Chiva: After the Bust

Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade (New Society Publishers), by Chellis Glendinning. As this chapter begins, a massive drug bust has just netted the town's biggest dealers.

The overdoses continued. In fact, we witnessed a surge after the bust. The reason? Lines of distribution had been cut, and the tecatos, desperate for their fixes, got creative: they began to cook up a deadly concoction of cocaine and the prescription opiate Lortab.

A stranger in a pickup truck honked his horn in my driveway. That's how you make your presence known around here: you honk your horn. The man's plaid flannel shirt was buttoned up all wrong, and the bench seat of his Chevy was littered with crushed Bud Light cans. Where are you from? I asked. He hesitated. Ojo Caliente. It was a village a good 25 miles to the north.

The man locked his frantic eyes to mine. "Help me," he pleaded. "I need chiva."

I am still horrified at what I did next for I was momentarily filled with the bravado of having beat the dealers out of town. "You know where the Santuario is?" I asked. "Drive out this dirt road. Turn right, then right again at Juan Medina. Go pray for yourself."

Inside the house, on my desk, lay a neon-orange flyer with phone numbers to call to get help. I crumpled into a heap of sobs for my insensitivity.

In October Española Hospital treated nine people for overdoses; two died. The deaths continued into 2000. "Physiologically there's nothing more addictive to the human body than heroin," Española's police chief Wayne Salazar told the Albuquerque Journal. "We see (heroin addicts withdrawing) here in jail. It's just traumatic." A Chimayoso named Alfonso Martinez succumbed in January. Over in Chamita Thomas Rodriguez's girlfriend discovered his cold body lying next to a spoon cooker and syringe. Upon returning home from her own rehab, Norman Valdez's wife found him dead of a morphine overdose; he had been in recovery at Amistad. Carlos Martinez died from a mix of heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. Friends dropped Gilbert Trujillo at the Española Hospital ER after they discovered him unconscious in an arroyo. There were women too: Cathy Chacón passed out on a couch at the Santa Clara Apartments. Lisa Tafoya died up the mountain in Chamisal.

Of the seven guys he used to shoot up with, Joaquin offered, he was the only one still alive.

Something else happened. It was as if invisible fingers had been busily drumming at the edge of the action and then, the moment the dealers were cleared out, they sprung. Here we were barely disentangling ourselves from the clench the dealers had had on us. Before Sept. 29 precious few in the village had even been able to form words around the machinations behind the robberies. Few had dared to name the dealers outloud or even speak the word chiva.

And then -- lo and behold, big and bold -- New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson showed his hand: he wanted to legalize heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.

His thinking was based on the growing failure of the effort to suppress drug abuse by interdiction abroad, intercepting shipments at the borders, and arrests of dealers and users at home. In 1972, the federal anti-drug budget was $101 million; in 1980 it was roughly $1 billion; by 2004 the amount had shot up to $30 billion,92 with the 50 states spending that much again. And these expenditures only covered the enforcement of drug laws; they did not include the fiscal impact of criminalization on the public health and criminal justice systems. Still, with all the outlay of monies, drugs did not dry up in the U.S. As retired San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara reported at a 1999 tribunal on narcotics, they became cheaper, purer, and more plentiful.

Law enforcement itself was admitting that the Saint-Michael-versusthe- Dragon approach was failing. "As a nation we now have nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges, more than the total prison population in all of Western Europe," wrote Johnson in a New York Times editorial. Indeed, by 2001 the proportion of the U.S. prison population who were drug offenders had reached 55 percent.

In New Mexico, 81 percent of the $159.7 million the state spent on corrections went to problems stemming from drugs and alcohol abuse. In Río Arriba county, 75 percent of arrestees tested positive for drugs -- with 70 percent of men on opiates -- and according to a public defender serving Río Arriba, 90 percent of criminal cases in the county were related to chemical dependency.

Like his counterparts in the left and liberal wing of the anti-drug effort, our Republican governor linked drug abuse with poverty. "The burden of this explosion in incarceration," he wrote, "falls disproportionately on black and Latino communities." While African Americans make up only 12.2 percent of the population, they comprise 59 percent of those doing time for drug offenses. A similar link was being made in el norte. We were number 1 in drug overdose deaths, and according to the 2003 Río Arriba Comprehensive Community Health Profile, 39 percent of the county's Hispano residents had not completed high school, while 22.5 percent lived in poverty. Forty percent lacked health insurance.

I drove up to Taos to see some films with a couple of friends. The subject matter was mountains, and since poppy and coca are often grown in mountain regions, the films to be shown that afternoon would be about drugs. Gov. Johnson was scheduled to talk. He was OK, I guess. There was something odd about him: here the guy was blowing the lid off the conversation by advocating legalization -- and yet his arm had to be yanked and twisted to get any money for rehab. And he kept building bigger prisons.

In Taos, the films were the thing.

The drug war in Latin America was not going well. Jarring images bled into each other the way the realities of unjust political situations always do. Military boots. AK-47s. Innocent citizens plucked off city streets and caged in wooden crates. A line-up of indigenous men pressed into servitude at coca farms in Bolivia, forced to spout cheers for the day's productivity like a Wal-Mart employee pep rally. Black Hawk helicopters spewing poison. Dead chickens. Babies with their brains oozing outside their heads. Singed crops -- and afterward, the locals frantically replanting them like ants repairing their hills. With the onslaught of cheap agricultural products made possible by free trade agreements, people must grow drug crops just to survive.

My friend Felicia Trujillo was vehement. An athlete and traditional healer, drug politics was not her usual terrain of concern. "I was shocked that this is allowed to continue!" she howled. "And the price? Billions. It all just enforces how the 'civilized' still treat indigenous people as half-human. Locals having to work as troops slashing and burning the fields that could be used to produce food. Everything poisoned. And sure, there are bad drug people. But most of them are involved just so they can eat. The drug war isn't stopping anything!"

As we pulled away in the Jeep, legalization activist Lisa Law waved us over. She had a video camera. "What did you think of the films?" she asked. "God. After seeing all that," I responded into the lens, "how could you not be in favor of legalization?"

My thinking is actually more convoluted. Yes, both at home and abroad the drug war is a failure. Legalization would put a halt to the violence perpetrated by dueling cartels, and for those imprisoned in Bolivian farms or trapped in wooden cages in Bogotá, it would bring freedom. Legalization would give addicts a chance to recover or get high or go down the tubes -- whatever -- without hurting anyone else, and harm reduction programs like needle exchanges would cut down on the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

But as a member of a community engulfed in the desperation perpetrated by drug dealing, I have a confession: dragging the Gallegoses, Barelas, and Martinezes out of town came not one moment, and one death, too soon. When an independent radio producer called to get a sound bite of civil-liberties outrage at the government's confiscation of their properties, I surprised her -- and myself -- when I blurted out: "We want them to lose their houses! Good Lord, we just got rid of them. We don't want them coming back!"

A rarely mentioned detail of the legalization endeavor is that it would only transfer the massive profits garnered from illegal cartels to multinational pharmaceuticals -- and violence perpetrated by corporations is as vicious as violence by drug lords, while slavery by economic necessity is as tyrannical as slavery at gunpoint. It is within the realm of possibility too that legalization would increase addiction. It happened in China when, in the wake of legalization laws forced by the British, opium addicts grew to 27 percent of the adult male population. It happened in the U.S. with legal opiates when the rate of addiction reached twice what it is today. Look at alcoholism after Prohibition.

And has anyone worked out a blueprint for the transition from cartel to pharmaceutical control? The governments of several countries in the world today are indistinguishable from the business of trafficking, and in many the traffickers are as high-tech heavily armed as a national military -- or they are a national military.

Two things are for sure. One: the relentless expansion of profit-making endeavors through history we call empire has forged the colossal organization of mass society, everywhere engendering fragmentation of institutions one from the other, fragmentation of sectors of society, fragmentation of self interest, and fragmentation of how people perceive self interest. Complex predicaments result -- like the interweaving of global trafficking with personal suffering and addiction -- presenting contradictions for which no single solution can be complete.

Two: beyond the complexity of the pros and cons of legalization lies a bottom line as bold as a felt-tipped slash. Humans have always sought means to attain altered states of consciousness. The glitch: people displaced to mass society typically seek fulfillment outside the ceremonial container that has traditionally guided the experience and given it meaning. And that container cracks into one more lost shard with each season that we do not return to the sustainable ways of farming, gathering, hunting, and fishing or understand our existence in spiritual terms.

Just as Gov. Johnson became the highest ranking elected official in the country pushing for legalization, so the shit hit the fan. Liberal groups around the country were thrilled with this unexpected shot in the arm. According to his office down in the capital, public reaction was running "97 to 3" in favor of the governor's position. Former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz sent a surprise endorsement, and Libertarians in New Mexico filed with the Federal Election Commission to draft Johnson for president. (He declined.) A bill he endorsed to give legal goahead for public servants to administer the opiate overdose-blocking drug naloxone passed the Senate unanimously -- and yet, at the same time, Johnson suspected that his future as an elected official could be washed up.

He was right. Law enforcement, community activists, and parents throughout New Mexico were enraged. At a gathering at the Albuquerque Police Academy, Sandoval county sheriff Ray Rivera called for Johnson's resignation. President Clinton's drug secretary Barry McCaffrey blasted him as a "political oddity." Parents at De Vargas Middle School in Santa Fe staged a protest to bar the governor from coming on campus. Santa Fe city councilor Peso Chavez drafted a resolution to denounce the stance, calling it "irresponsible, thoughtless, and careless."

Officer Quiñones just rolled his eyes.

In the midst of all the gusts and eddies, something else was riding the wind. Something good. The community was organizing.

With the news of New Mexico's status as the number 1 overdose state in the nation, proposals for federal funds aimed at prevention and treatment were suddenly leaping from ground to figure from the piles of competing proposals. New Mexico's long-time senator, Pete Domenici, secured a Department of Justice grant of $750,000 for Río Arriba to provide after-school alternatives to substance abuse and criminal activity. He also got money to boost the Boys and Girls Club in the region and facilitate the continuation of the law enforcement effort.

After initially vetoing a drug treatment bill, Gov. Gary Johnson was convinced to give the goahead to a $1 million pilot project. The NM Department of Health chose an Arizona company to set up the area's first outpatient treatment center focused specifi- cally on heroin abuse, and Amity, Inc. renamed itself Amistad de Nuevo México for its launch into Spanishspeaking country. An eight-year outlay of money by the Department of Health was also launched. Plus, local and national foundations began to take an unprecedented interest in el norte.

Some of the Española valley's already existing programs were beneficiaries of this focus. Hoy Recovery Program was one of them. A norteño named Abe Torres had started Hoy thirty years before when he shuttled alcoholics the hour-and-a-half across the mountains to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Las Vegas. It now had a residential and outpatient facility on Paseo de Oñate. With grants from foundations, the state, and federal agencies Hoy was able, as director Ben Tafoya put it, to "diversify" -- expanding to administer DWI programs for courts and setting up a much-needed referral service to residential treatment.

Hands Across Cultures had been founded in 1995 by Harry Montoya. As a mental health counselor frustrated by the various economic and political roadblocks to providing adequate treatment, Montoya had a vision. He wanted to offer the community services that would help people not start using drugs and alcohol in the first place.

By 1999 Hands Across Cultures had produced several award-winning educational videos including La Cultura Cura and Jornada del Muerto, both of which depict the impact of drug addiction on norteños and present traditional culture as the means for overcoming it. After the drug bust, Hands Across Cultures garnered grants to build a teen center; offer classes on drug use, violence, and domestic abuse in Española; open a Boys and Girls Club next to the Chimayó elementary school; and foster a mentoring program.

Another institution to receive monies was the Río Grande Treatment Center, which was funded for increased services at its residential clinic in the village of Embudo. And Ayudantes, offering counseling and methadone to heroin addicts since 1983, signed contracts with the state to continue its work with the added attention of research studies to gauge effectiveness. The tiny Una Ala clinic, on the old highway to Los Alamos, began to work in conjunction with Hoy, supplementing methadone treatment with support services.

It was a time for those with track records to keep on keepin' on. It was also a time for trailblazers.

A new effort that got started was the Black Tar Heroin Initiative. Its goal was to rally community leaders to respond to what police, health professionals, and tecatos alike were insisting was the source of the problem: cheap heroin coming up from Mexico. The group brought together people who normally did not meet with one another -- folks from Eight Northern Indian Pueblo Council, Santa Fe and Río Arriba counties, the Department of Health, non-profits like Hands Across Cultures, Río Arriba Family Care Network, and Santa Fe Community Partnership -- "building coalitions on the community level." They set up a system for at-risk families to receive government services to deflate stresses, like violence or lack of medical care and housing, that contribute to drug abuse.

It was also a time for faith. Many of the people in the Black Tar Heroin group were the religious leaders who had marched in Linda Pedro's procession. "When the Hermanos walked," reported one brother from a morada in the north, "we had an experience of bringing communities together, with the Hermandad participating for the first time, and big changes started to happen."

One change was something previously unheardof in the faith community. A Pentecostal minister, two Roman Catholic priests, a Presbyterian minister, and several Hermanos traveled together to a weeklong training given by the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing of California. PICO's teachings were based on the philosophy of liberation theology. To attend to people's souls while ignoring their needs for food, shelter, and human dignity, the philosophy stated, is nothing short of blasphemy. One of its earliest proponents, the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez, challenged the Catholic Church to redefine the ministry as a project of helping people rise up against injustice. "Only through concrete acts of love and solidarity," he submitted in A Theology of Liberation, "can we effectively realize our encounter with the poor and the exploited and, through them, with Jesus Christ."

After this first PICO training, and several subsequent ones, the faith-based community of northern New Mexico was eager to take up the ministry of liberation theology.

The county had been active since the mid-1990s. As then-chairman of the county commission Alfredo Montoya describes it, services were "at each other's necks for the same dollars" and so the commission launched an effort to "save our families from being overwhelmed by substance abuse." They formed the Río Arriba Family Care Network to gather all the disparate efforts.

"One of the first things is we had to look at ourselves," explains Montoya. "For a person to recover, the first step you have to take is admit you're in a jam. So we said, 'This is going to be embarrassing because we're going to have to come out.' And that's what started this whole thing about our county leading the state and the state leading the nation. We publicly said we have a problem; we called it an epidemic. We sought the help of Sen. Domenici to have a public hearing and a townhall meeting to see if we couldn't get resources from outside." The commission hired an Anglo named Lauren Reichelt who, as Montoya tells it, "had worked her way through the ranks and demonstrated she was able to make the contacts that we needed and still be accepted by our service providers as an ally."

Reichelt had come face-to-face with the effects of heroin abuse while building a neighborhood playground in 1993. There she met Annette Valario -- Annette's daughter was the girl who had been murdered by an addict stealing her diabetes syringes -- and they named the playground for her, Venessa's Hideaway. By 1994 the county had hired Reichelt as a community organizer, and soon she was heading up the Family Care Network. She immediately determined that, fiscally speaking, the county could not build a viable health care system until its rampant substance abuse problem was contained.

"When the issue blew up in the press in '97," she explains now, "it was phrased as a 'Mexican Black Tar Heroin' issue. First of all, it's not a Mexican problem and shouldn't be used to beat up on immigrants; it's our problem. Second, the use of the word 'Black' has the unfortunate side effect of suggesting that only people of color use drugs. And last, it's not just a 'heroin' problem. People make use of whatever high is most readily available to them, whether that's valium or cocaine or alcohol. We couldn't solve the problem simply by removing one drug from the streets."

Reichelt got busy. Working with county officials, community activists, educators, players in the recovery field, and families afflicted by violence stemming from substance abuse, the Family Care Network decided to reframe the issue. "What we have here is a public health problem," she says. "We need more treatment options."

The network also emphasized the importance of the health of the community. "The best way you can fight substance abuse over the long run," she explains, "is to stress community infrastructure, meaning both physical infrastructure like treatment and recreation facilities and also networks of people working together to better themselves, what we call 'social capital.'" The county's approach became to listen to people, hold meetings, form coalitions, march, protest at the legislature, write letters -- "anything we could do to get people involved with each other."

Meanwhile, Wayne Salazar became the first police chief in the United States to initiate training for law enforcement officials in the use of injectable naloxone, brand-named Narcan. Administered to a person who has overdosed, according to Jeanne Block of the New Mexico Department of Health, the life-saving drug "knocks the heroin off the brain receptors." The New Mexico state police and Española fire department now carry Narcan in a nasal-spray form.

Indeed, it was a time for trailblazers.

It was also a time for sovereignty. In a place with a history of land-based sustainability, the most important political theme must be self-determination; loss of it is the hallmark of colonization.

After the drug arrests in Chimayó, the Department of Justice came shrieking into el norte like gang busters. Literally. They wanted to fund a task force to be based in the US Attorney's office that would publicly tout the "success" of its anti-drug militarism in Latin America, push for tightened immigration laws as an anti-drug strategy -- and hand-feed Río Arriba a "suitable" recovery plan, with an emphasis on police assault. Read: make Río Arriba its "poster county" for the drug war.

Lauren Reichelt was invited to attend a meeting in Pojoaque with a representative of drug czar Barry McCaffrey's D.C. office. She had already had some experience with the DOJ. One agent had pressed her to fashion statistics to document that overdose deaths had plummeted after the bust when he knew that they had shot up. Another wanted the county to "appear" to hold meetings for developing local strategy, but insisted DOJ dictate who would preside, how the meetings would be run, and who would be acceptable to attend.

When Reichelt arrived at the meeting, she was shocked. To begin, a lineup of uniformed generals and National Guardsmen festooned with medals reported their extensive service to the nation. Then McCaffrey's people unveiled their purpose: they were going to produce a series of public-relations spots for national TV with New Mexico children complaining that Gov. Johnson's stand on legalization was causing their classmates to use drugs.

Reichelt was not head of Río Arriba's health network for nothing. Military medals or not, she piped up that the governor's ideas should be debated on their own merits or lack thereof. She announced that drug abuse in northern New Mexico is a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem, and that the most relevant "assault" we could mount would be treatment -- for norteños, by norteños, with norteños in mind.

The final blow to the plan to make the county with the most per-capita drug overdose deaths a DOJ emblem of success came when Alfredo Montoya graciously -- for graciousness is a facet of local etiquette -- requested a culturally-sensitive plan. Knowing that the county could use financial help from the federal government, he had tried to work with the agency -- meeting endlessly, holding hearings, submitting the grants the DOJ proposed he submit. But in the end their insistence that the county mold itself to their image proved too much, and Montoya stood his ground.

The DOJ left.
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