Last Friday afternoon, a fire broke out in a rehabilitation center for alcohol and drugs addiction that left 18 dead—17 found asphyxiated at the site and one declared dead when he arrived at the hospital. There were eight injured, some with severe burns, who were transferred to three local hospitals. Ultimately, this tragedy is a direct consequence of government austerity policies implemented by President Lenin Moreno since taking office in May 2017, prioritizing incentives for foreign investment at the expense of public health and education.
The owners of the rehab center locked all of the exits to the two-story building in the middle of the afternoon, so that the inmates could not escape. Initially, the owners of the establishment were blamed for having abandoned it. First they took flight, and shortly after were arrested by the police.
The fire was caused by one of the youngest inmates trying to escape and setting fire to a mattress. Others also burned mattresses until the fumes made it impossible to breathe inside the center, to the horror of the neighbors who did not know how to help them.
The rehabilitation center, ironically named “Nueva Vida” (New Life) is located in a low-income neighborhood near the port of the Ecuadorian coastal city of Guayaquil. It consisted of very few rooms and was filled to overcapacity with 56 patients.
After a telephone call to emergency services, firefighters arrived: “15 units were deployed, among which were five ambulances from the Fire Department and more than 60 agents collaborated in the emergency,” according to the newspapers.
Several patients saved their lives by jumping from a balcony; others dug a hole in a wall.
Relatives of some 30 patients arrived, anguished over the uncertainty of whether their relatives were among the dead.
According to the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo, “The relatives of the young people who were hospitalized surrounded a woman who was reading the list of the injured. Two mothers cried inconsolably. Then they ran to the hospital in Monte Sinai, in the northwest of the city. They were told that they had taken their children there. Other injured were transferred to the Abel Gilbert Pontón hospitals in the Suburb, and to the Guasmo Hospital in the south.”
“The bodies of the deceased were found in the bathroom on the ground floor, and the others, in a large living room without furniture,” the newspaper reported. Most of the dead were teenagers.
“In the list of wounded,” continues the newspaper, “all men, between 17 and 40 years’ old … Other women joined hands, prayed and fainted when they did not hear the names of their children … One of them was Angela. Her son was 26 years and had been admitted to the rehabilitation center a month ago. The owner of the establishment had asked for $100 per month.”
That amounts to a huge amount of money in a country where the minimum monthly wage is $386. That working class families dedicate such a large portion of their income to such centers is a measure of the desperation created by drug addiction.
The governor of Guayas, Raúl Ledesma, went to the scene and revealed that the clinic had operating permits that had expired one year ago.
“This is evidence of a lack of control by the authorities; we will not allow this to continue, and we will regulate or close” such centers, This is a farce given that it had emerged just a week before the mass tragedy of January 11 that there had been similar cases in two other centers located in the same area of Guayaquil, but without major consequences.
President Moreno tweeted a message of condolence, “extending his fraternal embrace” to the families of the victims. This hypocritical gesture was answered by hundreds of people on social media who charged that the government is responsible for the massacre.
One wrote: “In this country there is no control or help for youth who have fallen into drugs, their families are forced to seek this.” A child added: “Dad, let’s separate the drug trafficking (crime) with consumption (public health problem)”
Denouncing the government as “incompetents” who had written off taxes for the banks, another wrote: “With the money you give the bankers you would have rehabilitation clinics.”
And several identified the massacre as part of a bigger problem in Ecuador: “Not only clinics … [there are] no spaces for children and young people to have their minds occupied in art or sport.”
According to a study carried out by the University Esan of Peru, in Ecuador “the rehabilitation centers, both legal and clandestine, exceed 300, according to the statements of the Minister of Health, Carina Vance. But, the number of state-run centers is very low or almost nil, compared to the number of private. Only 15 are public.”
The most significant factor in the problem of youth drug addiction is the high rate of youth unemployment. “Grupo Adecco carried out a survey of 400 young people between 18 and 27 years old and determined that 70 percent cannot find a job,” reported the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC).
Ecuador is one of the three countries in Latin America that has the US dollar as its currency. Its economy is heavily dependent on oil prices, swinging from surpluses under conditions of high prices a decade ago to 10 consecutive years of deficit.
“This year closed with a deficit of $3,332 million, but in 2008 there was a surplus of $2,673 million. Since then there have been only red numbers,” according to the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo.
Economic analyst Alberto Acosta Burneo, forecast a bleak future for Ecuador: “In 2014 the price of oil began to fall and the government, instead of making adjustments, replaced the oil income with debt.”
Statistics worldwide indicate that with an increase in poverty and unemployment, drug use also increases. This problem is greater in coca-producing countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The consumption of PBC (Basic Cocaine Paste), which is extremely addictive, has seen a drastic rise in recent years.
Addiction is a disease recognized by all the major medical centers worldwide. In the United States, medical insurance accepts up to 28-day treatments at a cost of between $ 20,000 and $ 30,000 per person—a bonanza for owners of US centers. But it is now known that the only reason why patients who undergo such month-long rehabilitation do not consume is because they are locked up. Most, once they step into the street, return to consumption.
This is because it is estimated that it takes 90 days to get rid of the “craving” for drugs, and more than two years for the brain to begin to recover its normal functions.
Drug addiction is not merely a personal failing nor a medically defined disease. It is, above all, a social disease that is bound up with the social oppression of the capitalist system, and that produces a great deal of profit for not only drug traffickers, but for the global financial institutions that launder their proceeds.