MEXICO AT WAR

Juarez's Addicts Targeted by Unknown Attackers

LOOKING FOR WINDFALL: Guadalupe Martínez looks up at the bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, hoping one of the people on it will drop him some money. Martínez is a heroin addict who was forced back onto the streets after his drug rehabilitation center was threatened.
LOOKING FOR WINDFALL: Guadalupe Martínez looks up at the bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, hoping one of the people on it will drop him some money. Martínez is a heroin addict who was forced back onto the streets after his drug rehabilitation center was threatened. (Photos By Travis Fox -- The Washington Post)
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By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 15, 2009

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico, June 14 -- The patients at the Life Without Addictions drug rehabilitation center here were bunking down in their grim, gray dormitory two weeks ago when a group of gunmen burst in and opened fire. The attack left five addicts dead.

On Saturday afternoon, a young man reluctantly opened the gated door. He said that the center was closed for good and that he didn't know who the killers were or why they had come. He pointed to a spot on the floor next to the grimy sofa and the faded image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It was blood.

"That is where my uncle died," he said. His uncle was 36-year-old Jesús Ignacio Palma.

Assailants have been targeting addicts in Ciudad Juarez for the past year. In August, eight men were killed and five wounded by unknown attackers as they gathered for prayer at a treatment facility in this border city. Last week, a man was executed at a third rehabilitation center.

No one knows why the drug addicts have strayed into the crosshairs here. One reason for the mystery is that few homicides are ever solved in Ciudad Juarez. The addicts, counselors and police say they suspect that patients may owe money to dealers or work for competing gangs or have stolen drugs they were hired to carry across the river to El Paso.

"Many people sell drugs during the day and sleep at the centers during the night. That's the problem. Their troubles come home with them," said Victor Silerio, a former heroin addict who now runs the Cre Cavi treatment center, one of the few that do not let patients freely come and go.

The killing of drug addicts is the latest outrage for the citizens of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most violent city. According to tallies kept by local news media, about 700 people have been killed here this year.

Sergio Belmonte Almeida, a municipal government spokesman, said many more addicts are shot on the streets -- killed with handguns at close range -- in crimes that are rarely solved. Belmonte said the military tells him the deaths are the result of disputes over drug sales.

There was a brief lull in the slaughter earlier this year after President Felipe Calderón sent 10,000 soldiers and federal agents to occupy the city and take over the municipal police force. In February and March, there were days when no one was slain in Ciudad Juarez, but now a dozen people are found dead every day.

For many years, Mexico was a country where drugs were produced or trafficked. Now it is also becoming a consuming nation, like its voracious neighbor to the north, and government officials see the border city of Ciudad Juarez, with its large population of drug users, as a version of the future they do not want.

Silerio said that since the attacks on addicts began last year, at least seven treatment centers have shuttered after receiving threats or warnings from local drug gangs -- leaving 25 facilities still open.

"Thank God for this place and these people who are here to help," said Miguel Rocha Romero, 29, who entered Silerio's residence program three months ago. Rocha said he was a heroin addict for nine years -- while he was in prison.


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