Ecuador student’s death highlights school drugs problem

When 13-year-old Tamara Chevez came home from school last October, she said she was going to her bedroom for a rest. A few hours later her family found her dead. Tests indicated that she had died from a mix of cocaine and sedatives, drugs she allegedly got while at school. Although it was not the first such death in Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, what happened to Tamara sparked a media frenzy. For several weeks reporters carried out investigations in schools, uncovering cases of drug dealing among students.

Unlike neighbouring Colombia and Peru, the world’s largest exporters of cocaine, Ecuador is largely free of coca crops. However, the country is considered an important transit point for drug trafficking to North America and Europe. And that means drugs are available locally for relatively affordable sums. A few grams of marijuana cost as little as $0.50 (30p), while a dose of perica, a derivation of cocaine mixed with other substances, is sold for $1.

“Cartels pay intermediaries through money and drugs. These intermediaries distribute drugs to micro-traffickers who use vulnerable groups to sell the drugs, such as boys and girls that have been excluded from the educational system,” said Interior Minister Jose Serrano.

Security in and around Guayaquil’s high schools has been increased. Drugs are not just sold around schools but within them. According to one head teacher, students find any number of ways to smuggle them in – hidden in pens, in the folds of their uniform or in the pages of their notebooks.

“Drugs are present in schools, just like theft and violence, because they are present in society. All the things that are present in society are present in schools,” says Ricardo Loor, drugs prevention expert at the Guayaquil branch of Ecuador’s drugs agency, Consep.

Tamara Chevez’s death prompted calls for schools to take immediate measures against drug dealing. Many schools stepped up the checks on students entering and exiting the premises, often involving parents as monitors. Some Guayaquil schools asked the police to carry out bag inspections and do checks with sniffer dogs. Many head teachers also invited officers to come into classrooms to talk about the danger of drugs.

Responding to the high demand, Guayaquil’s anti-narcotics department trained community police officers to talk to schoolchildren, a project that is due to be expanded in 2013.

Monica Franco, vice-minister of educational management, said that these policies were not a response to the media outcry, but rather were part of the government’s ongoing prevention efforts. A project bringing police officers into schools to talk about drugs is set to be expanded in the coming year “There hasn’t been any drastic change,” says Ms Franco. “This issue has been exacerbated by the media who are opposed to the government.”

Whatever the reasons behind the media’s attention, drug trafficking, and its impact on public security, is a major concern for the Ecuadorean government. According to the 2012 US state department report on narcotics worldwide, Mexico’s Zetas, Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels, as well as Colombia’s Farc rebels, move cocaine through Ecuador.

There is also evidence that more cocaine is now being refined in Ecuador.

Some security analysts talk of a rise in crime connected to trafficking, although the country is far from being at the levels of drug-related violence associated with Mexico or Central America. In the past two years, the army has been deployed to the streets to support police work, while the police force has been revamped in a bid, according to officials, to enhance prevention and investigation techniques.

In one high school in Guayaquil, the authorities say they believe drug consumption has dropped in the last few weeks. The issue of drugs, and policing, inspired someone to paint this graffiti outside a school in Guayaquil

“At the beginning I thought that we could not eradicate this evil, but if we all contribute, we can lower the levels,” says head teacher Luis Benavides, whose school in Guayaquil has seen student-run prevention campaigns and workshops for parents. But others believe broader strategies are required. “The problem of drugs does not get resolved simply by a talk, workshop or contingency plan,” says Luis Chancay, a teacher and president of the local branch of the National Teachers Union. “We need to find ways to give young people future perspectives,” he says, tackling drug use as a social and health rather than a policing issue.

Tamara’s death shocked Ecuadoreans into talking about the drugs problem in schools; the challenge is to keep the anti-drugs efforts going once the media attention fades.

“They spent months campaigning, but then they leave it, until you have another case, and then they start up again,” said 18-year-old student Patricio. “In my view, it should be continuous so students my age realise that people worry about them and that they are not alone.” 3rd January 2012

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