Northern California Helping Underserved Latino Addicts

Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States today, at almost 52 million strong. This demographic is an important element of the drug problem in California, which has the highest percentage of Latino immigrants. Many of these immigrants are forced to leave their families behind when they migrate. In the U.S., they encounter difficult working conditions and social isolation. Many develop depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders (SUDs). Regional studies of migrant laborers conducted by the International Journal of Drug Policy revealed prevalence rates as high as 80% for regular binge drinking, 39% for alcohol dependence, and 25% for methamphetamine and/or cocaine use.

The drug problem in Northern CA is particularly compounded by this population since this is an officially designated “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.”

Barriers to Battling Addiction

The challenges of seeking help for substance abuse are well documented, but for many Latino immigrants, fear and denial are just the beginning. Latino migrant men seeking help encounter barriers such as limited English proficiency, financial constraints, lack of documentation, and programs’ inability to admit unauthorized immigrants. Fear of deportation also presents a major barrier to accessing treatment. The drug problem in Northern California has escalated in part due to a lack of resources for these individuals.

Annexing a Solution

In an effort to address their need for treatment, Latino migrants throughout the United States have created an alternative recovery infrastructure called anexos (“annexes”) or grupos 24 horas (“24-hour groups”).

This model originated from the International 24-Hour Alcoholics Anonymous Movement, AA groups with round-the-clock meetings for individuals who could not attend at regular times, or who needed to attend more than one meeting per day due to severe addiction. Founded in Mexico City in 1975, Grupo Condesa established the first recovery spaces for those with limited resources needing a place to recover. These spaces were called “anexos” because they were associated with, or “annexed” to, the 24-hour AA group.

Today there are hundreds of anexos across Mexico.  Housed in rented or donated buildings or warehouses, anexo residents undergo detoxification and attend AA meetings several times per day. Residents are assigned work duty in the anexo, and they are not permitted to leave the premises. These anexos are sustained through family or anexo staff donations when possible, and the program leaders (encargados) are themselves recovering addicts.

For those with limited financial resources, anexos are an affordable and accessible alternative to costly private treatment programs. However, Mexican anexos have come under fire due to reports of corporal punishment. A 2009 survey of Mexican anexo residents concluded that nearly 40% had suffered physical abuse. While morally indefensible, the abuse is premised upon the philosophy that one must suffer in order to heal. The “sacrificial” suffering described by anexo residents can also be related to Catholic traditions of self-sacrifice.

Anexos began springing up in the U.S. in the 1980s, many opened by Mexican migrant workers and immigrants. There are at least eight in the San Francisco Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley; this heavier concentration likely being due to the fact that the first groups began here, so there has been more time for proliferation. Also, California has more Latino migrants and immigrants than any other U.S. state.

Being “mutual help recovery houses,” these anexos provide a new hope for migrants suffering from addiction and feeling they have nowhere to turn. In addition to being affordable and accessible, the philosophy of contribution (self-created centers that are supported and staffed by the addicts themselves and their families), makes this powerful medicine for addressing and overcoming addiction in a landscape where resources are otherwise few and far between.

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