TIJUANA — With a practiced eye, Arturo, a Tijuana taxi driver in an open-necked, baby-blue silk shirt, sizes up the tourists trudging off the footbridge from the United States.
"Taxi, lady? You want pharmacy? I get you good pharmacy," he urges, stepping from a line of beckoning taxi drivers in big belts and straw cowboy hats. "Good prices! No prescriptions!"
Soon he is nosing his long yellow Oldsmobile through scruffy streets choked with pharmacies. His customer wants Rohypnol--the so-called "date-rape drug," illegal in the United States. In less than an hour, a pharmacist is handing the American a box of the potent white pills.
"Be careful with this stuff," he warns.
Indeed. Rohypnol is the hottest new drug threat in the U.S. Southwest. Snapped up by everyone from heroin addicts in Los Angeles to teenage partyers in Dallas, the sedative threatens to become the "Quaalude of the 90s," some authorities say. Worried drug enforcement officials are pushing for penalties for its misuse like those for heroin and LSD.
Rohypnol is "another nightmare for every parent in America," U.S. Customs Commissioner George Weise said in March as he banned importation of the drug.
But unlike heroin or cocaine, Rohypnol has a respected corporate manufacturer--the Swiss pharmaceutical giant F. Hoffmann-La Roche, which produces it in Mexico City.
And instead of being sold by gun-toting traffickers, it is available in much of Latin America with a doctor's prescription--often easily obtained. It appears to be crossing the U.S. border via booming pharmacies in cities such as Tijuana.
While the company has tried to avert smuggling, "what we can't control is easy access through these border pharmacies," said Carolyn Glynn, a Hoffmann-La Roche spokeswoman.
The sudden popularity of the drug has returned the spotlight to Mexico's border drugstores, which for years have done a thriving business with Americans but have recently exploded in number.
So many American tourists are buying drugs that Tijuana's pharmacies have doubled in the past five years and now number 700, said Ignacio Romo Calderon, vice president of the local pharmacy association.
"Everyone who has money opens a pharmacy," he said.
With their cheap, government-controlled prices, they have drawn tens of thousands of Californians, often retirees, who snap up brand-name blood pressure, cholesterol and other medications, often saving 50% or more.
And thanks to looser regulations, the pharmacies also readily sell drugs that are unavailable or require prescriptions in the United States, from Prozac to treatments for AIDS and cancer.
On Tijuana's Avenida Revolucion, a tourist strip where merchants hawk liquor and Cuban cigars amid the blare of mariachi music, bustling drugstores with names like Pharmacy America and New York Pharmacy ring up an average of $3,000 in sales a day, Romo Calderon said.
While they lack hard proof, U.S. authorities have told the Mexican government at two high-level meetings in recent months that they believe that the pharmacies are selling Rohypnol to young Americans. Mexican officials say they're cracking down.
But a visit to Tijuana indicates that Rohypnol is still readily available--as are people like Arturo who guide tourists to friendly pharmacies and revolving-door doctors' offices.
"Many pharmacies sell it without a prescription," shrugged Carlos Aparicio, a white-coated shop assistant at El Fenix, one of a staggering 18 drugstores in a shopping plaza about five minutes' walk from the border. His pharmacy is not among them, he added.
U.S. police first began to spot abuse of Rohypnol, the brand name for the drug flunitrazepam, in 1993. Although it has never been approved for use in the United States, the sleeping medication is sold legally in 64 countries.
But it wasn't insomniacs who used the drug in Florida and Texas, where Rohypnol first became a problem. The small, inexpensive pills were popped by addicts to heighten a heroin trip, or by teenagers who wanted to feel drunk. Rock star Kurt Cobain overdosed on Rohypnol and champagne a month before killing himself.
Perhaps most grisly, Rohypnol is blamed in numerous date-rape cases. Men allegedly have slipped it into their companions' drinks, rendering them unconscious. Since the drug causes short-term memory loss, women have awakened confused and disheveled, only to learn that they have been assaulted.
The Drug Enforcement Administration says it has logged more than 2,400 criminal cases involving Rohypnol. As it increasingly turns up in California, legislators are trying to establish prison terms for people possessing or selling the pills, nicknamed "roofies." Last week, Florida put Rohypnol into the same legal category as heroin and cocaine.
"We are seeing it in Los Angeles, we're seeing lots of it," Los Angeles Police Det. Trinka Porrata said at a recent news conference.