“How Can I Help?”

How Mario Chirinos taught schools, cities and his nation about the evils of drugs.

When Mario Chirinos was 15 years old, two of his male cousins visited his house in Maracaibo, a city in Venezuela near the Colombian border. They asked Chirinos for a screwdriver, which they used to rip open a large package, revealing a microwave oven stuffed with $100 bills. The young men thanked Chirinos, gave him a wad of the greenbacks, and left.

The cousins disappeared a few years later, never to be seen again. Unbeknownst to Chirinos and his family, they evidently worked for a major drug cartel and had become casualties of the region’s notorious narcotics wars. “I was stunned,” recalled Chirinos, who had always dreamed of becoming a cop or a firefighter. “I said to myself, ‘How can I help?’”

It took Chirinos a decade to find an answer. During a 2007 visit to the Church of Scientology mission in his hometown, he attended a presentation on The Truth About Drugs, the world’s largest non-governmental, anti-drug information and prevention campaign. Later that year, as Venezuela convened its first National Congress of Drugs, Chirinos volunteered to head a national chapter called the Venezuela Foundation for a Drug-Free World, and implement The Truth About Drugs throughout the country.

Mario Chirinos gives an anti-drug lecture to scouts
Drug Awareness Mario Chirinos gives an anti-drug lecture to scouts of La Batalla de Carabobo, named after an 1821 battle that led to Venezuela’s independence from Spanish rule.

Venezuela couldn’t have found a better person to spread the message about drugs. It wasn’t just that Chirinos had suffered a personal loss when his cousins disappeared. He had also worked as an event producer for Latin American superstars—a job that allowed him to see first-hand how deeply rooted illicit drugs are in Venezuela.

Chirinos began his campaign in 2008 by distributing The Truth About Drugs educational booklets and DVDs free of cost to youth in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods of his hometown, where drug dealers had laid siege to schoolyards and campuses. The campaign material conveyed the unvarnished truth about drugs. Chirinos also led a workshop in which students acted out real-life drug scenarios they might encounter, and were then invited to sign a pledge to live drug-free lives. The school principal was so impressed that he asked Chirinos to deliver the same lecture to every single class on campus.

Encouraged by the positive response, Chirinos began lecturing about drugs and conducting workshops in schools across Maracaibo and the surrounding state of Zulia. Chirinos then expanded his lectures into neighboring states.

According to Venezuela’s National Anti-Drug Office drug usage in the schools where Chirinos brought The Truth About Drugs has fallen by an average of 40 percent since 2007. The Office issued a proclamation, stating: “We recognize The Truth About Drugs for the decrease in drug use.”

The key to Chirinos’ success isn’t just his tireless activism but also his strategic campaigning. After introducing The Truth About Drugs program in Venezuela’s primary schools, for example, he formed an alliance with the University of Belloso, one of the largest institutions of higher learning in Maracaibo. In 2014, Chirinos trained 250 students and 643 of the 1,200 professors at the university. They, in turn, went on to create their own anti-drug groups at other educational institutions.

Working with community groups is another important part of Chirinos’ campaign strategy. As he did with schools, Chirinos began small, reaching out to a single pastor at a Christian church in his hometown. At the pastor’s invitation, Chirinos delivered a Truth About Drugs lecture to more than 1,000 parishioners.

Venezuela’s law enforcement officers in Maracaibo team up with Drug-Free World volunteers
Combined Effort Venezuela’s law enforcement officers in Mario Chirinos’ hometown of Maracaibo team up with Drug-Free World volunteers during a drug-prevention drive.

The response was so encouraging that the pastor asked Chirinos to train him and a team of church volunteers on the program. Before long, Chirinos had trained more than 50 different groups of Catholics, Adventists, Baptists and followers of other churches to deliver Truth About Drugs lectures. “They call every week, requesting material,” Chirinos said, referring to the church groups. “They carry the Bible under their right arm and The Truth About Drugs booklets under the left arm. And that’s amazing.”

Realizing that despite his growing network of allies and partners, millions of Venezuelans had yet to be reached, Chirinos used his media connections from his days as an event producer to take the campaign to a national level, appearing on both local and national radio shows, where he talked about The Truth About Drugs campaign to an estimated 500,000 listeners. Chirinos also went on television. In one single appearance on NT 24 Hours, a national TV station, he brought his campaign message to an estimated 1.5 million viewers.

Altogether, Chirinos and other Truth About Drugs volunteers have appeared as guests on 42 television shows and 58 radio shows with an audience of nearly 4.5 million people. Some 450,000 students in more than 2,000 schools have come in contact with The Truth About Drugs campaign. Not surprisingly, these efforts have resulted in a deluge of inquiries and requests for Truth About Drugs seminars and lectures from all corners of Venezuela.

Chirinos has also expanded his Truth About Drugs crusade into the streets. Again, he started in his hometown. Over a three-month period, Chirinos gave Truth About Drug lectures and seminars to nearly 1,000 municipal police officers in Maracaibo. Subsequently, he delivered a series of educational lectures about drugs in the city’s police academy.

As news about Chirinos’ campaign spread, he was invited to give a talk to a military battalion of 500 soldiers in Maracaibo. During the presentation, soldiers told Chirinos of rampant drug abuse within their own ranks. He learned that as many as seven out of ten soldiers were using drugs, including marijuana and cocaine.

Mario Chirinos interacts with children
In the ParishMario Chirinos, executive director of the Venezuela Foundation for a Drug-Free World, interacts with children while lecturing at a parish of a local Catholic church.

Before long, the head of the local military base requested that Chirinos give lectures to personnel in all ten army divisions in the state of Zulia. Chirinos and his team educated more than 4,000 soldiers of the Venezuelan National Guard, army and military aviation about the effects of drug abuse.

Chirinos has also engaged the private sector. More than 135,000 executives and employees of corporate tech companies, banks and supermarket chains have heard his anti-drug message. About 30 companies have raised more than $2 million to sponsor The Truth About Drugs programs, while other companies have donated campaign materials such as banners, laptops and photo equipment.

Among the corporate sponsors is Digitel, one of Venezuela’s leading mobile phone companies. In 2013, impressed by Chirinos’ accomplishments, Digitel donated $60,000 to a Drug-Free World campaign focused on a frontier area between Venezuela and Colombia that is home to many indigenous people as well as Colombians displaced by the conflict between their government and leftist guerrillas. The subhuman conditions in the region make it a breeding ground for drug trafficking and crime.

Perhaps the most far-reaching of Chirinos’ achievements is his appointment as an advisor to the Zulia State Legislative Assembly on issues pertaining to modifications in drug laws. Following a review of The Truth About Drugs campaign, the legislature approved a proposal by Chirinos to make it mandatory for schools in the state to use The Truth About Drugs curriculum as the basis of at least two hours per week of drug education. Subsequently, Venezuela’s national government passed a law mandating drug education in schools throughout the nation.

Chirinos’ long-term goal is to reach a quarter of Venezuela’s 31 million people with The Truth About Drugs campaign. It’s a daunting task, but Chirinos is determined to achieve it. “If we reach 7.5 million in this country,” Chirinos said, “we can drop the consumption of drugs.”