My Friend Was Forcibly Treated for Addiction in Mexico.


In the early days of October, police detained Shawn* in Mexicali, the capital city of Baja California, Mexico. Shawn insisted he was not committing any drug-related or non-drug-related crimes, and he was not charged. However, he was admitted against his will to an addiction treatment center.
Workers at La Sala, a safe consumption location in Mexicali, who are acquainted with Shawn, reported this information. Since the past few months, Shawn has served as a volunteer translator at the regular meetings of PANDA, the developing pan-American drug-user alliance in which I am involved and about which my colleague Natasha Touesnard and I have written for Filter. Shawn is a charismatic, well-liked young man who is one of our most devoted Mexican PANDA members and is constantly cracking jokes.
Shawn was born in Argentina, but moved to the United States when he was two years old. As expected, he considered the United States his country and his culture. However, the Land of the Free failed him; he lacked documentation and was deported several years ago.
Gonzalez told Filter that he was arrested for drug-related issues in 2014, which is a common occurrence among deportees who use drugs. This made Shawn one of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented individuals expelled from the United States for drug-related reasons. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, between 2008 and 2016, approximately 40,000 people were deported annually for violations of drug laws.
According to Gonzalez, Shawn was near the U.S.-Mexico border, awaiting permission to reenter the United States while identifying as an American.
The abduction of Shawn adds to the growing number of unlawful detentions.
The violation of Shawn’s rights in Mexico is not an isolated incident.
Shawn’s kidnapping adds to the growing number of illegal detentions in which people, especially those experiencing poverty and homelessness, are profiled as drug users and, primarily due to their marginalized socioeconomic status, are not presented before a judge and are placed directly in treatment centers, as Gonzalez explains.
Jaime Arredondo is a professor in the drug policy program at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Económicas (Center for Research and Teaching in Economics), Mexico City’s premier research and higher education center and think tank. Currently, he is collaborating with the University of California, Los Angeles on a study of a pilot safe consumption program in the border region. Previously, he worked with the University of California, San Diego on a program to promote harm reduction knowledge among Tijuana police officers.
Currently, the Baja California state government is collaborating with the mayors to clean the streets.
Arredondo told Filter that forced treatment like that to which Shawn was subjected has always been a condition of treatment in the country. If you are deemed to be a risk to yourself, your family, or the community, the code that governs treatment allows for mandatory seclusion.
Currently, he added, the Baja California state government is collaborating with the mayors of Tijuana and Mexicali to clean the streets.
In other words, forcing individuals into abstinence-only treatment has evolved into a system of discrimination and abuse. Are the authorities attempting to rid the streets of their own citizens?
Similar to how Shawn’s abduction was described by Gonzalez, Shawn’s abduction was a part of a larger system designed to eliminate drug users from public view in large Mexican cities. He added that in Mexicali, this is also part of a gentrification effort to rid downtown streets of undesirable populations.


For the activists of PANDA, whose mission is to advocate for drug users in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean, engaging with many people in various parts of Mexico in the process, the kidnapping of one of our own, because that is what it was, brought home one of the many ways in which the global war on drug users violates our rights. Not that a reminder was necessary.
Even as a privileged, white drug user in Canada, I have spent the majority of my life in and out of treatment facilities, often under pressure from family and friends, and can therefore imagine what truly forced treatment must feel like. However, these experiences pale in comparison to those endured by marginalized people worldwide.
Up to eighty people were forced to share a single room and attend 12-step meetings.
Because the unethical and punitive practice of forced treatment is widespread worldwide. According to a study, 69 percent of the 104 countries surveyed had criminal laws that mandated drug treatment of some kind.
In Mexico, these treatment facilities are known as anexos. They are privately operated, but in conjunction with the Mexican government. In 2016, Vice published an article about these secretive and abusive treatment facilities. At one facility, up to eighty people were required to live on the floor of a single room and attend 12-step meetings while being unable to leave for at least four months. Such practices and environments would be unacceptable at any time, but during the COVID-19 era, they are especially unacceptable.
The Open Society Foundations published a report in 2016 titled No Health, No Help: Abuse as Rehabilitation in Latin America and the Caribbean, which details how poorly managed and unethical these centers are, as well as how they fail to provide any of the evidence-based treatments recommended by the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies.
Authorities in Mexico estimated that nearly 62,000 people have vanished since the beginning of the country’s devastating drug war.
In Mexico, as in other nations, marginalized drug users disappear en masse, not only to treatment centers, but also to overdose, murder, and unknown causes.
Mexican authorities estimated in early 2020 that nearly 62,000 people had vanished without a trace since the start of the country’s devastating drug war in 2006. The book City of Omens by Dr. Dan Werb is one source for revealing one of the world’s largest femicides, committed primarily against sex workers.
Filter has reported on Mexico’s largely invisible fentanyl-related overdose crisis. According to a recent report by Vice, the annual Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico is dominated by thoughts of those lost to overdose and alleged police kidnappings. Included in this category are individuals who are taken away for involuntary treatment solely on the basis that they resemble drug users, with police frequently demanding ransom-like amounts of money from their families.
And in July, 26 people were executed at Recovering My Life, a treatment center in central Mexico, by armed men who raided the facility.


Jaime Arredondo, however, was adamant that Shawn not fall through the cracks like countless others.
The center’s conditions were appalling: overcrowding, filthy floors, and physical abuse.
Arredondo traveled to Cabo, the city in southern Baja California where Shawn was being held, after being notified by the PANDA network. There, Shawn explained to Arredondo how the treatment center (pictured above) compelled its patients to live. He told Filter that the center was overcrowded, had filthy floors, and administered beatings. Shawn stated that he himself had been subjected to physical punishment in detention.
Arredondo utilized his privileged status to attempt to free Shawn, but he encountered opposition. According to him, management made it difficult for me to take him away. I informed them that we would file a lawsuit for kidnapping.
They wanted his mother to be present to get him out of jail, or he will spend six months to one year in jail, Arredondo explained.
Due to the fact that Shawn’s mother lives in Seattle, this was impossible under the circumstances. She provided an audio recording of her pleading with them to release Shawn, but they continued to refuse.
On November 8, however, Arredondo returned to the facility and was finally able to secure Shawn’s release.
It was an odyssey, but we rescued him, as Arredondo explained. They let him go after we threatened to sue them for kidnapping, contacted his mother in Seattle, and provided him with a new shirt so he would not look like a drug user (according to the director).
I was freed from kidnapping because of Jaime and Said.
I was overcome with happiness and relief when I saw a video of our comrade’s release.
Shawn stated that he was released from kidnapping thanks to Jaime and Said. Now I am free to consume a few beers. We’ll soon be working together to assist Said with his translations.
But my happiness was mixed with anger and disgust at this news. Because there were dozens of additional prisoners in that facility and countless others held elsewhere who lacked influential advocates like Shawn. They will continue to endure horrendous conditions in a location where they should have never been taken.
I wrote this story to raise awareness because the majority of U.S. media outlets appear to have little interest in what occurs south of the border. Even July’s treatment center massacre did not receive the coverage it deserved in the media, and Shawn’s plight is of little concern.
The fact that PANDA and our allies were able to free Shawn demonstrates that the power of drug-user activism should never be underestimated. We will not tolerate this regardless of our location. To have any chance of ending the widespread global abuse of forced treatment, we must scale up our efforts, expand our networks, and scream from the rooftops.
The name *Shawn has been changed to protect his privacy.
** The Drug Policy Alliance previously awarded The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, a restricted grant to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.


Shawn endured appalling conditions as we fought to get him out. So many people in Mexico and around the world are subject to this abuse.