CIUDAD GUZMAN, Mexico — After dayslong drug binges, the worst part was the “hallucinations,” said 16-year-old Edgar, who’d been hospitalized for his methamphetamine addiction. Edgar started using meth when he was just 12 years old. A dose today in Mexico costs only a couple of dollars.
“The first time, they were goblins. Then I started to hallucinate that I was listening to demons,” said Edgar, whose name has been changed like all teens in this article to protect their identities.
Methamphetamine—colloquially known as cristal in Mexico—has spread across the country over the past decade, and children are succumbing to addiction at younger and younger ages. The growth of meth use among minors has surged in recent years, according to both Mexican health officials and private rehab owners consulted by VICE World News, creating an invisible crisis that the government is unable, or unwilling, to handle.
Ten years ago, only about 5 percent of people who sought government rehab had a meth problem. But that stat surged to more than 30 percent by 2020. Meth is now the country's biggest drug addiction, far surpassing other highly addictive substances such as heroin, cocaine, and crack, according to Mexico's Health Secretary.
Edgar is now a patient in Mexico's only state-owned hospital unit that focuses solely on minors with addiction issues. The hallucinations—often referred to in English as the “Shadow People”—are a common experience for meth users after days of using without sleep. Edgar saw glimpses of imaginary figures, or heard a paranoid voice coming from somewhere in the distance. His child mind saw them as goblins and demons.
Edgar solves a math equation inside of Mexico's only kid's only state-run rehab center. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE World News)
“One voice I had, I'm not sure but I think it was a woman,” said Edgar, explaining that it would tell him to go places and find things. Often it led him to steal things to feed his addiction. Other voices warned him about his friends or family, telling him they were untrustworthy.
“They'd tell me people weren't really on my side,” Edgar told VICE World News. “That they are talking shit about you, or that they're hustling you.”
As his drug use spiraled, his parents petitioned for him to be sent to one of the few government facilities that help addicted children.
The Zapotlán El Grande Hospitalization Unit is located on a dusty side street in Ciudad Guzmán, an industrial city in the western state of Jalisco. Jalisco, like much of Mexico, has been ravaged by meth addiction over the past decade. The state is also the home of its eponymous gang, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG for its Spanish acronym), which is one of the principal producers and pushers of the internal methamphetamine market here.
“Right now, [meth use] is still rising,” said Dr. Norma Leticia Corona, the director of the youth rehab center. Corona has worked there since it opened in 2001 and helped it transition to a kids-only facility in 2006. Previously, she said, kids would come in with primarily alcohol and marijuana problems. “Nowadays, most of the kids who enter the center come for cristal [addiction],” she said.
Corona estimated that 80 percent of the kids who pass through do so because of meth use, and generally stay for detox periods of three to nine months.
For many, it's someone close to them who gave them their first taste of the drug.
“What we have heard from the children that we’ve treated has been that it's a relative, an uncle, a brother, a father, a neighbor, a friend, who initially persuaded them to try [meth],” said Corona.
The Zapotlan El Grande Hospitalization is running at a lower capacity because of CV-19. Even when it's full, it hardly meets the demand. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE World News)
It’s now become common for preteen patients to arrive at the center: “We once had a 6-year-old [come for meth abuse],” she said, noting that generally, the kids who enter the center range from 8 to 16 years old.
Meth use can have an extremely damaging effect on the not-fully-formed brains of children, leading to long-term mental health issues when they’re adults, said Corona.
The center is run by the federal government's Youth Integration Centers (CIJ for its Spanish acronym) and is free, but it’s overwhelmed with demand. Due to the pandemic, they'd been using only 12 of their 20 beds. She said that her unit could easily double that amount of beds and still be full all the time just from the kids who come from Jalisco alone.
“The truth is that the demand is really high. Ideally, there would be other locations like this with one,” said Corona.
But there aren't.
Children at a private rehab center in Ciudad Juarez behin each day by sharing their feelings and fears. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE World News)
So many of Mexico's addicted youths end up in anexos—controversial and oftentimes abusive private rehabs run mostly by former users that focus on locking away people with addictions for long periods of time to go cold turkey, with an emphasis on tough-love methods to get them sober.
Minors of all ages are also locked away with adults, and cases of physical and sexual abuse have been documented across the country. The opaque nature of these privately-owned-and run centers means there’s little transparency or oversight into how they work and treat their patients, many of whom are admitted against their own will.
“I feel like I can't be outside with the way I am right now. I'm so fucking afraid of being out there,” Gloria, 17, shouted between tears in a room full of teenagers in a nondescript house in the border city of Ciudad Juarez. “I'm afraid of people, to be in society, socializing.”
Gloria hadn't left the house in ten weeks.
She had been sequestered in a private rehab center called El Principio de una Nueva Vida, or The Beginning of a New Life, just a few miles south of Texas. The center follows a similar modus operandi of anexos by locking up its residents for months at a time and is not run by the state like the Zapotlán El Grande rehab center. But the facility is one of the few that specializes solely in kids and teens. And according to Gloria and other internees, the center treated them well.
It was Gloria's second time around. She'd come first at the age of 14 for a yearlong stint for cristal use. After spending a year in the Nueva Vida, she was able to remain sober for only four months before relapsing hard, she said. She recalled living on the streets of Juarez and in abandoned flop houses where users disappeared for days. An abusive boyfriend, she said, pressured her to take meth and prostitute herself when they both needed to score. She'd seen several friends murdered after working for the cartels.
The kids at the Nueva Vida rehab center partake in a group karaoke session. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE World News)
The first time that she’d come to Nueva Vida, it was by force, when the police escorted her with the consent of her mother. The second time, she asked to go back just days after her 17th birthday.
“If I felt bad, I got high. If I felt angry, I got high… I thought it was the best solution,” Gloria told VICE World News. “And here [at the center], when I feel bad about myself, I talk, I express why I feel bad about myself, why I feel these emotions, why these thoughts.”
Antonio “Tony” Hernandez and his son Jorge founded Nueva Vida to tackle teen addiction. They'd both experienced it themselves. Tony, now in his early 50s, has been clean for over 25 years after using heroin for much of his early life. In the late 2000s, Jorge used several substances, including household chemicals and crack.
“The only person who helped me was my dad; everyone else had already turned their backs on me, for obvious reasons,” said Jorge.
Eventually, Tony got Jorge into an anexo and he was able to get clean too.
Jorge, now 32, recalled how soon after his father approached him with an idea: “He [Tony] said to me, ‘Imagine having a place where we can help lots of young people just like you.’”
That conversation led to the founding of the Nueva Vida nine years ago, and after three years, they converted it to a kids-only rehab center, one of the few that exist in Mexico.
The kids make paper maché masks that they'll later paint to express their feelings. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE World News)
The house is an oasis for kids addicted to drugs in Juarez, where the government lacks facilities for youths and addiction is rising. The center has a relationship with state authorities, only accepting children who’ve been recommended by the city prosecutor’s office and with the consent of their guardians.
But that relationship doesn’t help pay the bills, and they receive no state funding for their work. The house keeps operating thanks to donations and the little they charge the parents of the children. Each fee is decided on a case-by-case basis, and some pay as little as five dollars a week.
Jorge and Tony are seeing the same patterns as Corona: Meth use is the biggest problem, and the kids hooked on it looking for help are getting younger and younger. The father-and-son team have helped kids as young as 9.
They work hard to make the Nueva Vida a place where the kids feel accepted and safe. As the day passes, volunteers lead workshops in literature and poetry; another practices art therapy by having the kids make paper-mache masks they’ll paint with their emotions.
After lunch, Tony pulls out a large speaker and microphone and the kids sit around in a circle. One by one, the kids clamor for the mic, switching between everything from traditional Spanish-language songs to modern U.S. pop hits by artists like The Weeknd. A girl recovering from addiction smiles while singing Killing Me Softly by the Fugees.
Gaining the trust of the young people with addictions sent to the center is one of the biggest challenges, said Tony, as well as getting them to confront their issues: “We must talk about the wounds of our childhoods.”
Slowly, the kids begin to open up again, he said, and “they begin to live with a sense of belonging because they are accepted here. Because I don't care where they come from or what they've done.”
During a period of free time, the girls congregated upstairs, some reading in their rooms or drawing. The boys hung out in an athletic space on the floor below, arm-wrestling and sparring with boxing gloves.
Children spend their free time playing games and exercising at the kids only rehab center in Ciudad Juarez (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE World News)
Felipe, 15, decided to wallop a handheld punching bag with jump-kick after ferocious jump-kick. The relief he felt was evident.
“I spent six months on the street. Each time [I got high], I felt a deeper emptiness into which I fell and fell,” said Felipe. “The truth, there were a lot of things and I've felt bad since. I prostituted myself for drugs. And it was an experience that as long as I was high, I thought what I was doing was OK.”
Felipe was recruited at age 13 by a cartel to sell drugs, and he quickly became addicted. It's become common for Mexican drug cartels to allow teens in their ranks to consume meth because it makes them less sensitive or likely to refuse the horrendous acts they’re asked to carry out.
Felipe quietly acknowledged murdering four people as a teenage hitman. When his meth use got out of control and his bosses found him unreliable, he was tossed aside and had to live on the streets, he said.
For Felipe, the reasons for joining the cartel were simple: “Easy money and drugs.
“[Organized-crime groups] regularly use children like me. They think that adolescents my age are more easily manipulated, more manageable,” he said.
Stories like Felipe’s are common in Mexico, where young teens are recruited as corner kids, low-level drug dealers, and assassins. He thinks five or six of his friends have died because of their connection to cartels.
His parents eventually found him on the streets and got the prosecutor’s office to recommend he be sent to the Nueva Vida. As soon as he got there, he said he started to feel better.
Felipe overcame his reservations about anexos to try and find the new life he wanted. “Out there I thought that I was the only crazy person,” said Felipe. “The others [in here] think the same as me, they feel the same way as me. And I began to feel comfortable and understood.”
For all of the kids who have found refuge from their drug use in facilities like the ones VICE World News visited for this report, there are hundreds if not thousands more who are struggling with addiction alone. Help does not appear to be coming.
Nathaniel Janowitz also reported from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.