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Why Mexico's drug gangs target rehab centers

Mexico's drug gangs frequently target private, unlicensed rehabilitation centers, which have less security than government-licensed rehabilitation centers.

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger / June 9, 2011



The events seemed like something out of a gangster film.

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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.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

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 Sinaloa Cartel, who are based in neighboring Gomez Palacio and have been engaged in a year-long battle with Torreon-based Zetas for control of the area.

Killed to minimize the risk

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.

Cartels run their own rehab centers

In some cases, organized criminal groups even run their own rehabilitation centers.

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