Rehab clinics turn into killing zones in Mexico's drug war

CULIACAN, Mexico — As narcotics addiction soars in Mexico, drug rehabilitation centers have become killing zones and recruitment centers in the country's escalating drug war.

Clinics have become incubators for crime. In central Mexico, a cartel given to religious fanaticism is thought to run its own drug centers, weaning addicts off narcotics only to convert them into killers.

Hired guns from cartels also have taken to using rehab clinics as hideouts after committing brutal crimes, making the centers targets of revenge for rivals. Almost every month, heavily armed squads break into a rehab center somewhere in Mexico and gun down those who are thought to be rivals from competing narcotics syndicates, along with innocent patients.

In one of the grisliest cases, assailants with AK-47 automatic rifles broke into the Faith and Life clinic in Chihuahua City, a desert hub about 220 miles from El Paso, Texas, lined up 19 people and executed them. The killers left a banner after the June 10 attack: "This is what happens to rapists, robbers, scum and pigs."

About a dozen violent attacks on drug treatment centers have occurred in the past year in Durango and Chihuahua states.

News reports said the assailants in the Chihuahua case were from Los Aztecas, a gang that had its origins in U.S. prisons and now works with the Juarez cartel. The victims were all from groups working with the rival Sinaloa cartel. The two groups are locked in a vicious turf war over smuggling routes.

The cruelest aspect of the rehab center killings is that the attackers often try to exterminate everyone, whether they're the principle targets or simply people seeking treatment.

"In these centers, no one wears IDs. Since they don't know who is who, they kill them all. That way, they are assured that they get their target and that there are no witnesses," said Carlos Zamudio Angles, a social scientist working in Mexico City with the Collective for An Integral Drug Policy, a coalition of specialists.

Even for regular families with addicts, drug centers can be ugly places. Parents commit unruly adolescents or even their adult children against their will for months at a time. Beatings are often part of therapy, hygiene can be poor and lax enforcement of regulations prevails.

No one knows how many drug rehabilitation clinics and treatment centers there are. The Mexican government is expanding a series of Nueva Vida rehab centers for teenagers, erected since 2007 with $205 million confiscated from a Shanghai-born drug trafficker.

However, it largely leaves the work of treating hardened addicts to nonprofit associations, some run by former addicts with little training. Many treatment centers are semi-clandestine, hidden behind walls with no signs.

A significant number of centers never register with the government. The former addicts who run them ask few questions of those who arrive for treatment, seeking nominal payment from family members.

Demand is high due to soaring drug use. A U.N. report last year estimated that 1.7 million Mexicans use cocaine, consuming 27.6 tons a year, nearly double the amount in 2002. Mexicans consume 3.9 tons of heroin a year, it added. Some 3 million Mexicans smoke marijuana, also a significant rise from earlier in the decade.

Officials put the number of drug addicts in the nation at 428,000.

President Felipe Calderon said drug cartels focused on Mexico as a market after per capita income tripled since 1993 to more than $10,000 last year nationwide and as much as $18,000 in Monterrey, a prosperous industrial hub near the border with Texas.

"This new purchasing power in the society has made the criminals modify their plans, turning from low-profile exporters to the United States to distributing and placing drugs in the big and small cities of this country," Calderon said in a speech June 26.

Zamudio estimated that more than half of those in drug treatment centers are there against their will, sent by family members with the help of police.

At most centers, hardened addicts are made to go cold turkey.

"There are multiple accounts of abuses occurring in drug abuse treatment centers, suggesting an urgent need for more regulation by the government and a more rigorous certification for the centers that operate. Using fear and the threat of physical abuse is no way to treat an addiction," said Maureen Meyer, associate for Mexico and Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group.

In Michoacan state, northwest of Mexico City, a leader of La Familia drug syndicate told police last year that the cartel recruited from drug treatment centers known as Gratitude Refuges, weaning addicts from amphetamines, instilling loyalty to the cartel and training them as killers — under threat of death. The leader, Rafael Cedeno, said the cartel had recruited thousands of members that way.

In Sinaloa, the Pacific Coast state that's the cradle of Mexico's narcotics industry, drug and alcohol abuse are high. The state has 135 known treatment centers.

"Some of them were in deplorable condition earlier," said German Leon Guerrero, the chief of the Sinaloan Council on Addictions. "I think Guantanamo was paradise compared to these places."

Under his tenure, Leon said, state regulations have tightened, and food and hygiene at the centers have improved. He defended the right of families to commit relatives against their will, however.

"Many of these people are in a state of psychotic shock, either from lack of drugs or an overdose," Leon said. "When you are psychotic, we have to use force."

Calderon's strategy of using the Mexican army and marines to combat drug traffickers along the border with the United States has hindered smuggling, so cartels encourage drug use at home, said Esteban Ramirez Alvarez, the president of the Sinaloan Federation of Rehabilitation Centers.

Teenage users of crystal methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant, "become easy prey for the organized criminal groups," Ramirez said.

Some end up in drug treatment centers after gunning down opponents or crossing rivals, he said.

"If one of them comes into a center, and has a debt pending, that's when the danger begins that a gang will want to come and take action," he said.

One confessed cocaine addict with deeply bloodshot eyes, Fernando Valentino de la Rosa, 27, shrugged off the threat that gunmen might attack the rehab center in northern Culiacan where he's receiving treatment.

"When you live in a society as violent as it is here in Sinaloa, there is always fear," he said.


In 2009:

May 31 — Five slain at Ciudad Juarez's Life Without Addictions Center.

Sept. 2 — Eighteen people killed at the El Aliviane center in Ciudad Juarez.

Sept. 16 — Ten killed at the Life rehabilitation center in Ciudad Juarez.

In 2010:

June 10 — Nineteen people slain in the Faith and Life clinic in Chihuahua City. Most were thought to belong to Los Mexicles, a gang linked to the Sinaloa cartel, which is at war with the Juarez cartel.

June 17 — Six people killed in Ciudad Juarez's Integral Rehabilitation Clinic.

June 27 — Nine people killed and nine wounded in an attack on the Force for Life center in Durango.


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