As Mexico’s drug war rages on, it is increasingly common for criminal groups to target rehabilitation centers in revenge attacks. InSight takes a closer look at this violent phenomenon, and examines the connections between addiction clinics and drug trafficking in the country.
The events seemed like something out of a gangster film. According to Mexico’s El Universal, at around 5:30 p.m. on June 7, five vehicles pulled up outside the Victory Center for Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation in Torreon, Coahuila, in northern Mexico. A gang of heavily-armed men emerged from the cars, and burst into the clinic. Methodically moving from room to room, they opened fire on everyone in sight, killing 13 patients and workers. Then, as quickly as they had arrived, the assailants climbed back into their cars and fled the scene.
Although such extreme violence at a treatment center may seem incomprehensible, attacks on these institutions are becoming a fairly common phenomenon in Mexico. To date, the bloodiest of these shootings was in June 2010, when a gunman killed 19 people in a drug rehabilitation center in the city of Chihuahua, which borders Coahuila.
Mass shootings of this sort, with a defenseless group of people indiscriminately gunned down, have become common in Torreon, though typically the incidents have occurred in bars. Prior to the June 7 murders, there had been at least five such incidents, resulting in more than 50 deaths, since the beginning of 2010. In most of the cases, official reports blamed the killings on local representatives of the
, who are based in neighboring Gomez Palacio and have been engaged in a year-long battle with Torreon-based
for control of the area.
Gangs frequently target private, unlicensed rehabilitation centers, because they are more likely to take in active gang members seeking to free themselves from an addiction to their own product. In contrast to government-licensed rehabilitation centers in Mexico, private clinics are not associated with the penal system and often have very little security, leaving their patients vulnerable to attacks by gangs seeking to avenge the death of a friend or eliminate a potential police informant. Some unlicensed clinics may also serve as fronts for drug dealing, or even as safe houses for gangsters seeking to lay low.
After a 2009 attack on a center in Juarez, the Chihuahua state Secretary of Public Security, Victor Valencia, said the rehab clinics had become a hotbed of criminal activity, adding that “cartels are using them to recruit young people from 17 to 23 years old.” According to him, it is difficult for these youths to escape from a life of crime, as they are seen as a “disposable” liability by the leaders of criminal organizations. Drug cartels cannot afford to have a former member come clean, either about himself or, worse, his bosses. Because these young people can be quickly replaced, they are often killed in order to minimize this risk.
In some cases, organized criminal groups even run their own rehabilitation centers. The most well-documented instance of this is in the state of Michoacan, where a drug trafficking organization known as the Familia Michoacana has traditionally exerted a high degree of social control in rural areas. While recent reports suggest that the Familia is on the decline, Familia operatives have traditionally enforced curfews, provided jobs (through drug production and trafficking), punished minor offenses and encouraged otherwise lawful behavior, based on its strict quasi-religious morality. The group is also known to operate a series of rehab clinics as front institutions for recruiting and training centers.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said that a suspect captured in 2009 claimed to have trained 9,000 Familia recruits in various rehabilitation clinics across the western portion of the state. According to the suspect, addicts underwent treatment as part of a strict training regimen, and were executed if they did not comply with the organization’s demands. Officials believe that drug-trafficking organizations like the Familia may prefer to use rehabilitated addicts as transporters because they have an incentive not to touch the product.
Some officials have said that the violence is a simply an unfortunate but inevitable affliction of private addiction clinics. According to Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova, there are more than 1,500 such institutions throughout the country, and all of them face the same danger of attacks. "The problem is revenge between groups, and that is very difficult to control,” he said.
Because the private clinics are not subject to the same security standards as government ones, it's difficult to control who is admitted to the premises. In contrast to the private centers, the government’s rehabilitation clinics are equipped with alarms around the perimeter, and emergency panic buttons which clinic workers can sound if threatened.
The government clinics also face problems. Most of the addicts in these facilities are there as a result of Mexico’s limited decriminalization law, which allows drug addicts who have committed crimes to serve their sentences in rehabilitation centers, instead of prison.
When confronted with the heightened police security at government centers, and the stigma associated with them, drug addicts with criminal pasts often choose private clinics, whose low security leaves them exposed to attacks from the world they’re trying to leave behind. Thus, for many youths seeking to turn their lives around in Mexico, the message is clear: there is no exit.