it, but I really liked the guy, and I guess I wanted to spend more time with him. I didn’t want to do it.”

Heartache is a common catalyst for addiction. “People who cannot find or receive love need to find substitutes—and that’s where addiction comes in,” writes physician and addiction expert Gabor Maté in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Step Four in Narcotics Anonymous 12 Step Program explains that for addicts, healthy partnerships are unachievable because of the need to dominate a relationship or depend too much on one. Comar and the other U.S. citizens I spoke with who let their addiction grow and fester in Juárez all had stories of failed love. But the ex-girlfriend or wife just plays a minor role—the demise of their romance only gave them the momentum to jump off the ledge where they had already been standing for years.

A broken marriage is what led Pete to Mexico. He had lived a life of ordinary routine for several years in Phoenix working as an engineer and raising a family until his wife filed for divorce. “I didn’t see it coming at all. I was going to school full-time, working full-time. She never saw me so that might have been part of it, but she could have said something,” he tells me hunched over, sitting on his bed that takes up the main room of his apartment. His place feels like a deserted beach shack. Tacked on the walls is fake evening primrose and 1980s centerfold nudes. True crime plays on his giant flat screen television, and two baby Chihuahuas sleep at our feet.

Pete is very pale; his skin and long hair are nearly the same shade of white. He’s 68 years old, and looks like an old Chet Baker with the same square jaw and thick wrinkles. Pete tells me that he thinks he knew Comar during his Juárez days. But really, it could have been any number of strung out white guys who were there during the 1990s. At one point, they were hard to miss, but today, Pete estimates that there’s around 50 U.S. citizens living in Juárez.

In 1985, after he signed the divorce papers Pete moved to the city of Chihuahua for an engineering contract. On his way back up north, he stopped in Juárez and decided to stay. He quickly joined the community of African-Americans there. “They were happy and not afraid to live here,” he says. According to UTEP anthropology professor Howard Campbell, at one point there were as many as two-hundred African Americans living in Juárez, most of them coming from the Fort Bliss military base in El Paso. “Mexican men copied Black style in hand gestures and language,” he wrote in a study with fellow UTEP professor Michael Williams. African Americans considered Juárez “a utopian alternative to white racism and a place to recreate a vibrant hybrid African-American world.”

Pete was an alcoholic living in Juárez when he started dating a woman who convinced him that crack would make him drink less. “Crack was way too addictive, so I decided why not do heroin.” According to Pete, it’s both easier to get hooked on heroin and help for managing the addiction in Juárez, since drugs and methadone are cheaper and there isn’t as much healthcare bureaucracy as there is in the U.S. A few days a month, he would cross the bridge and catch the bus out to the Cielo Vista Walmart and sit beside the sliding door with a sign that read “veteran needs help” for several hours and usually make around $80.

After a white supremacist killed twenty-two people on August 3, 2019, Pete stopped going to Cielo Vista and hasn’t found a new sign-flying spot since. With his small pension, he’s able to afford his $80 a month rent and pay for his methadone, heroin, groceries, naloxone kits, and give a few bucks to his neighbor Ethan; another U.S. citizen addict living in Juárez, to check on him to make sure he’s alive once a day.

Living on U.S. dollars in Juárez gives a person a lot of easy freedom, and it’s also allowed Pete to foster many friendships. As he says, “people don’t forget you here.” But how do transactional friendships work in the fifth deadliest city in the world? “I have a composition notebook. Each page has about twenty lines and there are four pages filled with the names of people who owe me money, and ninety-percent of those people are dead,” he says.

It’s easy to confuse fear with exhilaration. Bowden called fear “almost like a special event.” Landing in Juárez, I always notice the smell of wet dog and the countless window washers who desperately try to wipe down your moving car, but I don’t sense violence and I don’t feel afraid. Instead, there’s a nervous, thrilling curiosity of what could happen.

A friend in El Paso told me about an acquaintance, a young woman who was abducted on the Santa Fe Bridge and later found dead by her mother in a flophouse. I think of her when a taxi driver offers to take me to a carnival instead of my destination and I accept and we watch the matachines dance. The woman comes to mind again when a bartender tells me to never talk about addiction in public because you don’t know who’s listening, and she’s there once more when I’m given a tour of several shooting galleries. Yet, these are special events, and I want to go along.

“The trajectory of drug addiction in Juárez is very much influenced by U.S. policy,” says Maria Elena Ramos Rodriguez, the director of Programa Compañeros, the only harm reduction center in Juárez. Up until the early 1990s, thousands upon thousands of Mexicans and U.S. citizens were able to freely cross the border without being hassled if they forgot their driver’s license or passport. Drug trade crime was tightly managed by police, and in 1992, there were approximately fifty-eight reported homicides, a relatively low number compared to the 1,499 last year.

In 1993, violence significantly escalated when Juárez Cartel leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes started paying his drug traffickers with cocaine instead of money. The gang was expanding and so was their surplus of drugs. The city authorities demolished the Mariscal district, the epicenter of sex work and drug sales, in attempt to improve the city’s reputation. Tearing down the brothels and bars had a fumigation effect, and vice subsequently ran scurrying throughout every neighborhood in town. Heroin went from being isolated to a few neighborhoods in and around Mariscal to being wildly accessibly across Juárez. The price started dropping, too; from $20 a dose to around $2.50 to $4, which is how much it goes for today.

That same year, the recently-appointed U.S. border patrol chief, Silvestre Reyes, implemented Operation Blockade, a measure that prevented undocumented workers from entering El Paso and placed greater scrutiny on Mexicans who were illegally working on temporary visas. The policy was one of the first of many fissures in the U.S.’s relationship with Mexico. “Before, heroin wasn’t so available in Juárez. Then came Operation Blockade, and it started having a strong presence,” says Julián Rojas Padilla, Programa Compañeros’s project coordinator and harm reduction specialist. “They couldn’t bring it into the U.S. as easily anymore, so it had to stay here locally, and many people started using.”

With Reyes’s policy in effect, the many thousands of undocumented people who used to work in Texas or New Mexico and would come back to Juárez after their shifts now faced extremely limited money-making options. However, the growing local drug economy offered feasible careers for the former border-crossing workers and many others turned to the maquiladoras, which were rapidly growing in number and hungry for workers. During the early 1990s, they paid $1.77 an hour, a devastating wage, especially considering that the peso was valued at around 3,000 to the dollar in 1991.

The maquiladoras were mainly responsible for the population boom in Juárez, which jumped from 567,000 residents in 1980 to 1.2 million in 2000. Rates of drug abuse grew as more and more maquiladoras opened throughout the city. Many of the plants are miserable places. The work is exhausting, dangerous, and rife with sexual harassment and intimidating hierarchies.

Ricardo thought he could get work in the maquiladoras when he voluntarily deported himself to Juárez in 2007 at the age of thirty. Ricardo is short and thin and talks in a slow Texan drawl. Like many people who fall into addiction after moving to Juárez, Ricardo had never done hard drugs before. “It was easier for me to get hooked on heroin because I was alone from my family,” he says. “I felt I had no friends. When I got here I thought, why’d I make this decision, everything and everybody I need is still over there.”

In Houston where he grew up, Ricardo was terrified of the idea of getting arrested again and spending more time in prison. He’d already done five years for armed robbery, and a prison gang told him they were going to kill him, so he decided to do his last year and a half in solitary confinement. Once out of prison, he lost his residency and then his girlfriend, so he figured that he should move to Mexico where he wouldn’t have to hide from Immigration Customs Enforcement.

Ricardo has been through a lot of therapy at Programa Compañeros. He can talk about his fear freely. His fear of getting arrested, his fear of never being able to quit heroin. His fear that his daughter won’t be raised right. Fear is the seed of addiction, and researchers have long pointed out that addicts have more fears and worries than those who don’t struggle with substance abuse. Step Seven in the Twelve Steps says, “The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear.” Author of Unbroken Brain and addiction journalist Maia Szalavitz anchors her addiction to heroin and cocaine to her obsessive fear of death. For years, my sister, Erin in Massachusetts didn’t know how to articulate her fear. She first got hooked on OxyContin at age 17, around the same time our father died of cancer. It was a year later when a friend of hers called to tell me she had a problem. When I asked Erin recently about what made her start using, she said, “I was afraid of life, because I didn’t understand death. I felt abandoned by dad. I didn’t want to think about what that meant for me or my future.”

There are vast, obvious differences between the middle-class kids from New England who are secret junkies and the U.S. citizens who live in squalor in Juárez and are deeply addicted to heroin. But the thing they have in common that deportees like Ricardo don’t share is the luxury to ignore their fear. My sister and her friends would hide up in the rooms of their cozy childhood homes, high on pills they could easily steal or buy for cheap. Likewise, the U.S. dollars that border junkies scrounge for during the day ensure that they’ll always be able to pay for drugs and never have to be homeless like Ricardo, and when they get sick, they can get reliable medical attention in El Paso.

Addiction is largely considered a hereditary condition. One National Institutes of Health study found that substance abuse is inherited at a rate between 40 and 70 percent, with anxiety and impulsivity being symptomatic predictors. Matt grew up in Fremont, California with a step father in Hell’s Angels and a mother who was addicted to crack. He’s lanky with a gray pony tail neatly tied at his nape, and under other circumstances, could pass for a high school guidance counselor or guitar store clerk. But instead, he’s a street junkie who has been living in a hut made out of pallets and cardboard in a friend’s backyard in Ciudad Juárez.

After getting out of prison in 2001, Matt went to Roswell, New Mexico on a whim but didn’t like it so decided to check out El Paso. He wasn’t there even an hour when he walked into Juárez. “I had the time of my life for $50. I bought cigarettes, a room, and got drunk; I couldn’t believe I could afford that,” he says. “That was that, and ever since then I’ve been here.” Matt will often wait in line on the bridge for two and a half hours to cross over into El Paso where he flies a sign asking for spare change.

Matt has tried NA meetings and has been in and out of rehab several times. Campbell encouraged Matt to apply to UTEP where he lasted two years. “Matt could have died about 100 times by now, but he’s pretty resilient” Campbell tells me. At one point, he introduced Matt to Comar and the meeting was like the ghost of Christmas past and future forcing themselves to make conversation. Neither of them liked each other, to say the least.

Matt doesn’t have the hope that Comar had when he was down and out. Instead, he’s found comfort in living on the edge of death. In November 2002, Comar was living in a friend’s basement when he decided to get clean once and for all. Had he been in the U.S., he would have been sleeping in a homeless shelter, a tunnel, or some street alcove. Campbell considers Comar to have been transnationally homeless; he was able to secure some bare means of shelter due to his connections made in Juárez.

“I couldn’t have gotten clean if I was enabled by any kind of cash flow. So I totally had to be down and out and homeless and on my last leg,” says Comar. “That’s what enabled me to totally surrender to the unknown, and the unknown was the journey of recovery.”

Comar says he didn’t sleep for thirty-eight days as he went through his final withdrawal in a treatment center in El Paso County. It was there that he encountered extraordinary luck when another recovering addict offered him a free apartment in Juárez. He soon found a part-time job moving furniture in El Paso, started going to NA meetings, got married, enrolled in classes at El Paso Community College.

In recent years, Comar’s connection to Juárez has frayed. Deterred by nostalgia, long border lines, and miserable immigration officers he visits a lot less than he used to, and instead focuses on his struggles in El Paso. “If you really want to know the truth, there are moments in my life when I feel I’m this far away from being homeless again because of the state of the economy and my employment status,” he tells me. “I’ve been teaching full time for almost three years as an adjunct professor on a per semester basis, and when I’m scrambling with the classes and trying to make a budget and deciding what I’m going to do, I feel like I’m panhandling again.”

In his book Border Junkies, Comar writes that he found a sense of “newness and opportunity” in Juárez. A kind of grass-is-always-greener perspective meshed with the reality that addiction is a much more freeing experience in Mexico. It’s a soothing notion for an addict to know that they’ll have cheaper housing, drugs, and fewer legal liabilities getting high. That said, in a time when homelessness is increasing in U.S. cities and by the same token addiction rates have soared, nursing a heroin addiction in a border town could be the beginning of a trend, and we’re seeing some of this evidence unfolding. According to Said Slim Pasaran, social programs coordinator at Verter A.C., a harm reduction center in the border city of Mexicali, 10 percent of their clients are U.S. citizens. A report from Univision found that 90 percent of patients at Clínica Nuevo Ser, a rehabilitation center in Tijuana, are U.S. citizens born to immigrant parents. It’s hard to say if addiction and homelessness have become a binational responsibility or as the story usually goes, the U.S. incidentally shoved the problem into Mexico, hoping to never have to deal with it.

However, Mexico is empathetic to its U.S.-delivered burdens. “Poverty is so endemic to Mexican society to see someone walking around and scrambling and asking for money, it was just kind of the norm,” says Comar. “If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been somebody else.”

And he wouldn’t be the last.

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