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Drug addiction, violence and poverty in Mexico

December 08, 2015
Angela Garcia

Once considered as a mere pathway to smuggle drugs to the U.S., Mexico is now suffering from rapid increase in drug addiction.The National Addiction Survey in 2008reported that the number of people who had used drugs increased by a million between 2002 and 2008 – from 3.5 million to 4.5 million.* At the intersection of social sciences, the humanities and public health, Angela Garcia, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology tells how drug addiction, violence and poverty are related and where she sees hopes for a better future in the region.

Q: How did you become interested in the drug addiction issues in Mexico and how did your interest evolve?

AG: In my first project, I studied intergenerational heroin addiction among low-income Hispanos in northern New Mexico, a population which traces its’ heritage to the region’s original Spanish settlers. Recently, there’s been a lot of attention in the media about the problem of heroin addiction among poor whites in rural America. But the problem of heroin addiction has been around for generations in northern New Mexico. I sought to understand how the region’s colonial history, entrenched intergenerational poverty, the criminalization of addiction and culture fed into dynamics of heroin addiction within Hispano families.

During this research, I began to consider the other side to the story of the addiction in New Mexico, specifically drug trafficking, violence, and poverty in Mexico. Although addiction is a global concern, a lot of research on drug addiction tends to be focused in the U.S. or Europe. As an anthropologist who studies addiction, I feel a responsibility to think beyond U.S. In both the U.S. and Mexico, I document the struggles of impoverished families who must make decisions about how to care for addicted kin, and I explore how researchers and professional health providers might better understand and support their efforts, especially when they don’t align with Western, professional approaches to drug treatment. For instance,in Mexico, there are thousands of unregulated, residential drug rehabilitation centers. These centers are called anexos (annexes). Run and utilized by Mexico’s working poor, anexos are concentrated in areas affected by drug-related violence, and they utilize a form of violence as care to treat drug addiction. There are thousands of anexos in Mexico City and thousands more throughout the country. My current research examines why these centers are proliferating, and how drug-related violence shapes their drug treatment practices.

Q: How is drug addiction related to poverty and depression?

AG: Poverty and depression interact with drug addiction in complicated ways. We know they can push people into using drugs, and can exacerbate problems associated with poverty and mental illness. But drugs can also relieve suffering caused by these same problems, at least temporarily. Indeed, in New Mexico, Hispanos referred to heroin as “medicina” (medicine), a term that suggests the therapeutic effects of a substance we tend to think of only in negative terms. In Mexico, I’ve documented the impact of ongoing exposure to drug-related violence and crime on mental health, especially in terms of anxiety, depression and trauma. These are widespread and growing problems, and they have a role in the growth in addictions in Mexico.

Q: What are some unique characteristics of violence, addiction and drug treatment in Mexico?

AG: For the past few decades, alcoholism has been a major public health issue in Mexico, and drugs, such as heroin and marijuana, produced in Mexico generally passed through the country on the way to the U.S. But international markets have been growing rapidly in Mexico, especially in poor urban setting and along Mexico's border with the U.S. A side from the growing epidemiological data on drug use in Mexico, there is little research on the social implications of drugs in communities with high rate of addiction. My work is trying to help fill this knowledge gap.

A central theme in my current work is the psychological and social consequences of the “Drug War,” and their effects on drug use and drug treatment. In Mexico, I examine this question from the perspective of anexos, whose therapeutic practices can include things like mock kidnappings, forced confessions, hazing rituals and physical violence. These harrowing practices reveal a lot about life in settings where poverty, drugs, and violence are everyday realities. I’m trying to show how anexos’ entanglements in violence and suffering reveal the profoundly unequal and dangerous world that Mexico is today.

Most people that I've encountered are good people, doing the best they can in difficult situations. They're working hard to keep their loved ones and community safe and healthy in an extremely vulnerable environment. Their dedication inspires me.

Q: Your research seems to involve a lot of fieldwork in local areas that might expose you to dangerous situations. Can you share your hands-on advice for others who are interested in similar fieldwork? What are some practical tips that you’ve learned as an experienced anthropologist in the area?

AG: The majority of my ethnographic work involves observing what is happening in these centers, which tend to be located in insecure neighborhoods. Unfortunately, in the past five years, the security situation in these areas has badly deteriorated. As a woman and a mother of two young children, I’ve had to suspend my observations of some centers, although I try to remain in contact with people via Skype and mobile messaging. For the most part, I no longer conduct field observations by myself, especially if it’s at a new site. I go with research assistants or trusted local guides who are familiar with the neighborhood or trusted local guides. I also check in with friends and journalists about the security situation in particular areas before heading out to do observations or interviews. My research includes multiple centers and neighborhoods, so if things get too risky in one place, I’ll go elsewhere.  If fieldwork is impossible, I turn to archival research or data analysis.

Q: What inspires you to continue with your research?

AG: Most people that I’ve encountered are good people, doing the best they can in difficult situations. They’re working hard to keep their loved ones and community safe and healthy in an extremely vulnerable environment. Their dedication inspires me. I am also committed to addressing the failures and harms of the drug war. I hope that my work proves helpful in the fight to end this deadly war, which has caused so much useless suffering. There are reasons to feel optimistic, but much more that needs to be done.

Q: What is one thing that keeps you awake at night?

AG: A profound sense of disconnection between being at a place like Stanford and conducting research in such marginalized settings, but this disconnection is also a driving force for my work.


Check out Professor Angela Garcia's recent book The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande or see her Stanford profile

Would you like to see other Stanford faculty's research in Mexico or news and events related to the region? Please visit the Mexico page on GoGlobal to get the bigger picture!