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Prescription Drugs Flow in Illegal Tide

Medicine: Black market for Mexican pharmaceuticals feeds demand among immigrants, as in Tustin case.

February 27, 1999|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Major shipments of Mexican prescription drugs are being smuggled into Southern California from Tijuana, fueling ever greater sales through pharmacies and illegal back-room clinics, state and federal officials say.

The pervasive black-market sales, mainly by Latino merchants, have emboldened shop owners not only to sell pharmaceuticals to immigrant customers, but also to take the more dangerous next step: Some merchants are giving injections and practicing medicine.

Tustin police are investigating whether the illegal practice contributed to the death of 18-month-old Selene Segura Rios, who died two hours after receiving what her parents were told was a penicillin injection in the back room of a toy store Monday.

She was the second Latino child in the last 10 months to die after receiving injections from unlicensed practitioners in Orange County. Christopher Martinez, 13 months old, died after getting five injections from a would-be doctor at a storefront clinic in Santa Ana.

"Stores selling illegal prescription drugs of all kinds are a pervasive problem in the Hispanic community," said Howard Ratzky, the supervising drug investigator in Southern California for the state Department of Health Services' food and drug division. "It's very hard to stop, and nobody knows how many stores out there are engaging in this."

On average, state drug agents investigate about one unlicensed store each month in Southern California, Ratzky said.

But the issue has gone beyond "the trend of an unlicensed store selling prescription drugs," he said. More recently, he said, "some [merchants] have begun offering medical treatment by people identifying themselves as physicians."

A U.S. Customs agent in San Diego also noted a growing number of cases in which people who sell the drugs also inject them into patients.

"Unfortunately, immigrants know where these places are. They'll go to the back of the store and someone will say, 'You look OK,' and an untrained person will give a kid an injection," the agent said.

The problem with Mexican drugs is that many are counterfeit medicines and the quality control is lax, said Customs Agent Lisa Fairchild. "A scarier danger is that sometimes the packets don't contain the medication that the label says is inside," she added.

In almost every case, the prescription drugs are manufactured in Mexico or other Latin American countries and sold clandestinely to immigrant customers from back shops of businesses located in strip malls that cater to Latino shoppers.

Lately, more and more of those drugs are being shipped into the country illegally, customs officials say.

Drugs in Cleanser, Vitamin Containers

On Wednesday, the same day that Tustin police announced baby Selene's death, state agents and local police raided the Trolley Minimart on Valley Boulevard in El Monte. Investigators seized syringes and numerous pharmaceuticals manufactured in Mexico and hidden in false bottoms of cleanser containers and disguised in vitamin bottles, Ratzky said.

Los Angeles and Orange counties "are a big market for pharmaceuticals smuggled from Tijuana," said a U.S. Customs agent who specializes in cases involving illegal prescription drugs. "The problem has grown dramatically in the last three or four years, but nobody has a handle on how much is being brought across."

Figures released by customs officials Friday show 107 seizures of pharmaceuticals at ports along the California-Mexico border in the past four months. Six people have been arrested on smuggling charges while in possession of a variety of restricted prescription drugs, including antibiotics, opiates, barbiturates and Viagra.

But federal officials have not maintained statistics on the problem. A customs spokesman in San Diego said the emphasis is still on tracking the number and quantities of narcotics seizures.

Buyers of illegal prescription drugs typically are low-income and uninsured, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America. But they also can be unwitting customers of pharmacies that bring in medicine from Mexico.

The customs agent, who asked to remain anonymous, said pharmaceutical smugglers range from the nondescript to people like Park City, Utah, pharmacist Cliff Holt. Holt was arrested after customs inspectors seized 19,000 prescription pharmaceuticals at the San Ysidro port of entry Jan. 17, 1998.

The drugs were being transported for Holt by his sister and brother-in-law. Later, Holt admitted that since 1989 he had smuggled 25 loads of drugs, ranging from Prozac to pediatric antibiotics, from Tijuana for sale in his Park City pharmacy.

Federal prosecutors said Holt purchased the drugs cheaply in Tijuana and sold them as U.S.-made pharmaceuticals, making an exorbitant profit. Holt was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison.

"Increased trafficking in Mexican pharmaceuticals is a growing problem in this country, and we intend to address it," U.S. Atty. Charles G. La Bella in San Diego said when Holt was sentenced last month.

Emergency State Law Is Sought

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