Puerto Rico Sending Hundreds of Drug Addicts to the U.S.

By May Wilkerson 04/15/15

Addicts were sent to Chicago on a one-way ticket with the promise of better rehabilitation.

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Puerto Rico is sending hundreds of drug addicts to the U.S., where they end up in unlicensed treatment centers with no way home, according to a WBEZ/This American Life report.

Back of the Yards journalist Adriana Cardona-Maguigad says she began noticing more homeless people in the area of Chicago where she works, so she started asking for their back stories.

What she discovered is that many were heroin addicts who had been given a one-way ticket to Chicago with the promise of high-quality rehabilitation. But upon their arrival, most found themselves in rundown facilities lacking in resources and trained staff.

“Somebody told my family is one rehab in Chicago got nurse, got pool, got medication, when I get here I no see nothing,” one of these men, now homeless, said.

Jose Alvarez, who works with injection drug users in Chicago, says he’s heard the same story again and again.

“They were thinking they were going to have their own room, a nice warm place in the winter,” Alvarez said. “A couple of them even said that some of these places had pools.”

Alvarez describes his visit to one of the centers: “It was dark, damp and dirty. Not only that—we saw a couple of mice running across the floor.”

Cardona-Maguigad found that all of the treatment centers where these people end up have no licensing from the state or drug treatment permits. Most are 24-hour pop-up facilities that are run by former addicts with no formal training. Many display a logo for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but the 12-step program said it has no affiliation with the centers.

Between 2007 and 2013, the Puerto Rican municipality of Juncos alone sent 259 users to U.S. cities, Cardona-Maguigad discovered, with more than half ending up in Chicago. Other municipalities did not follow-up with numbers, but she estimates that they are much higher.

Cardona-Maguigad went to Puerto Rico, where she says no one is hiding the fact that addicts are sometimes sent to the states. The island’s largest program, called De Vuelta a la Vida or “Return to Life,” is run by the Puerto Rican police, and is a source of pride.

The governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, said the initiative had been a success. “A lot of people that isolated themselves from possibilities of success came back with successful options or already reaching that success,” said Padilla. “In many cases homeless and addicts.”

But the reality, according to Cardona-Maguigad, is much different. After leaving the centers, many patients find themselves homeless and with no way to return to Puerto Rico.

Rafael Torruella, the director of a needle exchange program for drug users in Puerto Rico, says police have not collected adequate data. "How many drug users are sent each year, for instance. And who is doing the follow-ups? I think the numbers in the documents you sent me seems like a gross underestimate of what’s been happening,” he said.

Torruella also said the program involves cities beyond Chicago, like New York and Boston, and and that it has been going on “for a long time.”

“Do we know that they are being sent to places that are certified as drug treatment programs or this is just a house that’s—a fly-by-night—quote unquote drug treatment services that was built in order to exploit drug users?” he asked.

This, and many other questions, have received no response from Puerto Rican officials.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.