The international war on drugs took a detour through West Seneca's Renaissance House rehabilitation center Tuesday afternoon.
Six Latin American civic leaders and journalists toured the facility as part of a U.S. tour -- whose theme is "Decision Making and U.S. Foreign Policy" -- that already had taken them though Washington, D.C., Sacramento, San Francisco, Houston and Laredo, Texas.
So why Western New York?
"It's a border city. We saw the southern border and the issues that were there," said Jose Ernesto Mejia Portillo, an attorney from Honduras.
"The United States has always been criticized for not really dealing with the reduction of demand for drugs, so part of the reason we came to Buffalo and to Renaissance Center was to see how the United States is actually dealing with the reduction of the demand for drugs, through these kind of innovative rehabilitation programs," he said, speaking -- like all the visitors -- through interpreters.
The decision to come to Buffalo was made by the United States Information Agency, which selected the participants through its cultural attaches in Paraguay, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.
Part of what the group got was a blunt depiction of the drug life from one of the Renaissance House's graduates, who has moved into neighboring Stepping Stones, a halfway house, while she completes high school. She described her descent from alcohol into marijuana, LSD and eventually heroin.
"Is it really that easy for a 14-year-old to get heroin here?" asked Portillo.
"Yes," replied the girl, now 17.
Later, the participants compared countries.
"In Honduras, at least, we don't see such a prevalent use of hard drugs, hard-core drugs like heroin, said Portillo. "We tend to use more soft drugs like marijuana."
"In Colombia, you do see drug use," said Claudia Marcela Bermudez, a journalist. "But not at such an early age. And you really don't consume or use methamphetamines."
Still, Pablo Guerrero, a Paraguayan foreign policy reporter, was surprised in other ways by what he saw at Renaissance House.
"What I expected was not at all what it turned out to be," he said. "I was expecting to find a very depressing place, and it's actually quite the contrary. It's a place full of color, full of life."
Guerrero said he would be taking his experiences in the three-plus week tour back to give his own stories greater texture.
"I will have first-hand experience in this country, and I won't be relying only on news that you get over television or through the wire services," he said, reflecting on how travel changes perceptions. "... If you have a harsh view of South America, if you were to come and visit, that would change your perception of our countries."
And, said Maria Mendoza Michilot, a journalist from Peru, the experience has rounded her perspective.
"One thing we've learned about drugs is that it is a struggle that all the countries face," she said, "countries not only that produce the drugs, but countries that are transit countries ... and the drug-consuming countries."