CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Neighbors mopped blood from the sidewalk outside a drug rehabilitation center Thursday, cleaning up the carnage after gunmen lined up patients against a wall and then riddled them with bullets, killing 18.
It was the third attack on a drug treatment center in Ciudad Juarez. Chihuahua state authorities said Thursday they were investigating reports that the centers have turned into hideouts for drug smugglers being sought by police and hit men from rival gangs.
Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico's top law enforcement official, said rehab clinics were also being used as recruiting and training centers by drug cartels.
He told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview that a recently detained drug suspect belonging to the La Familia cartel oversaw various private, nonprofit drug rehab centers across western Michoacan state. The suspect Rafael Cedeno claimed to have trained 9,000 recruits for the cartel in 2008.
"We're checking to see if there is a link with what we've found (in Michoacan)," Garcia Luna said.
Retreats to train members
Garcia Luna said in Michoacan, Cedeno's rehab centers held retreats to train members, and if addicts did not cooperate, they were executed. He said the La Familia gang preferred recovered addicts because they were less likely to touch the drug loads.
Mexico's burgeoning drug trade has fed a growing drug abuse problem, particularly in border cities where gangs have a heavy presence. Scores of rehabilitation centers have opened their doors in recent years, some out of the homes of recovered drug addicts with checkered pasts.
Most of the centers are not guarded or regulated.
Patricia Gonzalez, the prosecutor of Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located, said Thursday that the centers have become hide-outs from police or rival gang members.
Bloody footprints tracked from the door of the humble cinderblock Aliviane center remained on Thursday, as federal police and soldiers stood guard. El Paso can be seen just across the U.S. border.
At 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, about eight gunmen broke down a door at the center, lined their victims against a wall and shot them dead, authorities said. Gonzalez said one man died Thursday and another remained hospitalized.
Little information on victims
Little information about the victims was available. Sobbing mothers and wives gathered outside the prosecutors' offices to demand answers and find out whether their loved ones were among the dead.
Elisabeth Quintero, 32, said she lost her son, 16; her younger brother, 28; and her cousin, 21. Another woman gently braided her hair, comforting her outside the Chihuahua state prosecutor's office.
"They have said nothing," Quintero said. "Just that somebody killed them."
Quintero declined to give details about her relatives' addiction problems, saying only that the men checked in to straighten themselves out. She called her teenage son "delinquent."
Jaime Valle was at a loss as to why his 17-year-old son, Jaime Saul Perez, was gunned down just as he was trying to turn his life around by seeking help for marijuana abuse.
He said his son had never been in trouble, except for smoking pot, and had been expected to finish his treatment and return home this weekend.
'I want justice!'
"I want justice!" Valle yelled. "Kill those ungrateful dogs that are going around killing innocent people. Justice! I want justice!"
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's deadliest city, has seen the worst of the nation's drug violence with more than 1,300 deaths this year. The bloodshed has continued despite a buildup in troops since March.
In June, five men were killed in an attack at another rehabilitation center, while 50 patients scrambled over a back fence to escape. In August 2008, gunmen barged into a pastor's sermon at a rehabilitation center and opened fire, killing eight people. Authorities have yet to say whether the attacks are related.
The site of Wednesday's attack, Aliviane, is not affiliated with the similarly named U.S. nonprofit Alivane Inc., which has 13 clinics in Texas.
A spokesman for the U.S. organization said it was contacted several years ago by people in Ciudad Juarez who wanted to use its operation as a model for a similar program, and that Alivane Inc. contributed beds, fans and other materials to help it get started.
The spokesman asked that he not be identified because of concerns about his own safety, adding that his organization was "very sorry for the unfortunate incident" which took place just a few miles from its own headquarters in El Paso.
He said security was being strengthened at the U.S. rehabilitation clinics.
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