Latin America

Rehab Centers Latest Target Of Mexican Cartels

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On Friday gunmen broke into the Faith and Life drug rehabilitation center in Chihuahua, Mexico, and executed 19 people. Several others were wounded. More than 60 people have been killed in Mexican rehab centers over the last two years. Host Scott Simon asks NPR's Jason Beaubien to tell us why rehab centers are being targeted in Mexico's ongoing drug wars.


One of the worst massacres yet in Mexico's notoriously bloody drug war claimed the lives of 19 people who were executed on Thursday at a drug rehab center in the northern state of Chihuahua. Some two dozen gunmen burst into the Faith and Life treatment facility in Chihuahua city. The gunmen ordered the residents to line up and then shot them. The dead ranged in age from 16 to 63 years old. NPR's Jason Beaubien joins us from Mexico City.

Jason, thanks for being with us.

JASON BEAUBIEN: No, thanks for having me.

SIMON: And I gather that shootings such as this at drug treatment centers have become almost commonplace.

BEAUBIEN: That's right. We've seen more than half a dozen shootings at rehab centers over the last two years, and most of them were in the border city of Juarez. This one was in the state capital of Chihuahua, which was further south.

In September of last year there were two attacks just within weeks of each other. And in the first one 17 people were killed, and then in the second attack 10 people were executed at a drug treatment facility. And also just this week, another rehab facility, one person was killed and another one was injured.

This attack on Thursday, just before midnight, claimed 19 lives. And to put this into the overall context of the drug war, that day, Thursday, turned out to be the most bloody day since President Calderon launched this drug war three and a half years ago.

No one keeps specific statistics on this, but it appears that more than 60 people have been killed inside drug rehab centers in Mexico since this drug war began.

SIMON: Jason, why are people in drug rehab centers being slaughtered?

BEAUBIEN: You've got a couple of things going on. One, people who are in the cartels who've got a drug problem and they need to get cleaned up, some of them are now getting sent into rehab because their problem is so bad that they can't function.

And then you've got - also you've got people who are going in who've been dealing, who've, you know, have got debts, they've got people who are angry at them, they want to get their lives straightened out, they're also going in.

And then there's also speculation that the cartels are coming into these facilities and trying to recruit people, sometimes forcibly, to work for them, to become their mules, to move product for them.

Just in this attack in Chihuahua city, the gunmen left a note saying that the victims were - they called them pigs, rats and killers. And it's the same language that the cartels use when they kill their rivals. And so it's clear that there's this sense of this rivalry is now also playing out inside these drug rehab centers.

SIMON: Jason, are these what Americans think of when we think about drug rehab centers? I mean is good quality care available there?

BEAUBIEN: It is not at all what you think of when you think of American style -a medical sort of facility where people might be coming to get help. Some of the people who were in this center where the shooting occurred, some of them had been there two years. And it's like, probably like the lowest end homeless shelter.

I mean really, the barracks type conditions - these are not nice at all. One was in an old warehouse and they just sort of set up beds on one side. The rest of the area was just sort of open, and down below there was an alter where people could pray and have meetings. Yes, these are very simple facilities.

SIMON: And how do these killings affect the drug war and everyday life, especially, say, in Juarez?

BEAUBIEN: Well, its made it incredibly difficult to get treatment. After those two mass killings back-to-back in September of last year, more than 10 drug treatment facilities in Juarez just shut their doors. Both, youve got - people no longer want to go to them. People are terrified to go into them. And then people are terrified to be working in them.

It's important to note that there's a growing drug problem in Mexico, and as it gets harder for the cartels to move their product across the border, more people end up using drugs, more people need drug treatment, and yet at the same time that that's occurring, its getting harder and harder for people to find a place to get clean.

SIMON: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Mexico City. Thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: Youre welcome.

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