‘They Shouldn’t Exist’: Father Blames Drug Programs For Son’s Death | WBEZ
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‘They Shouldn’t Exist’: Father Blames Drug Programs For Son’s Death

The body of a man who was sent from Puerto Rico to Chicago for drug addiction treatment has been found near Douglas Park, on the city’s West Side. 

Like hundreds of other Puerto Rican addicts, Jose Antonio Lopez Hernandez, 36, was lured to Chicago with the promise of quality treatment at state-of-the-art facilities. 

But those facilities were, in fact, little more than unlicensed flophouses where many addicts say they were verbally and physically abused. Lopez, whose body was discovered outside on May 23rd in a clearing littered with used syringes, is the second known death resulting from the pipeline of Puerto Rican addicts to these programs that WBEZ has documented this year.

“He was too funny,” remembered Sugey Ramirez, Lopez’s ex-girlfriend. “Too funny, too nice, too (friendly), too loving. If you was his friend he would love you forever.”

Lopez, known to his friends as “Antony,” came into Ramirez’s life in 2009, when they worked together at a food preparation company in the suburbs. Ramirez said he and some other coworkers asked her for a lift home after work one day. The place where they lived was a storefront in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, with signs outside that carried the symbol for Alcoholics Anonymous: a circle with a triangle inside.

“It was like a support group and stuff like that,” said Ramirez. The program was one of roughly a dozen 24-hour residential addiction treatment programs that Lopez and other Puerto Rican addicts were sent to in Chicago.

Ramirez said eventually, Lopez and his peers at the program invited her to sit in on their treatment sessions at the program. The sessions were run by former addicts, known as padrinos, or “godfathers.” Ramirez said they would choose one addict to sit in a chair, then would yell insults at him to break him down.

“‘You’re bad, you’re this, your momma this, you’re this,’” Ramirez recalled. “They would make you feel really bad stuff like this.”

Ramirez said she thought it was a terrible place for Lopez to stay because it didn’t provide the sort of nurturing support Ramirez thought he needed to deal with issues underlying his addiction.

“They make them feel like a little cockroach,” she said.

She also considered the physical conditions unfit for humans. Ramirez said most of the guys slept on mattresses on the floor, and she recalled times when Lopez would pull up his shirt to show her how his torso was covered with bites from bed bugs. 

Over the years, Ramirez said, Lopez fell into a pattern that was common for these addicts. He would stay at the program and get clean, then he would try moving out to a place of his own. But he would relapse, and end up homeless. Then the cycle would repeat. People close to Lopez said he was planning to get his own apartment when his body was found.

Ramirez said Lopez hated staying at the 24-hour program because of the treatment and conditions there, but he didn’t know where else to get help. Each time he returned, the treatment was more abusive.

“They cut their hair, they cut their eyebrows, they make him feel like he’s not worth it to be alive,” Ramirez said. Recalling that Lopez took particular pride in maintaining his outward appearance, Ramirez said he felt particularly humiliated when padrinos shaved off his eyebrows and cropped his hair into embarrassing and odd patterns. The purpose, she understood, was to shame, control and ultimately, break an addict’s sense of self-identity as part of their rehab process.

“Sometimes he wouldn't eat, sometimes he couldn’t bathe, sometimes they would have fights between the patients and they would hit him,” said his father, Jose Hernandez Cruz, through a translator. 

Lopez had been telling his parents about the mistreatment for more than a year before they started to believe him, Cruz remembered. He said he and his wife had decided to send Lopez from their hometown of Caguas, Puerto Rico, to Chicago in 2008. Someone -- a person that Cruz no longer could recall -- promised them that in Chicago, Lopez would receive medical attention, his own bedroom and other amenities, and that the treatment would help Lopez turn his life around.

“We sent him here because they recommended that here he would get better and could get over his addiction to drugs, he would find a job, and he would do well,” Cruz said. “But it didn’t turn out that way. Regrettably, it didn’t turn out that way.”

In 2010, Lopez returned to Puerto Rico with Ramirez and her daughter, but he soon fell back into his addiction. Ramirez insisted he go back to Chicago for treatment. 

According to Ramirez and Cruz, Lopez’s mother made the arrangement with a simple phone call. She was a municipal employee, and she knew a man in Chicago who would make sure Lopez was picked up at the airport, taken to the group, and enrolled in the program. His name was Luis “Wisin” Negron.

“About 2010 was the first time that I received (Antony),” said Negron. Sitting in the living room of his two-flat in Little Village, Negron said up until three years ago he ran the group where Lopez was sent, called El Grito Desesperado. He said Lopez was one of hundreds of Puerto Ricans he has helped to bring to Chicago for treatment.

Negron denied that El Grito’s treatment involved the abusive methods that Ramirez described. He said it’s also wrong to blame Lopez’s death on the program. 

“We tell them ‘Stay in group because you’ll get better,’ and they get better and they start working and they’re happy and they put on weight,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “But when they get in the streets, they put drugs in their bodies. So then you find them under a bridge, dead. So then they say the group threw them out and they say it’s El Grito’s fault. No. They’re killing themselves. It’s not our fault.”

Even regulated, licensed addiction programs cannot control what happens to addicts who leave, but caseworkers are expected to follow up and re-engage those individuals. El Grito doesn’t have case workers. 

Still, Cruz said he blames El Grito, similar programs and local governments here and in Puerto Rico, for his son’s death.

“They should have places where those young men can be attended to properly,” he said. “Not mistreat them and throw them in the streets so they can do whatever they want, doing things they shouldn’t do. I’m not okay with that.”

Cruz said if he had any idea that his son’s body would be found near train tracks in a strange city, he never would have sent him away from Puerto Rico. Now, he hopes other parents in Puerto Rico will hear what happened to his son.

“Those centers should be taken out of circulation because this shouldn’t happen,” he said. “They shouldn’t exist, so we don’t lose more young lives.”

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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