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Border Towns' Best Ally In Drug Fight: Families

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In a garage-like, cement-floored community center offering nothing more than two bare light bulbs against the falling night, the mayor of this dusty Pacific resort town has come to enlist the help of families in the city's latest battle.

"We are here because the problem we have is too big for us to address alone," says Hugo Torres Chabert, the mayor of Playas de Rosarito. Flanked by representatives of local law enforcement, health, and other social service agencies, Mr. Torres tells the shivering but attentive audience of mostly Indian-featured faces, "We're calling our program Somos Familia [We're Family] because we have to all be in this together."

The problem the mayor refers to is drug abuse and the crimes that accompany it. Torres and his police chief, a psychologist, a drug-prevention specialist, a sports director, and others have come to Morelos, a poor community of dirt streets three miles out of town, because growing drug abuse in Mexico is wreaking havoc even on isolated settlements like this.

What's remarkable about the Morelos public meeting is what it says about changing approaches in Mexico toward both drug use and government-citizen relations. After years of denying that drug abuse was an important problem, Mexican officials now openly acknowledge that a growing part of the drugs shipped through or produced in Mexico stay here, leading to rising drug abuse.

At the same time, Mexico's deepening democratization is fostering a new focus on community involvement. In the case of drugs, this means new emphasis on reaching youths, prevention, and police-neighborhood cooperation, where before there was only distant and mistrusted law enforcement.

"We've come to the conclusion that to really address [drug abuse] and make prevention work, you have to make it a project of the community, where they feel it is theirs," says Walter Beller Taboada, director of crime prevention and community services with the federal attorney general's office in Mexico City. Before Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar took office in December 1996, he says, "this kind of thinking didn't exist."

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