HomeNewsMexico Cartels Find Recruitment Target - Drug Rehab Centers

Mexico Cartels Find Recruitment Target - Drug Rehab Centers


Lacking government support and effective oversight, drug rehab centers in Mexico are being exploited by organized crime groups, which are taking advantage of their anarchical state to disappear people and recruit lookouts, hitmen and drug dealers.

While the phenomenon is well-known, it does not seem to be of interest to the authorities or society at large, but rather only to those directly affected by it. Meanwhile, the consumption of drugs, such as marihuana and methamphetamines, has already surpassed alcohol consumption in some states. Nevertheless, access to adequate addiction treatment remains limited.

*This investigation was carried out by SinEmbargoIt has been edited for clarity and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. Read the original in Spanish here.

The Mexican Government has long overlooked the issues surrounding addiction rehab centers. While they continue to be featured in political campaigns and national development plans, nothing materializes, as it is considered to be a burden that neither the municipalities, nor the states, nor the federal government, are willing to bear – even less so now that funding for civil society organizations has been cut off.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador even used the issue as a shield when asked about insecurity and violence in Mexico. On August 23 in 2019, during one of his morning press conferences, the president declared that it is necessary to reduce drug consumption before talking about peacebuilding. Words that remained recorded but that have yet to be reflected in public policies.

AMLO spoke on drug addiction rehabilitation in 2019, but his words
have yet to be reflected in public policies. Photo: Mexican Government

When asked about the fight against drugs on that occasion, AMLO responded: “If consumption continues to go up, things will become even more complicated for us. We have to reduce consumption, hence the youth-oriented campaign, after we do all that, and we start to have more control and better results, then we are going to look at pacification, the call to action to reintegrate those who have taken the path of antisocial behavior, who could join, who could not, and under what conditions.”  

A campaign carried out by the National Commission against Addictions (Comisión Nacional contra las Adicciones - Conadic) features radio and television spots: “You didn't have to die. First my dad and then you. Because of alcohol.” But rather than raising awareness, the campaign has been mocked for the dramatization employed. Still, no action has been taken regarding providing treatment, which has historically been delegated to private initiatives that have set up rehabilitation centers with their own capital, loans or resources from previous governments, despite the lack of regulation. Authorities are not even aware of the existence of some of these rehabilitation centers.

SEE ALSO: Mexico Rehab Center Massacre Tied to Conflict Over Local Drug Trade

The lack of supervision and disregard among the various levels of government becomes evident only when misfortune occurs in the "anexos," as the privately operated rehabilitation centers are called, such as deaths due to the excessive use of force, torture or the forced internment of residents. The situation has been aggravated by the presence of organized crime groups, which have filled the institutional vacuum, charging “rental fees” or using the annexes to expand their illicit businesses and even committing massacres inside the centers.

The Problems

The pride surrounding the inauguration of a new facility, presumed to be the first with such and such characteristics; the initial discharges of residents who are believed to have kicked their drug habits; and the willingness of good Samaritans are diminished over time by the lack of support and the day-to-day problems faced by rehabilitation centers. Authorities do not know exactly how many drug addiction rehabilitation centers exist in Mexico.

Iraís Alcázar, the advisor of an annex in Ensenada, says that not even the people connected to these centers know how many there are in total, “because they pop up like fungi, and just as people open many with good hearts, who have or who have a family member that has experienced some kind of addiction, as there are those who are self-interested with actions bordering on criminal and there is no one to stop them.”

“One of the main problems we go through in the annexes, is the lack of shared responsibility on the part of the health authorities that have left the phenomenon up to God’s will and have washed their hands of it. There are few government-owned centers because they know that they will not find business there. For them, it is like a money pit – worse now with austerity policies, because if childcare centers and other institutions lose their support, what can substance (abuse centers) expect,” Alcázar said.

The main difficulties for such centers include obsolescence and a lack of facility maintenance; inadequate resident stays, a lack of hygiene, overcrowding; promiscuity among male, female and adolescent inmates; the lack of capacity and training among operators; violent treatment and forced internment. Addicts often lack economic resources, and families are often are unable to pay the bill -- with the most affordable stays at centers starting at 2,000 pesos (about $100) per month.

Many of the addiction treatment centers are almost maxed out and flout norms. “I estimate, from the annexes I know of, that 40 percent of them present irregularities. I do not even know if they are registered or are clandestine, as many of them are,” Alcázar said.

The Violence

Apart from the common operational issues at these centers, another result of the lack of state control is how organized crime has positioned itself to control some of the hundreds of rehabilitation centers in the country, both registered and clandestine.

Based on recent events, it is known that many of the annexes serve as a place to stash people reported as missing and as hideouts or operational centers for criminals with arrest warrants out for them or that are wanted by the authorities. They have become safe houses to inflict torture upon debtors or adversaries. Families members are extorted. They serve as recruitment centers for hitmen or drug dealers; others serve as a point of sale. This explains the extreme violence in these facilities, starting with the frequent deaths due to disciplinary measures to the massacres that have taken place within them in the country.

On January 24, 2015, five workers at the CIDA rehabilitation center in Ensenada were investigated for the murder of an addict transferred to the center. On March 31 of that same year, armed gunned attacked the Alcance Victoria center, located in the Buenos Aires neighborhood in Tijuana, wounding three men inside. On January 12, 2016, a young man, who had been beaten to death, appeared outside an annex in Chula Vista, also in Tijuana. These are a few of the near-daily incidents.  

In 2018, violence increased at the centers. On January 9, Adolfo Osuna was murdered. He was the founder of a rehabilitation center called "Soldados Nuevos," or "New Soldiers," in Comondú, Baja California Sur. Then, on January 28, in Tlajomulco, Jalisco, an “annexed,” as rehab center residents are called, was beaten to death. On February 11, a businessman was shot to death at an addiction center for alcoholics. On August 7, in El Salto, Jalisco, another center resident was beaten to death at a site that was ironically named “Volver a Vivir de Nuevo,” or “Back to Living Again.” And on October 25, two women and three men were shot in front of an annex in the Campos neighborhood in Tijuana.

The attacks continued in 2019. On April 5, hitmen left behind a threatening note after throwing a grenade, which didn’t go off, at an addiction rehabilitation center in Oaxaca. On August 14, an armed group broke into another rehabilitation site in the Santiago branch in Manzanillo, Colima, shooting six inmates. On December 5, in the center “Dios es mi Salvador,” or “God is my Savior,” another gang forcibly took 26 young addicts with them. And in Ensenada, members of the military seized a ton of marijuana in front of an annex in Maneadero.

SEE ALSO: Mexico City Braces for Impact from Jalisco Cartel Advance

Last year was also violent. On January 14, authorities liberated seven women who had been locked up in a rehabilitation center in Tala, Jalisco. On June 7, assassins broke into the Irapuato rehabilitation annex and murdered 10 people. On July 1, in a different annex in the same city, 28 inmates were shot dead. Two days later, 25 addicts fled violence and threats at a rehabilitation center in Valle de Santiago, Guanajuato. On October 24, another armed group killed four people in the "Fuente de Vida," “Fountain of Life” annex in Celaya.

Other dates and places where people were shot, beaten to death or strangled in 2020: in Playas de Tijuana on October 13; in Teuchitlán, Jalisco, on November 20; and in Monterrey, on the 30th of the same month. While in 2021, a resident was bound, gagged and beaten in the Polanco settlement in Guadalajara; and another addict was tortured and beaten to death at a treatment center in the capital of Puebla state.

The Recruitment

These centers have actively served as sites to recruit “halcones,” a term used for lookouts, dealers and hitmen. This has been noted in the scant police investigations on the issue. One of these investigations came in May 2016, when the Jalisco Public Prosecutor's Office discovered that the “Despertar Espiritual,” or “Spiritual Awakening,” rehabilitation center was mistreating and forcibly holding as many as 271 people, 144 of them women and 18 of them minors, in the Tonalá municipality.

The prosecutor at the time, Eduardo Almaguer, indicated that the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) was behind the rehabilitation center: “I would like to tell you that there is a line of inquiry which makes us very clearly surmise a link with organized crime, since eleven people were hidden here, eleven subjects with arrest warrants operating here in the state, they are a group of delinquents and criminals," he said.

Subsequently, on August 21, 2020, in Zapopan, the kidnapping of a police officer and his companion led authorities in Jalisco to a ranch house in the municipality, where they not only found the two individuals in a room, handcuffed and severely beaten, but about 100 more interned individuals, including women and adolescents in what turned out to be a clandestine annex. Twelve people were arrested, and five of them were sent to prison, but the prosecution did not reveal details about the case.

The most recent case to expose drug trafficking operations at the drug rehabilitation annexes occurred on November 2, 2020, when a dozen heavily armed young men in Mexicali – alleged to be members of a criminal organization – were arrested. Municipal and state police arrested the suspects in a building in the Independencia neighborhood, where they were positioned by the "Los Salazar," a group operating in Baja California for the Sinaloa Cartel's "Los Chapitos."

The youths, largely addicted to toxic substances, were allegedly recruited weeks beforehand in an annex in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, called “Oportunidad de Vida,” or “Life Opportunity.” In exchange for the payment of two thousand pesos per week, they moved to Mexicali to seize territories held by Felipe Eduardo Barajas Lozano, alias “El Omega." Barajas Lozano is allied with Jesús Alexander Sánchez Félix, alias “El Ruso,” who serves under Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Ismael Zambada, "El Mayo." El Mayo's faction is currently in a feud with "Los Chapitos," the faction of the cartel led by the sons of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. Young people are linked to various homicides in the region.

One of the cartels to pioneer the employment of addicts at rehabilitation centers in the early 2000s was the Familia Michoacana. The Juarez Cartel later imitated them, placing gang members at the centers. However, the Familia Michoacana case was even more peculiar because the recruitment involved a religious and emotional indoctrination, according to criminals who later became protected witnesses for the Attorney General's Office.

Each addict recruited by the cartel operated by Nazario Moreno González, alias“El Más Loco,” Jesús Méndez, alias “El Chuy,” and Servando Gómez Martínez, alias “La Tuta,” he had to bring three or four more youths to participate in the self-improvement retreats called "Man to Man," “Fourth Step” and “Fifth Step,” which were conducted as congregations at ranches or farmhouses. The criminal cells also had to send six of their men for every plaza in Michoacán.

Under the name of the centers, they taught about the "values" of the Familia Michoacana and God. They were indoctrinated to believe that "the hitmen received a divine order to murder or kidnap, but that all this was because God allowed it," they said. They would give them Bibles to share with other people and invite them to become hitmen at the end of the course. Addicts could voluntarily decide to join or not. Addicts who showed no interest were returned to the annexes.

Today, it is said that in some entities, the supervision of rehabilitation centers is carried out by the criminal groups themselves, which have access to databases and oversee the annexes. It seems like something out of a fictional novel but continues to be a strange reality.

*This investigation was carried out by SinEmbargoIt has been edited for clarity and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. Read the original in Spanish here.

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