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.
Few homicides solved
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.
Transition to a drug-consuming nation
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.
Guadalupe Martínez, 40, said he has been a heroin addict all of his adult life. He left a rehabilitation center three months ago after it closed because of threats.
"We got a telephone threat saying we'd all be killed if we didn't close," he said. "Everybody's in the street because all the centers are closing."
Martínez fights for his fix by begging for money below the international bridge that connects Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, where each day thousands of people stand in line for hours to walk into the United States.
As they wait, Martínez stands in the riverbed and shouts for dollars and pesos, and the crowds, bored, throw the money down. They laugh as Martínez and other homeless alcoholics and drug addicts chase the fluttering bills.
"I've been trying to stop taking drugs, to live in peace without drugs and to start a new life," Martínez said. But he would not quit now, he added. When he finally gets together 100 pesos, or about $8, he's going to buy a dose and get high.
Staff writer Travis Fox contributed to this report.
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