Air Bridge: Puerto Rico-to-U.S. Pipeline for Heroin Addicts

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Since the late 1990s, pastors, police, and mayors in Puerto Rico have been sending hundreds of heroin addicts, many of them HIV-positive, to Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and other cities, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The officials work with mainland ministers, some of whom travel from Philadelphia to the island to recruit addicts, offering drug treatment based on abstinence and prayer. The Inquirer has tracked a pattern of exploitation from the Caribbean to North Philadelphia that has increased the numbers of homeless and HIV-positive people in the city, torn apart families, and confounded advocates. The practice is known as Air Bridge. Critics call it a form of human trafficking.

They see it as a way Puerto Rican cities clear their public squares of junkies and dump them in U.S. inner cities. Mayors say it’s necessary because treatment facilities are sparse on the fiscally cratered island, and that they owe their citizens a chance to end their distress. In many cases, island municipalities pay the one-way airfare to Philadelphia, and police officers often drive addicts to San Juan’s airport in squad cars. Once in Philadelphia, the drug users, most of them young men, are funneled into so-called recovery houses where they complain that pastors belittle them in rants imbued with religious overtones. Air Bridge has flourished for years, mostly hidden, in a dismal push-pull dynamic in which addicts are shoved off the island, then grabbed by Pennsylvania importers bent on personal profit, said Roberto Abadie, a anthropologist from the University of Nebraska. Abadie and others say the ministers who run recovery houses cash in on addicts’ benefits, such as food stamps, and generate money by referring them to drug-treatment centers for group therapy.

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