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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

'The problem is revenge'

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.

--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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