TIJUANA, Mexico - Syringes and tiny, empty bottles of naloxone, a life-saving medicine used to reverse opioid overdoses, littered a traditional Day of the Dead altar on a street in the dusty border town of Mexicali this week. The customary orange flowers, sweet bread, and brightly colored paper stencils surrounded the drug paraphernalia. Local drug users, many of them homeless, filed by to pay their respects.
Mexicans use the annual Day of the Dead tradition on the first two days of November to remember their deceased loved ones. Here at one of the country’s few outreach centers for addicted drug users, it’s not just the victims of growing fentanyl overdoses that are being honored and mourned. Increasingly, it’s drug users who have vanished following a spate of kidnappings – allegedly carried out by the police.
“There are drug users who have been taken by the police and haven’t come back,” said Said Slim, one of the founders of harm reduction center, Verter.
Addicted drug users, many of whom live on the streets or in derelict buildings or parked cars, are being picked up by the municipal police and forced into private, unregulated rehab centers known as anexos against their will, drug workers and users told VICE News. The illegal detentions began slowly at the end of last year, and coincided with efforts by the local government to regenerate the city center, said observers.
“We were in the street and police arrived and grabbed all of us,” Martin Guerrero Navares, a 51-year-old heroin user, told VICE News. “I didn’t have any money to give them, so they arrested me and took me straight to the anexo. I didn’t see a judge. It was a total flea-pit and I was there for three months.”
Alberto Cabrales, aged 36, said he had a similar experience and that the anexo he was forced into was “hell”. “Everyone was on top of everyone else.”
Both Navares and Cabrales were eventually released after several months, but not all of those who have been taken reappear. Julio Moreno, aged 31, a long-time drug user who for years came to Verter to exchange his old syringes for new ones, was picked up by police a year ago, said Slim and his co-founder Lourdes Angulo. He hasn’t been seen since.
“They have taken people and then we never hear from them again. A lot of them don’t have any family or any contact with their family,” said Angulo.
The illegal detentions lulled during the COVID-19 lockdown that happened after March, but once that eased they resumed with a vengeance, said Angulo, who estimates that at least one hundred such arrests have taken place in the last twelve months. Some are arrested multiple times. Verter has reported some of those cases to the human rights commission for Baja California, the state in which Mexicali sits, said Angulo.
Many of Mexico’s privately-owned anexos are notorious for their abuse of addicted drug users, who are often submitted to treatment against their will, and held in terrible conditions. The government is tackling a growing addiction problem, but its network of state-owned rehab clinics can’t keep up, which is why privately-owned clinics that charge for every patient are increasingly profiting from addiction here.
Drug users in Mexicali named one particular anexo to which they were all taken – a center called Maria Loreto Leon on the outskirts of the city, at the end of a long dirt road. The manager in charge at the time that VICE News dropped by, Juan Carlos Barba, admitted that the police often brought in drug users but claimed: “A lot of the time their families ask the police to do it.”
But centers like these, which cost hundreds of dollars per month to house addicts, are prohibitively expensive for users and often a stretch for their families, if they’re still in touch with them.
Mexicali’s municipal government didn’t reply to a request for an interview by VICE News. It’s not clear if the cost of housing drug users in anexos like these is being covered by the local administration.
The state human rights commission confirmed to VICE News that it is investigating reports of illegal detentions by police in Mexicali, and working with Verter to help train the municipal police to respect the rights of people living on the streets.
Both Tijuana and Mexicali have some of the highest and most visible concentrations of heroin use in Mexico. It’s no coincidence that these cities sit on the international line with the United States, through which tons of heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana and fentanyl is smuggled every week by Mexico’s powerful drug cartels for sale to users in the U.S.
Some of that supply leaks into local markets in Mexican border towns. Border restrictions implemented by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump in March are likely causing more drugs to be sold south of the international line, as moving it into the U.S has become more difficult and costly for the cartels. Tijuana is one of Mexico’s most violent cities, and the state of Baja California in which it sits is one of Mexico’s most homicidal.
The sum of those dynamics is an uptick in overdoses in some of Mexico's border cities due to increasing levels of fentanyl in the heroin supply – fentanyl originally started to be laced into heroin by Mexico’s cartels in response to changing user habits and demand around the opioid epidemic in the United States.
Those overdoses, mainly due to a type of heroin known as China White (fentanyl, or the precursors to make it, are often imported from China), are increasing day by day, workers in both Verter and Prevencasa, a harm reduction center in Tijuana, told VICE News. Opioid overdoses are a daily occurrence now - a year ago they happened around twice a week. Workers hand out supplies of naloxone to users, when they have it.
That overdose surge has coincided with the challenges of COVID. The pandemic saw Prevencasa and Verter shut their doors and then reopen to operate at half-capacity to avoid contagion. The arrival of a new state government hellbent on cleaning up city streets across the state of Baja California has made drug users extra vulnerable.
“Each [state] administration does the same, but this government has been worse,” said Alfonso Chavez at Prevencasa. “They’re detaining a lot of people and pressuring municipal governments to do the same.”
State Governor Jaime Bonilla vowed to clean up Tijuana’s canal when he entered power last year, but the canal is also home to hundreds of destitute drug users.
“The cleaning of the canal – both trash and people, they treat them the same,” said Luis Alberto Segovia, also from Prevencasa.
Juan Carlos Castano, aged 55, lives near the outreach center and told VICE News that he has been detained countless times, and that resisting the police is futile. “If you run and they catch you, they can plant drugs on you, or a knife, and say that you had it on you.”
Prevencasa, like their colleagues in Verter, had a Day of the Dead altar littered with syringes, empty naloxone bottles and spray cans. Some addicts had left notes on the display to dead family members or beloved canine companions who have passed on. Drug users who have been arrested and not returned may be gone, but they’re not forgotten.