MONTERREY, Mexico A Mexican entrepreneur is luring U.S. drug addicts to plush rehabilitation centers south of the border, even as shoddier Mexican clinics earn a reputation for attracting cartel shootouts.
Charging a third of the price of upscale clinics in the United States, a luxury rehab center aimed at foreigners opened recently at a posh hotel in the city of Monterrey about 100 miles from Texas.
Its month-long recovery packages come with English-speaking doctors and extras like massages, body masks and Botox shots.
Americans have long crossed the border for cheap medicine and are now choosing Mexico for dentistry and eye and heart surgery instead of far-flung destinations in Asia.
Gilberto Salazar, a former alcoholic, is marketing his spa-like centers under the brand "Rehab in Mexico" and is even using Mexico's official tourism logo on his website and in leaflets, with the government's permission.
"If you can come to Mexico for heart surgery, why not rehab? We pick people up from the airport, they get their own hotel room, they get top doctors," said Salazar, as a row of doctors answered calls from prospective U.S. patients.
Using the abstinence-based therapy popular in famous clinics like California's Betty Ford Center, Salazar's Monterrey center has treated Americans and wealthy Mexicans since opening in November. It charges $9,750 for a 28-day period, compared to around $30,000 in top U.S. centers.
Carla, a painkiller addict from San Antonio, Texas, came down after picking up a flyer at a travel agency. Pale, badly depressed and barely able to speak, she checked in with more than a hundred morphine capsules in her luggage, doctors said.
In her hotel suite, Carla spent several days going through withdrawal, fighting nausea, chills, and severe muscle pain to break her physical addiction. It took another three weeks of counseling and yoga in the hotel's leafy gardens to overcome her psychological dependency on the drugs.
"I was in a terrible state and I needed help. I definitely came because of the price," she said in a testimony left at the center. She and other patients declined to be interviewed.
SUN, SEA AND REHAB
Running lucrative rehab clinics would be a new business for Mexico, which is known more for supplying illegal drugs via its violent smuggling cartels than curing addicts.
Gerardo, a businessman in his 40s from McAllen, Texas, came to Monterrey to overcome 20 years of cocaine addiction.
"He was completely intoxicated when he arrived, his skin was yellow and his eyes were dull," said Dr. Cecilia Mancillas. "Years of snorting had perforated a hole inside his nose."
Another cocaine addict at the center had Botox injections to firm up his flaccid skin after detoxification.
Even with travel expenses, foreign medical treatment can cost Americans a fraction of what it does at home. Some 15 million people are expected to seek healthcare abroad by 2016, up from about 750,000 in 2007, according to consultancy Deloitte.
At least 35 million Americans used drugs like cocaine and heroin and abused prescription drugs in 2007, the National Drug Intelligence Center said in its latest report.
Keen to tap into the market, Salazar aims to open hotel clinics in the Mexican beach resorts of Los Cabos and Cancun and in the colonial city of Merida later this year.
But a wave of attacks by drug gangs on rehab centers in the border city of Ciudad Juarez could make Mexico a tough sell.
Gunmen have stormed at least seven clinics looking for rival dealers. Two attacks in September killed 28 people.
"That kind of news is clearly an obstacle for us, but the attacks in Juarez have been on unlicensed, badly run clinics where traffickers are trying to hide, and that has absolutely nothing to do with what we are doing," Salazar said.
An army crackdown on drug cartels in Mexico has fueled a surge in violence that has killed nearly 18,000 people since late 2006. Foreigners are rarely targeted, but some Americans have been kidnapped or caught in the cross-fire of shootouts.
(Editing by Catherine Bremer and Chris Wilson)