In the early days of October, Shawn* was detained by police in the city of Mexicali, the capital of Baja California, Mexico. Shawn insisted that he was not committing any crime, whether drug-related or not, and he was not charged with anything. Yet he was involuntarily admitted into an addiction “treatment” center.
This information was reported by Pablo Gonzalez and Said Slim, workers at La Sala, a safe consumption site in Mexicali, who know Shawn. I know Shawn too, because for the past few months he has volunteered as a translator at the regular meetings of PANDA, the developing pan-American drug-user alliance in which I’m involved—and about which my colleague Natasha Touesnard and I have written for Filter. Shawn is a charismatic, popular young man, one of our most committed Mexican PANDA members and always cracking jokes.
Shawn was born in Argentina, but grew up in the United States from the age of two. As you might expect, he regarded the US as his country and his culture. But the Land of the Free let him down; he was undocumented, and several years ago, was deported.
“Six years ago, in 2014, he was arrested because of issues related to his use, a common occurrence among deportees who use drugs,” Gonzalez told Filter. That made Shawn one of hundreds of thousands of undocumented people forced out of the US on drug-related pretexts. According to the Drug Policy Alliance**, around 40,000 people were deported for drug-law violations each year between 2008 and 2016.
Gonzalez said that Shawn was near the US-Mexico border awaiting permission to reenter the US, “considering himself an American.”
“Shawn’s abduction adds to the piling number of illicit detentions.”
Sickeningly, the violation of Shawn’s rights in Mexico is far from unique.
“Shawn’s abduction adds to the piling number of illicit detentions where people, especially those experiencing poverty and homelessness, get profiled as drug users and, mainly due to their marginalized socioeconomic situation, are not presented before a judge, and get directly put into treatment centers,” said Gonzalez.
Jaime Arredondo is a professor at the drug policy program at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (Center for Research and Teaching in Economics), a leading research and higher education center and think tank in Mexico City. He is currently collaborating with the University of California, Los Angeles, in on a study of a pilot safe consumption program in the border region, and previously worked with University of California, San Diego on a program to promote harm reduction knowledge among police officers in Tijuana.
“Right now, the state government of Baja California is working with the mayors to clean the streets.”
Forced “treatment” like that to which Shawn was subjected “has always been a condition related to treatment in the country,” Arredondo told Filter. “The code that regulates treatment opens the door to mandatory seclusion if you are considered a risk for you, the family or the community.”
“Right now,” he added, “the state government of Baja California is working with the mayors in Tijuana and Mexicali to clean the streets.”
In other words, forcing people into abstinence-only treatment has become a systematic act of discrimination and abuse. What are the authorities trying to “clean the streets” of, their people?
Gonzalez similarly described Shawn’s abduction as part of a larger system aimed at more-or-less eliminating people who use drugs from public view in large Mexican cities. “In Mexicali, this is also part of a gentrification operation,” he added, “attempting to ‘clean’ the downtown streets from unwanted populations.”
Mexico’s Tragedy of the Missing
For the activists of PANDA—whose mission is to advocate for people who use drugs in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, engaging with many people in different parts of Mexico in the process—the kidnapping of one of our own, because that’s what it was, brought home one of the many ways the global war on people who use drugs violates our rights. Not that we needed any reminder.
Even as a privileged, white drug user in Canada, I have been in and out of treatment facilities for most of my life—often under pressure from people in my life—and so have some way of imagining what truly forced treatment must feel like. Yet those experiences could never compare with those endured by marginalized people the world over.
Up to 80 people were forced to live on the floor of one room and participate in 12-step meetings.
Because the unethical, punitive practice of forced treatment is inflicted all over the world. One study found that of a sample of 104 countries, 69 percent had criminal laws that provided for compulsory drug treatment of some kind.
In Mexico, the treatment centers concerned are known as anexos. They are private facilities, but operated in coordination with the Mexican authorities. In 2016, Vice reported on these secretive, abusive treatment centers. At one, up to 80 people were forced to live on the floor of one room and participate in 12-step meetings, while not able to leave the facility for at least four months. Such practices and environments would be unacceptable at any time, but are even more so in the time of COVID-19.
The Open Society Foundations published a report, also in 2016, titled “No Health, No Help: Abuse as Rehabilitation in Latin America and the Caribbean,” which goes into deep detail about how poorly run and unethical such centers are, and how they fail to provide any evidence-based treatments recommended by the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies.
Mexican authorities estimated that almost 62,000 people had disappeared since the onset of the country’s devastating drug war.
In Mexico, as in other countries, marginalized people who use drugs go missing on a huge scale—not just to treatment centers, but to overdose and murder and unknown causes.
In early 2020, Mexican authorities estimated that almost 62,000 people had disappeared, completely unaccounted for, since the onset of the country’s devastating drug war in 2006. Dr. Dan Werb’s book City of Omens is one source to uncover one of the world’s largest femicides, inflicted particularly on sex workers.
Filter has reported on Mexico’s fentanyl-involved, largely invisible overdose crisis. Vice recently reported on how, for many, Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead is dominated by thoughts of those lost to overdose and kidnappings allegedly carried out by police. These include people taken away to forced treatment just for looking like a drug user, with police often demanding “treatment” money—better described as ransom—from their families.
And in July, a mass murder took place at “Recovering My Life,” a treatment center in central Mexico; armed men raided the place and executed 26 people.
Getting Shawn Out
But Jaime Arredondo was determined that Shawn should not fall through the cracks like untold thousands of others.
“The conditions of the center were so horrible—overcrowded, pissed floors and beatings.”
Alerted by PANDA’s network, Arredondo traveled to Cabo, the city in southern Baja California where Shawn was being held. There, Arredondo heard from Shawn how the “treatment” center (pictured above) forced its residents to live. “The conditions of the center were so horrible—overcrowded, pissed floors and beatings,” he told Filter. Shawn said that he himself had endured physical “punishment” while in detention.
Arredondo used his privileged status to work to get Shawn out, but encountered resistance. “Management made it hard for me to take him away,” he said. “I told them we would sue for kidnapping.”
“They wanted his mom there to get him out or he will spend six months, up to one year,” Arredondo continued.
Shawn’s mom lives in Seattle, so this was impossible in current circumstances. She provided an audio recording of her voice, pleading for them to let Shawn out, but they still refused to release him.
But the following day, on November 7, Arredondo returned to the facility and was finally able to get Shawn released.
“It was an odyssey but we got him out,” Arredondo described. “We had to call his mom in Seattle, get a new shirt so he would look decent and not as a drug user (according to the director), and after threatening them to sue them with kidnapping, they let him go.”
“I got released from kidnapping thanks to Jaime and Said.”
I can’t express the joy and relief I felt when I saw a video of our comrade being released.
“I got released from kidnapping thanks to Jaime and Said,” Shawn said. “Now I’m free to drink a couple beers. We’ll be together soon … helping Said out with the translations.”
But the happiness I felt at this news was mixed with anger and disgust. Because there were dozens more people in that facility alone, and countless others held elsewhere, who did not have influential people to advocate for them as Shawn did. They will continue to suffer, in atrocious conditions, in a place where they should never have been taken.
I wrote this story to raise awareness when most US media seem to care very little of what happens south of the border. Even July’s treatment-center massacre did not receive the widespread media coverage it should, and the plight of people like Shawn raises little concern.
That PANDA and our allies were able to get Shawn out shows that we should never underestimate the power of drug-user activism. We will not stand for this regardless of where we live. But we need to scale up our work, expand our networks and shout from the rooftops if we’re to stand a chance of ending the mass global abuse of forced treatment.
*Shawn’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
** The Drug Policy Alliance previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.