It’s a single letter, but it does titanic damage in Ecuador. “H” is a cheap and highly addictive drug that is wreaking havoc among the country’s poorest populations. This heroin-based white powder, which can be snorted or smoked, sells for a dollar a gram. Much cheaper than cocaine, which is priced between three and five dollars. But much more toxic.
“We found lime, cement, ether, ketamine and even rat poison in this drug,” explains psychiatrist Julieta Sagnay of the Institute of Neurosciences, a Guayaquil-based NGO that helps drug addicts. This port city of nearly three million people has become a center of drug trafficking in Latin America, with traffickers and drug addicts on the rise. According to official information, around 162 kilograms of “H” were confiscated in 2022.
A nightmarish weaning
Julia Sagnay says she is treating more and more “H” users who are experiencing accelerated deterioration in their health compared to their other patients. After six months of use, an “H addict,” constantly stomping, scratching, sleeping, or eating. And the withdrawal syndrome cannot be endured without at least eight days of drug treatment, explains the specialist with more than thirty years of addiction experience.
Guayaquil has three public addiction treatment clinics that are overwhelmed. There are 30 private institutions, but the cost is around $700 a month in a country where the minimum wage is $450. So when addiction eats away at them, some “H-junkies” turn to underground rehab centers.
Secret rehab clinics
“They hit me, threw buckets of cold water at me and we ate chicken heads every day,” says Hugo Mora, who visited those illegal, “dirty,” “windowless” clinics four years ago, but that’s where the “care” was . only $150″. For nothing. After two unsuccessful attempts at these “Nazi” clinics, as he calls them for their inhumane treatments, this informal 24-year-old salesman was withdrawn for a week to the Bicentennial Municipal Hospital in Guayaquil, where he lay in one of the 14 beds a large one room with white walls. Eleven are occupied by men curled up in their blankets.
This hospital admits up to 150 patients daily, 90% because of their “H” addiction. Research center Insight Crime states that the “H” moved to Guayaquil around 2011 at the instigation of Colombian cartels looking to develop the heroin market. But the “H” powder contains less than 3% heroin, estimates Segundo Romero, a retired police officer turned forensic psychologist.
1 gram of heroin for 40 grams of “H”
“Because there is so little pure drug, the addict has to consume more of it and therefore buy more of it,” he says. With one gram of heroin, the dealer makes 40 grams of “H”. The synthetic drugs found in the rest of this dangerous cocktail cause psychotic symptoms and hallucinations.
In Cerro Las Cabras, the drug supermarket of Duran, a city across the Rio Guayas that crosses Guayaquil, sales of “H” bring in up to $1 million a month, according to official estimates.