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Patterns and Trends of Drug Abuse in El Paso, Texas

By G. William Lucker, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology, University of Texas at El Paso



Virtually all controlled substances are readily available in El Paso, Texas or just across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. El Paso also continues to be the “Pass to the North” for people, goods, and all manner of controlled substances. Drugs are often warehoused in “stash houses” in El Paso before they make their way on the Interstates to major cities throughout the US and Canada.


Among adults, alcohol dependence continues to be the primary reason for entering treatment in El Paso, although there is an increasing proportion seeking treatment for opiate dependence. Among youth, marijuana continues to be the primary reason for seeking treatment, with alcohol appearing in second place. Problems with cocaine and heroin abuse among youth remain limited.

Injecting drug use continued in second place in transmission modes of infection for AIDS. Males having sex with other males ranked first for males, and heterosexual contact was the most frequent cause of infection for females. As of December 31, 1997, 819 cases of AIDS had been reported in El Paso, of which 518 had died. Of the 819 cases, 9 were classified as pediatric. Seven of these cases were attributed to mothers with AIDS while the other two cases were due to hemophilia/coagulation disorder.

Area Description
El Paso is a very large, spread-out city with a mountain range separating the east and west sides for total area of about 248 square miles, making El Paso the fourth largest city in the state and the 17th largest in the country. More than 73% of El Paso’s population is Hispanic, about 22% is “Anglo”, and the remaining 5% is African American, Asian-American, Native-American, and others. The overall El Paso population is quite young, with a median age of 27.

Currently, El Paso has an estimated 653,404 legal residents and about 200,000 undocumented illegal aliens. Ciudad Juárez is home to an estimated 1.3 million people. Therefore, the combined El Paso/Juárez metropolitan area has a population of well over 2 million people, forming the largest border community in the world.


El Paso is the poorest large city in Texas and the fourth poorest large city in the nation. In 1993, median family income was $27,700 compared to $45,500 in Dallas, $41,800 in Austin, ad $34,500 in San Antonio. However, El Paso’s crime rate is generally much lower than cities of similar size in the region. In the December 1997 issue of Money Magazine, El Paso was ranked as the third safest city in the United States among those with a population of over 500,000.

Data Sources

  • Drug Enforcement Agency
  • El Paso City-County Health & Environmental District, 1998
  • El Paso County Metro Narcotics Task Force
  • El Paso Herald Post, 1997-1998
  • El Paso Police Department, 1998
  • El Paso Times, 1997-1998
  • Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, 1998 Infrastructure Fact Book
  • Los Angeles Times, 1997-1998
  • New York Times, 1997-1998
  • Texas Commission on Alcohol & Drug Abuse
  • US Customs Service

El Paso is short for “El Paso del Norte” or the Pass of the North, and to this day, El Paso continues to be a pass to the north for both people and goods. Over the last 8 years El Paso has seen a steady increase in trade, largely due to increased NAFTA-related activity. This has caused El Paso to be ranked 16th in trade among the largest Metropolitan statistical areas in the US with 25% of all trade between the US and Mexico crossing through the El Paso/ Juárez border.


Unfortunately, along with the legal trade, many illegal substances pass from south to north on their way to consumers throughout the United States. About 10 years ago when authorities successfully blocked the Caribbean routes used by the Colombian cartels, the Mexican border became the preferred route for smuggling drugs into the United States. NAFTA then eased drug trafficking by reinforcing well-established routes between Mexico and Texas. Amado Carrillo Fuentes of Juárez, who headed one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels, took advantage of El Paso and its access to Interstates 10 and 25.

When Carrillo Fuentes died July 4, 1997 during botched plastic surgery in Mexico City, a war erupted between rival factions for control of his multibillion-dollar drug empire. Since his death, an estimated 60 people have been killed in Juárez and the surrounding countryside. According to recent reports, the chaos has persuaded Colombian producers of cocaine, heroin and marijuana to concentrate more on routes in South Texas, smuggling routes through Florida, and new drug routes such as Puerto Rico.

Just as drugs have moved into the popular culture of Texas and the rest of the nation, Spanish language music now has its own contribution. Norteno or Conjunto reflect the economic problems of Mexico and the easy money involved in drug running. However, unlike gangsta rap, the Norteno approach seems softer toward law enforcement and without the rage behind rap songs.

The hero of one ballad nervously watches federal drug dogs sniff in vain around his Ford Bronco before a successful delivery. He drives away, as the accordion fades, in a Bronco full of gold.

Another song, a drug runner remains stoically silent as Mexican federales torture him for the whereabouts of his stash. Still another laments the fickle nature of women who seduce the smugglers and take the money without caring when their men are killed.


The severity of substance abuse-related problems in El Paso are in large part related to the drug trade that flourishes along our international border with Mexico. This illegal drug commerce influences the availability, variety, quality, and quantity of drugs in El Paso. As one of the local treatment providers commented, “when there is more of it around, it normalizes the drug and people don’t think about it as such a big deal.”

How does one characterize trends in drug abuse in El Paso? Unfortunately, trends in drug abuse are not directly observable. These trends generally are inferred from admission data from treatment facilities, police arrest data, regional drug seizures, hospitals emergency rooms, community surveys, and from individuals in the community who claim to be “knowledgeable” about the drug problem.

Although we are able to get reliable data from several of the sources, changes in drug usage patterns cannot be directly inferred from changes in these measures. For example, year-to-year variations in law enforcement budgets impact both seizure data and arrest data. Treatment data are also impacted by changes in the budgets of treatment providers as well as changes in law enforcement budgets, since a large part of treatment is criminal justice-referred. For example, in 1993 in El Paso, 63 percent all adult treatment was criminal justice-referred. Three years later, in 1996, the figure dropped to 17 percent of all adult treatment.

Admissions to Treatment
Looking at CODAP TCADA-funded treatment data for El Paso (see Figure 1), there was significantly less treatment delivered in 1996 and 1997 than for the previous three years. Concurrent with this drop, however, the El Paso County Alcohol & Drug Abuse treatment facility was closed in 1996 due to poor administration. In 1997, another organization in El Paso received funds to provide some of these services, but current indications are that they will run out of money three months before the new budget begins. The drop in 1996 followed by the small increase in 1997 treatment statistics might well be due solely to these changes in funding of treatment services.

By looking at proportion of services delivered broken down by primary drug, we can get some idea of the types of problems we are experiencing in the El Paso community.

  • Youth admitted to drug treatment programs were seeking treatment primarily for marijuana abuse (see Figure 2), with an increased proportion seeking treatment for alcohol abuse and a decreased proportion for cocaine and inhalant abuse. Opiates do not seem to be a significant problem for El Paso youth, based on these data.

  • Youth admitted to drug treatment in 1997 were primarily Hispanic (92%) males (53%) who averaged about 15 years of age with about 2 years of drug use prior to admission. It is troubling that the data indicate that females constitute an increasing proportion of those seeking treatment. They were about 30% of those treated in 1993 and have increased to about 47% in 1997.
  • For adults admitted to drug treatment, an increasing proportion was seeking treatment for opiate abuse, while a decreased proportion sought treatment for alcohol abuse (see Figure 3). Treatment for opiate abuse has increased from about 19% in 1993 to about 34% in 1997. Similarly, there was an increase in those reporting using needles for drug ingestion from about 26% in 1993 to about 40% in 1997.

  • Adults admitted to drug treatment in 1997 were primarily Hispanic (76%), males (78%), who averaged about 36 years of age with about 16 years of drug use prior to admission.

Hospital Admissions
Emergency rooms admission data also give us an indicator of usage or at least overusage patterns. Emergency room doctors in the county hospital report seeing about the same number of drug cases as they did last year. The most common things they see are heroin overdoses, drunk drivers who have smashed into other objects, and an assortment of younger adults who use cocaine, or marijuana or hallucinogens. On the other hand, an administrator at another hospital reports that the number of drug cases has increased since a new program of medical detoxification has been up and running during the last 18 months. He believes that once the word gets out, more are likely to come to the emergency room with that type of problem.

Deaths from Opiate- and Cocaine-Related Causes
During the period from 1992-1996, there has been an increasing number of opiate-related deaths for females while the trend has remained relatively level for males, excluding the large number of male deaths in 1992 (see Figure 4). During the same period, there has been an increase in cocaine-related deaths for males while the trend has remained relatively level for females. These trends reflect the easy availability, high quality, and low price of heroin and cocaine in the El Paso/ Juárez metropolitan area. The majority of all drug-related deaths in El Paso occur among Hispanic males.

Arrest Data
Another indicator of current substance abuse problems is to look at arrest data for possession of illegal substances. Arrest data were available from the El Paso Police Department for the years 1995 to 1997 (See Figures 5 & 6). Contrasting arrest data for possession for youth and adults during this period indicates an increasing arrest rate for both male and female youth under 18, while there was little change in the arrest statistics for adult data.

Over 80% of all youth arrested for possession of illegal substances are arrested for marijuana, about 15% are arrested for opium, cocaine and their derivatives, and about 5% are arrested for other drugs (See Figure 7). It is interesting that this pattern does not differ by gender.

Arrest data for adults reveals a very different pattern. While the majority of males were arrested for possession of marijuana (50%), only about 40% of females were arrested for marijuana possession (See Figure 8). In 1997, for example, 65% of all females arrested for possession were arrested for opium, cocaine & their derivatives while about 47% of adult males were arrested for this offense.

Narcotics Seizures
Another indirect indicator of level of substance abuse in a region is the level of narcotics seizures in that region. Seizure data from the El Paso Police Department, the DEA, and Customs indicate that drug and currency seizures, have doubled in 1997 and arrests and indictments in the El Paso region are up significantly. However, are these indicators of increased drug activity and usage, increased vigilance, or both? An informant from the El Paso Metro Narcotics Task-Force indicated that he believed that the increase in seizures in 1997 was due in large part to the death of Carillo-Fuentes. The disorganization that resulted from his death along with the struggle to succeed him led to inside information that resulted in a number of large seizures that might not have occurred without this death.


US Customs Service
West Texas/New Mexico
No. of Seizures
Quantity Seized (lbs.)
No. of Seizures
Quantity Seized (lbs.)
No. of Seizures
Quantity Seized (lbs.)
No. of Seizures
Value (millions)


Narcotics-Task Force Informant
A final way to understand drug abuse trends in El Paso is to talk to individuals who are on the “front line.” A 20-year veteran of Metro Narcotics provided the following information:

  • Marijuana has always been the drug of choice among both adults and youth in El Paso. The price has remained fairly consistent over the last 20 years. A ¼ oz. bag costs about $20, 1-oz. sells for about $60, and 1 lb. sells for about $400.
  • Cocaine use in El Paso has increased over the last several years due to the increasing supply and the decreasing cost. A ¼ gram bindle or balloon sells for about $20, a gram sells for $50, 8-balls or 1/8 oz. sells for $120, and 1 lb. sells for from $400-550. In comparison, in the 1980s cocaine used to sell for about $2,000 per pound.
  • Heroin usage has remained fairly consistent over the last several years. Heroin addicts tend to be adult; there is no evidence of a growing problem among youth. A dose of 1/10th gram sells for about $20.
  • Rohypnol has become an increasingly problem drug among high school-aged youth in El Paso. It can be easily purchased across the river in Cd. Juárez in any pharmacy, although there have been some reports in the Mexican press that it will no longer be legal sell it in Juárez. It sells on the street for $1-2 per pill.
  • And finally, crystal methamphetamine or crank use is increasing among the 20-year old set. It is manufactured locally from ephedrine in small-scaled operations which are harder to locate by authorities. It is priced similarly to cocaine at about $20 per dose.

Acquired Immunodeficiency Disorder (AIDS)
Based on data through December 1997, El Paso has reported a total of 828 cases of AIDS with a cumulative death rate of 440 (53%).

Age range for infection was 10 to 81 years with a median of age 36. A total of 1048 cases had received care in El Paso. Of the reported cases 79 were women, and 41 of them have died. Two children were HIV positive, with 9 having AIDS infections. As of December 1997, a total of 49,794 HIV tests had been administered of which 1221 (2.5%) were positive.

Transmission mode for the 819 adult/adolescent cases reported were overwhelmingly attributed to men who had sex with men (518 cases, 63%). The second most frequent transmission mode was injecting drug use, with 75 men (10%) and 16 women (21%) reporting this mode of infection. Fifty-four (7%) men became infected having sex with other men and injecting drugs. Forty-four (58%) women and 17 (2%) men reported infection as the result of heterosexual contact . Nine men (1%) and 6 women (8%) reported receipt of infected blood, components, or tissues. Hemophilia/coagulation disorder accounted for 15 men (2%). Fifty-five men (7%) and 10 women (13%) were listed in the risk not reported/other category of transmission.

With respect to pediatric AIDS, 7 cases (78%) were attributed to mothers with AIDS while the other two cases (22%) were due to hemophilia/coagulation disorder.

Last updated March 24, 2010