For six years, until 2013, Luis “Wisin” Negron said, he helped hundreds of Puerto Ricans come to Chicago for help with fighting their drug addiction.
“I was the person who received the people they would send me from Puerto Rico,” Negron said. “I picked them up from the airport, I did the work that we needed to do with them.”
Negron was the coordinator of El Grito Desesperado, a 24-hour residential addiction therapy group that is one of several controversial programs in Chicago that Puerto Ricans have been sent to. But speaking in an interview at his home, a brick two-flat near Little Village, Negron explained he was also a key link in growing and strengthening the connection between his group and municipal authorities in Puerto Rico.
“When I would go to Puerto Rico for vacation, I would go to the municipal office and ask them if there were people to send here,” Negron explained. “And they would say yes, and that there were funds to send them. So I would go to the streets, I would talk with the addicts, I’d tell them about the program, and the municipality would give me the plane tickets and I would bring the people over here with me.”
WBEZ has reported that many of those individuals recount mistreatment at El Grito and similar 24-hour groups, and scores have ended up living on the streets while still fighting drug dependency. Since February, at least two young men who had been sent from Puerto Rico were found dead. Both had spent time at El Grito. One of them, Alex Sierra Negron, the nephew of Luis Negron, died of a fentanyl overdose in an abandoned house. The other, Jose Antonio Lopez Hernandez, was found near Douglas Park in an area littered with used syringes.
Negron said he would distribute his business cards to municipal employees and police during his vacations trips in Puerto Rico. Soon, Negron said, they knew to call him when they had someone who was interested in receiving treatment in Chicago. Negron said his network extended to several cities and towns, and that he received individuals from many places.
“Cidra, Caguas, Aibonito, Comerio, Aguas Buenas, Las Piedras, Bayamon,” Negron recalled.
Sitting in his spare living room, Negron explained his motivation for bringing Puerto Ricans to the program he ran in Chicago. He said it came out of his own experience living on the streets of Cidra, addicted to alcohol and drugs. But he said his life changed abruptly in 2008 after his father died and his family sold their house. Negron received a share of $10,000 from the sale.
“And I blew that within two weeks on the street, on drugs and women,” Negron said. “Ultimately I ended up in the hospital.”
Negron said he almost died. After he was discharged, Negron stopped in a municipal office near his old hangouts on the street, and employees there pounced on him. “‘If you want to go to Chicago, we’ll pay for your flight,’” he remembered them saying. “I was like ‘Alright.’”
And that’s how Negron learned about the practice of sending addicts to Chicago.
“The police from my town took me to the airport,” Negron said. “They put me on a plane and sent me here.”’
Like many other Puerto Ricans who were sent to Chicago for help, Negron said the municipal authorities made promises to him that he quickly learned were not true. They told him they were sending him to a place that would have doctors, a gymnasium and even a jacuzzi.
“I’m looking for the jacuzzi, where’s the jacuzzi?” Negron laughed. But some others have been unable to shrug off those lies, and have called for authorities to shut down the programs that fail to live up to the promises they were given.
Negron said addicts wouldn’t agree to join programs in Chicago if they weren’t made to believe that there would be top amenities. He insisted that he never made those promises himself, and that instead he would describe the group counseling that the program would offer.
Negron denied allegations that those counseling sessions relied on verbal abuse and humiliation tactics to shame individuals into kicking their drug habits. He also emphasized that although he confiscated identifying documents, such as birth certificates and Social Security cards, for new arrivals when he ran El Grito, he never sold those papers. Negron said that many addicts sell their own identities to get cash to buy drugs. He added that he could not vouch for practices at El Grito since he left in 2013.
Pulling out his cell phone, Negron showed a photo of himself from his days as an addict. In it, he looked much younger, and carried a baby. He pointed out his sunken chest, where clearly defined bones stuck out. Negron said he was wasting away as an addict, and he would have died had he not been sent to Chicago for help. So he didn’t understand the negative scrutiny of El Grito and similar programs.
“All I can say from the bottom of my heart is that it works,” he said. “The groups are there to help people. We don’t charge anyone - and then they pay us back with this, saying we treat them poorly. Not true.”