Drug Users Burned by the System in Peru
By Daniel Wolfe & Denise Tomasini-Joshi
Imagine going to a doctor with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s. Instead of getting effective, evidence-based treatment for your illness, you are locked up in an institution without any trained medical staff. This may seem like an unlikely scenario, but compulsory detention of patients happens every day in Peru to people with mental disabilities or drug dependency. After being detained without any due process, imagine being burned alive while locked up in one of these so-called treatment center. Tragically, 14 people met that terrible death on May 5 in a fire at the Sacred Heart of Christ center outside Lima. In January, 27 people met a similar fate in another drug “rehabilitation” center in Lima called Christ Is Love.
Locking, chaining, and other punishments in the name of treatment may be more common than we know in Peru. The agency responsible for drug prevention and treatment—the Comision National para el Desarrollo y Vida sin Drogas, or DEVIDA–notes that of 222 “rehabilitation” facilities in the country, only 20 percent have all the necessary licenses and required medical staff. There are an estimated 700 “treatment” slots for an estimated 100,000 people in need. The Peruvian facilities are private entities—a distinction from the government-run labor camps masquerading as drug treatment centers in Vietnam and China—but they are equally deadly. As the fires and deaths show, being sent to a Peruvian drug treatment center can be the equivalent of a death sentence.
In certain legal respects, the comparison to a death sentence may even be a bit generous. After all, people charged with a capital crime are entitled to a trial and legal defense, usually at the government’s expense. Peru’s Law 29737, which is applied to detain people who use drugs or who have intellectual disabilities, declares them “incompetent” to exercise their right to due process. This law is contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which Peru ratified, and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Detainees, among other standards.
National and international experts have made it clear that prolonged detention, chaining, beating, and delivery of moral lectures rather than evidence-based treatment is both ethically unacceptable, and medically harmful. DEVIDA itself has published a document on best practices that includes examples of two evidence-based treatment centers. How many more deaths by burning, or years wasted in useless detention, must Peruvians suffer before the government repeals Law 29737 and invests in real solutions?
Daniel Wolfe is director of the International Harm Reduction Development Program at the Open Society Foundations.
Denise Tomasini-Joshi is a division director with the Open Society Public Health Program.