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


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

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

Results:Participants recognized the limitations of Tijuana Mejorain effectively controlling crime and addressingdrug treatment solutions. MPOs perceived that the intent of the operation was to displace and detain homelessPWUD, not to assist or rehabilitate them. The police operation was largely justified as a public safety measure toreduce the risk of injury due to flooding, decrease drug consumption among PWUD and protect local tourism fromPWUD. Some participants perceived the crackdown as a successful public health and safety measure while othershighlighted occupational risks to MPOs and potential human rights violations of PWUD.

Conclusions: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. Officerperceptions shed light on the many limitations of this punitive policing tool in this context. A shift towardsevidence-based municipal strategies to address drug use, wherein police are perceived as partners in harmreduction rather than antagonists, is warranted.


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