A Struggle for Survival: Inside Mexico City’s Illegal Detox Centers

“It’s not a good idea,” Manuel said when I asked him to help me enter an anexo. It was June of 2011 and another attack on one of Mexico’s anexos had left six people dead.

An anexo—or annex—is the name for a clandestine low-cost drug recovery center. Anexos are controversial for their illegality and use of violence, but for many Mexican parents, they are the only way to ensure a child’s safety from the danger that surrounds the narco war.

Manuel—a seasoned driver I sometimes hired during my field research in Mexico City, who first told me about anexos—insisted I had no idea what I’d be getting myself into. But I pushed back, saying that the attacks on anexos occurred far from the city. Plus, they couldn’t all be so dangerous. After all, he put his daughter in one. Manuel finally relented. The next week he picked me up at my apartment and we headed to an anexo named Serenidad, Serenity.

Rooms to protect people have existed throughout history and are created in response to danger and violence.

Mexico City is enormous. Its terrain merges with surrounding urban areas, forming a megalopolis of over thirty million people. The farther out a person is located, the more difficult and dangerous life can be. Serenity was in Iztapalapa, one of the densest of Mexico City’s sixteen boroughs. Roughly 21 percent of Mexico City’s population resides there, two-thirds of whom meet official standards of marginality, which include poverty, malnutrition, and addiction problems, among others. Adding to these issues is the lack of health services, public infrastructure, and schools. In his book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis includes Iztapalapa as one of the world’s largest slums. It once housed the city’s garbage dump. One of Mexico City’s largest prison complexes, the Reclusorio Oriente, is also located there.

Given the borough’s reputation, I was surprised to find that Serenity was in a working-class neighborhood with paved streets, busy food stands, and small family-run shops. A few men warmly shouted ¡Compañero! as we drove by. It was Manuel’s neighborhood, and he seemed to know everybody. The man who ran Serenity was an old friend.

We pulled up to an orange-colored two-story building. I assumed Manuel would accompany me inside, but he didn’t move. “I am a chauffeur,” he said. “I move people from here to there.”

I looked at the building. The anexo advertised itself with a large vinyl banner draped outside: Serenity. Rehabilitation Center for Alcoholics, Drug Addicts, and Neurotics.

Manuel tapped the shiny black steering wheel like he was waiting for me to leave. “Just make introductions?” I asked meekly. Manuel stared at me in the rearview mirror for a moment, then opened his door without saying a word.

A young man unlocked a metal gate and escorted us inside. The gate opened onto a neat courtyard framed by two stories of apartments. Kids kicked a ball around, women cooked in a shared outdoor kitchen, an old man read the newspaper. He offered it to us as we passed by, calling it yesterday’s news. It was a relaxed atmosphere, and the aromas of food clung to the sticky summer air.

The doors to a few apartments were open and provided glimpses of front rooms stuffed with furniture. The flicker of a television brightened a few of them. Tattered chairs, drying clothes, and buckets of growing flowers and vegetables gathered around each unit. A woman sat in front of her door rolling cigarettes. She offered to sell me one and shrugged her shoulders when I said no.

Serenity was in a corner unit on the second floor. It didn’t have just one door, it had three—an iron grille, a metal door, and then a wood one. Unlocking them was a long and noisy process. Our escort talked to Manuel as he fumbled with a ring of keys. I could hear sounds from inside. Somebody was screaming, somebody was crying. Our escort chatted easily. There’s a new chick, young and pretty. One of the counselors was kicked out for stealing food. I’m just helping out till they get someone new.

I looked at Manuel. He was tall and lanky, dressed in boots and jeans. I suddenly realized I knew almost nothing about him.


A sour smell of bleach, cigarettes, and unbathed bodies hit me as soon as I entered Serenity. An oscillating fan pushed the odor from one side of the room to another, over the heads of people—so many people—all sitting cross-legged on the floor. They were los anexados, the annexed.

The voice of one anexado shot through a momentary silence. Who the fuck?

I glanced around the room. It was about the size of my living room back home in Los Angeles, but it was cramped and dim. In one corner stood a wooden lectern. In the other, a disheveled young man faced a wall. He turned his head to look at me; I could see that he was crying.

The room was about twenty by fifteen feet, with a water-stained ceiling and a cracked tile floor. The cement walls were painted an ugly green and bolts of white caulk filled their many cracks. Curls of yellowing paint hung from the ceiling. A few months earlier, a major earthquake hit Oaxaca and also shook Mexico City. It was impossible to look at the ceiling and not think of it falling.

Nailed to the walls were announcements and handwritten slogans, all ending with an exclamation mark: 5 am! Get up! Do not touch! Live and let live! There were large sepia-toned portraits of Bill W. and Dr. Bob S., cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous, and an unadorned wooden cross. There were no beds or any other furniture that one might expect to find in a place where so many people lived, just tightly rolled blankets and chairs stacked neatly against a wall.

Some of the anexados hung their heads; others looked at me with interest or scorn. They appeared to be mostly teenagers. I spotted two young women sitting beside each other. I offered them a faint smile; only one of them returned it.

A man’s voice rang out. ¡Órale, cabrón! The man approached and clasped Manuel’s hand in a show of friendship. I looked down, embarrassed. The cracked linoleum tiles had a fleur-de-lis pattern. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a callused toe peeking out of a worn plastic sandal.

The air in the room felt thick and seemed to get caught in my throat. I started coughing. It started off slow and shallow, then developed into desperate gasping. Suddenly, I was holding a cup of water I was afraid to drink. But I drank from the cup, imagining it as a communion chalice. When my cough finally settled, Manuel and I were led to the back of the room, weaving between people’s bodies as we made our way. I fixed my eyes on the floor, careful to not step on the anexados’ hands or trip on their legs. I felt ashamed of my mobility and wanted to leave. But before I could flee, our guide tapped three times on a closed door before opening it and gesturing for us to enter.

“What’s up, jefe!” It was Padrino Francisco, the leader of Serenity. Manuel gave him the quickest of hugs, then looked at me. His expression said, My job is finished. After a few more words with Padrino Francisco, Manuel left, closing the door behind him.

How could life be protected in a place so diminished?

I glanced around the room uneasily. It was nondescript, like an office for a low-level government worker. There was a microwave and a coffee maker, a banged-up desk with two chairs for visitors. Hanging behind the desk was a dry-erase board dusty with red and blue ink remnants and some framed certificates, the contents of which I couldn’t make out. The only thing that stood out was a painting that covered one wall. It showed a naked man. Before I could look any further Padrino Francisco asked me to sit.

He was short and burly, with a receding hairline and clean-shaven face. The skin under his eyes looked bruised from lack of sleep.

“You can ask me anything, anything,” he said, looking at his watch. I admitted that I knew very little about anexos and didn’t know where to begin or what to ask.

“Sometimes it’s better not to ask, you know what I mean?”

The painting hovered over me. I saw now that it showed Jesus trying to break thick chains binding his wrists. The palette was dark, except for the bright-red beads of blood running down Jesus’s forehead and the startling whites of his eyes. His body was rendered in the classical heroic style, with muscular, elongated limbs, but he wasn’t at all serene. He looked wild, with his hands pulling furiously against the chains. It was a bleak image, almost grotesque, and it reminded me of one of Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings, Saturn Devouring His Son. Goya’s painting is based on the Greco-Roman myth of Saturn, or Cronus, the titan who ate his children out of fear of being overthrown by them. It shows a decapitated child in Saturn’s hands, whose mouth is opened wide to consume even more of the body. Goya painted it on the wall of his own house.

I asked Padrino Francisco about the painting. He studied it for a moment, then turned to look at me.

“Every person in this place knows that struggle.”

“What struggle?” I asked.

“The struggle to survive.”


I didn’t want to return to Serenity, but I felt compelled to. It was like I was pulled down by the force of gravity. The anexo was somehow natural to me, but troubling nonetheless. The multifamily apartment complex was typical of other working-class apartment buildings in Mexico City. It was vibrant, neighborly. Yet it had a room dedicated to locking up young men and women vulnerable to dangers I didn’t yet understand.

Rooms to protect people have existed throughout history and are created in response to danger and violence. I understood such rooms in New Mexico. The detox clinic aspired to be a haven of safety, protecting people from the risks of heroin overdose and prison. When I was sixteen years old in Albuquerque, I took refuge with homeless teenagers and runaways in an abandoned railyard building we called the Cathedral. We sought shelter there together, protecting one another from loneliness and hunger. But I had a hard time understanding what was being protected in an anexo. How could life be protected in a place so diminished?

Padrino Francisco accepted my presence at Serenity. I was a friend of Manuel, and therefore a friend of his. My first few visits to the anexo were spent in his office beside the image of Jesus trying to burst out of his chains. Sometimes Padrino Francisco joined me and stared at me with curiosity.

“Just what are you looking for?” he asked.

I thought for a minute, then answered: “The story of this place.”


The Way That Leads Among the Lost cover

Excerpted from The Way That Leads Among the Lost: Life, Death, and Hope in Mexico City’s Anexos by Angela Garcia. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan. Copyright © 2024 by Angela Garcia. All rights reserved.

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