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      “Pick up anything that moves”: a qualitative analysis of a police crackdown against people who use drugs in Tijuana, Mexico


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          Homeless people who use drugs (PWUD) are often displaced, detained, and/or forced into drug treatment during police crackdowns. Such operations follow a zero-tolerance approach to law enforcement and have a deleterious impact on the health of PWUD. In Mexico, municipal police officers (MPOs) conducted the largest crackdown documented at the Tijuana River Canal ( Tijuana Mejora) to dismantle an open drug market. We analyzed active-duty MPOs’ attitudes on the rationale, implementation, and outcomes of the crackdown. We also included the involvement of non-governmental allies in the disguised imprisonment as drug treatment referral and potential legal consequences of having illegally detained PWUD.


          Between February–June 2016, 20 semi-structured interviews were conducted with MPOs in Tijuana. Interviews were transcribed, translated and coded using a consensus-based approach. Emergent themes, trends and frameworks were analyzed through a hermeneutic grounded theory protocol.


          Participants recognized the limitations of Tijuana Mejora in effectively controlling crime and addressing drug treatment solutions. MPOs perceived that the intent of the operation was to displace and detain homeless PWUD, not to assist or rehabilitate them. The police operation was largely justified as a public safety measure to reduce the risk of injury due to flooding, decrease drug consumption among PWUD and protect local tourism from PWUD. Some participants perceived the crackdown as a successful public health and safety measure while others highlighted occupational risks to MPOs and potential human rights violations of PWUD.


          Tijuana Mejora illustrated why public and private actors align in enforcing zero-tolerance drug policy. Perceptions of care are often based on captivity of the diseased, not in health and well-being of PWUD. Officer perceptions shed light on the many limitations of this punitive policing tool in this context. A shift towards evidence-based municipal strategies to address drug use, wherein police are perceived as partners in harm reduction rather than antagonists, is warranted.

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                Author and article information

                Health Justice
                Health Justice
                Health & Justice
                Springer Berlin Heidelberg (Berlin/Heidelberg )
                29 April 2020
                29 April 2020
                December 2020
                : 8
                : 9
                [1 ]GRID grid.134563.6, ISNI 0000 0001 2168 186X, School of Government and Public Policy, , University of Arizona, ; Tuscon, USA
                [2 ]GRID grid.9486.3, ISNI 0000 0001 2159 0001, Faculty of Psychology, , Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, ; Mexico City, Mexico
                [3 ]GRID grid.419154.c, ISNI 0000 0004 1776 9908, Center for Global Mental Health Research, , National Institute of Psychiatry, ; Mexico City, Mexico
                [4 ]GRID grid.415502.7, Centre for Urban Health Solutions, St. Michael’s Hospital, ; Toronto, Canada
                [5 ]Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health, School of Medicine, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0507 USA
                [6 ]GRID grid.263081.e, ISNI 0000 0001 0790 1491, School of Public Health, , San Diego State University, ; San Diego, USA
                [7 ]GRID grid.261112.7, ISNI 0000 0001 2173 3359, School of Law & Bouvé College of Health Sciences, , Northeastern University, ; Boston, USA
                [8 ]GRID grid.441391.a, School of Medicine, , Universidad Xochicalco, ; Tijuana, Mexico
                [9 ]GRID grid.412199.6, ISNI 0000 0004 0487 8785, Society and Health Research Center, Facultad de Humanidades, , Universidad Mayor, ; Santiago, Chile
                © The Author(s) 2020

                Open AccessThis article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

                : 13 September 2019
                : 24 March 2020
                Funded by: FundRef http://dx.doi.org/10.13039/100000919, Open Society Foundations;
                Award ID: OR2013-11352, OR2014-18327
                Funded by: FundRef http://dx.doi.org/10.13039/100000026, National Institute on Drug Abuse;
                Award ID: R01DA039073
                Funded by: FundRef http://dx.doi.org/10.13039/100000061, Fogarty International Center;
                Award ID: D43TW008633, R25TW009343, K01DA043421
                Award ID: T32DA023356
                Funded by: FundRef http://dx.doi.org/10.13039/100008673, Center for AIDS Research, University of California, San Diego;
                Award ID: 5P30AI036214
                Research Article
                Custom metadata
                © The Author(s) 2020

                mexico,people who use drugs,police officers,drug law enforcement,crackdown,involuntary drug treatment referral


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