The roses that lie in the dry dirt outside the 'Road to My Recovery' rehab center are still fresh. They fell from the gates of the impoverished drug project on the outskirts of the small Mexican city of Irapuato, where they had been left by mourners. Alongside spent candles and torn police tape, this is all that remains of a shooting that killed 27 young recovering drug users here last week.
This latest macabre chapter in Mexico's brutal crime wars shows how drug users – including those trying to get clean in the country’s unregulated, privately-run rehabs, known as anexos – are increasingly being caught up in cartel violence.
Down a dirt road and hidden from the main highway, in the working class community of Arandas, the two-storey yellow house is flanked by a vacant lot to the right and an empty house to the left. In front is a big white gate that dwarfs Miguel Regalado, 60, as he stands outside, peering in. He took VICE News to where three of his sons – Omar, 39, Cristian, 30, and Giovanni, 27 – were gunned down.
"I passed Giovanni on my way home from work [last Wednesday] and he was on his way here to give his brothers a soft drink,” said Miguel, who works in construction and as a handyman. The family home is a two minute walk from the clinic. “A bit later, around 5PM, my neighbour started pounding on my door saying they’d shot up the anexo. I ran.”
Both Cristian and Omar had long struggled with addiction to meth – the main drug of choice for many in the central state of Guanajuato. Giovanni, the youngest of the three, was visiting his brothers the day the shooting took place.
Versions of events vary between media reports and that of the authorities. Between three and seven armed men entered the clinic at just after 5PM on the 1st of July. They asked the few women there to leave, before going up to the second floor, where they demanded all the men lie face down. According to the authorities, the gunmen asked for the whereabouts of a particular person.
What is indisputable is that they opened fire indiscriminately, and that their bullets killed 24 men instantly. A further three died from their injuries later. That two of the dead were 14-year-old boys, according to members of the community, was neither confirmed nor denied by the state prosecutor’s office.
Days later, the yellow house is locked up and silent, the curtains of the window at the front drawn. A few stray dogs play around Miguel’s feet. Short and dark, he has a Jeep cap and a closely clipped beard. He directs my attention to a bloodied shirt and sock lying on the ground.
Sitting next to him outside their humble home in Arandas, Rosa Santoya is dry eyed and dazed as she listens to her husband talk about their dead children. Her dyed long dark hair is drawn away from her face. She closes her eyes for minutes at a time as she talks. “When I got [to the anexo] there were lots of people there. A woman came out and told me all my sons were dead.”
This is the fourth attack on an anexo in the small city of Irapuato this year. Since December, there have been 13 such attacks across the state of Guanajuato, according to Nicolás Pérez Ponce, the head of an association that represents rehab centers. There are no official counts of attacks on unregulated rehabs in Mexico, but media reports show they date back to as early as 2009.
Rehab centers are targeted by cartels because they are part of the drug zone gangs are fighting to monopolize. Controlling drug users is the newest dynamic in a ferocious battle for control between two warring cartels in Guanajuato.
The local Santa Rosa de Lima gang and the national New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) are contesting control of the region’s lucrative criminal markets, and the demand for loyalty from drug consumers and dealers alike is part of their bid for control.
“Attacks on the anexos are clear messages from one criminal gang to another,” said Angelica Ospina-Escobar, the president of Mexico’s Harm Reduction Network, Redumex. “This most recent attack sent a real message to the Jalisco cartel that [rival group Santa Rosa de Lima] isn’t happy about the control Jalisco has.”
Hugo Winslow Ramirez, 44, has been using drugs in the city since he was 14. His arms and neck are covered with tattoos that pay homage to the Joker, his idol, and his bedroom wall in the back of a low concrete house in a working class neighbourhood is adorned with the Beatles logo and images of naked women cut from magazines.
He said that in the last year-and-a-half, nine of his fellow users have been killed (VICE News could not independently verify this). Rival gangs distinguish their product by selling meth and weed in different coloured packaging marked with their brand initials.
“If you buy from one gang then you’re not allowed to buy from the other,” he said. “If they catch you with drugs from the other gang, they will kill you.” Drug dealers too are being forced to pick a side, and most street sale points in the city are currently controlled by one of Mexico’s biggest criminal groups – CJNG – sources in the drug using community said. “Things have really changed – it didn’t used to be like that,” said Winslow.
The hit on the anexo in Irapuato marks the highest body count to date from an aggression on an anexo, and comes amid one of the deadliest episodes of drug-related violence since President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) took power at the end of 2018. AMLO gave the shooting prominence in his daily morning press conference the next day, describing it as “very grave”.
Guanajuato is a vital trafficking route for drugs headed to the U.S-Mexico border. In recent years, the state has become a hugely lucrative market for methamphetamine. Irapuato lies in an industrial corridor where car assembly lines and factories provide shift jobs to blue-collar workers – long, monotonous work that many use meth to stay alert through. Since 2013, demand for treatment for meth addiction has grown seven-fold, according to official figures.
The increasing victimization of drug users here in Guanajuato coincides with the highest homicide rates the state has ever seen. Murders spiked almost threefold between 2016 and 2019, from 1,110 to 3,540, making it Mexico’s most violent state. More police have been killed here than anywhere else in the country this year - a further five were killed a day after the anexo shooting. What’s more, COVID-19 has failed to stem the killing. In March, April and May combined this year, the state reported 840 murders – in the same period last year, that figure was 702.
Drug users are seen by many as highly expendable in Mexico. What’s more, it is presumed that those killed in the country’s crime wars are all involved in the drug trade, a myth that has been proved wrong time and time again.
Following the mass killing, Guanajuato’s public security chief, Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, described anexos as “nests of criminal activity”, suggesting those who died were cartel operatives and had it coming. But the state government has presented no evidence for such claims. Both Rosa and Miguel knew their sons had a drug problem, but vehemently pushed back on accusations that they worked in the drug trade.
At the time of publishing, the authorities had arrested three people in connection with the shooting but provided no more details, and did not grant repeated interview requests from VICE News.
“Families who have suffered a loss not only have to bear that pain, but the stigma of the government calling their dead ‘criminals,’” said Juan Miguel Alcántara, a lawyer and security consultant, and former public prosecutor.
That victims of violence in Mexico worked in the drug trade is an argument used by governments, past and present. It helps dismiss some of more than 275,000 killings that have happened since 2007. Officially, more than 60,000 people have also gone missing in Mexico since the “drug war” began. Each victim leaves behind a father or mother, siblings or spouses and children. But in a country where nine in ten murders are either unsolved or not investigated, this rhetoric is not based on fact.
Both warring gangs have tried to wash their hands of last week’s shooting. CJNG denied involvement via social media, prompting the leader of the Santa Rosa group, José Antonio Yépez Ortiz – or "el Marro" (the sledgehammer) – to do the same in a video that circulated online and via WhatsApp groups.
“I had nothing to fucking do with it,” he says, sitting on a chair in a white room with a white tiled floor. He said the government was setting him up, and threw the blame back at CJNG. The local authorities have recently cracked down on el Marro’s group, and arrested a number of his family members.
“Sooner or later the truth will come out,” he says.
But in Mexico, those to blame for the drug violence remain opaque. Near blanket criminal impunity and a government that is overwhelmed and floundering for credibility means whodunnit is largely decided by gossip, speculation and hypothesis.
For Rosa and Miguel, the death of their three adult sons is an unequivocal fact. “They killed innocent people who were just trying to get ahead,” says Rosa.
But for many Mexicans, Cristian, Omar and Giovanni are already – a little over a week on – just more numbers in a sea of dead.
Edith Dominguez contributed to reporting for this article
Follow Deborah on Twitter
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.