Xalisco Boys Push Mexican Black Tar Heroin
Imagine heroin addicts ordering their daily fix by cell phone, just as easily as calling for a home-delivery pizza. That’s the ingenious business model employed by the enterprising immigrant boys from Xalisco, Mexico to not only introduce U.S. customers to Mexican black tar heroin but also to get them hooked. Black tar heroin is inexpensive, readily available, and highly addictive – three ingredients to a business model guaranteed to supply long-term customers.
How did this all come to pass? Let’s take a look.
Xalisco Boys – The Origins of the Network
The story of how Mexican black tar heroin made its way to the United States has been well documented by L. A. Time’s reporter Sam Quinones in The Heroin Road, a three-part series. Sugar cane farm boys from Xalisco, in the Pacific state of Nayarit, Mexico, flocked to the U.S., lured by the opportunity to make money to send home to their families. They would become dealers, of sorts, working for Xalisco drug bosses, purveyors of Mexican black tar heroin. But that’s more toward the end of the story. How the network came to be didn’t just happen overnight.
The idea was cooked up in the early 1990s by two men serving time in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. The crimes for which they were incarcerated – drug offenses. One of the men, who called himself Max, knew about heroin trade in the U.S., and said his partner, a native of Xalisco, had access to both workers and black tar back in his hometown. Xalisco County (the town of Xalisco and a number of other villages) is made up of a lot of ranchos and small villages, each ferociously independent. Thus, there could be no single person controlling a cartel.
Once the system was in place, the two partners got down to serious work. They paid money to the Arellano-Felix cartel for permission to bring the black tar heroin across the border in Tijuana. They then set up a business model and a heroin ring in Reno, Nevada.
Max and his partner disdained the old way of selling heroin out of houses, which were easy targets for police and Drug Enforcement Agency raids. Instead, they devised a unique selling and delivery method. Customers would call a number, and the dealers would get a page, and then deliver the agreed-upon drugs via car – directly to the customer. The dealers would only carry the black tar heroin in tiny uninflated balloons they held in their mouths. If they got arrested, the charges would be less severe due to the small amount. And, they didn’t drive expensive drug trafficking organization (DTO) makes like Cadillac Escalades. They drove beaters or inexpensive sedans, clean but not too flashy. They dressed modestly and never carried guns, didn’t engage in violence of any kind. All this was designed not to draw attention.
Another part of the Xalisco boys unique business model involves selling to white middle-class, working clientele – and not to African Americans or Latinos. In cities, especially, where there are plenty of young white people, there is no shortage of black tar heroin customers. In addition, Mexican black tar heroin is marketed as a cheap and easy substitute for OxyContin, Percocet and other prescription painkillers. This strategy has been particularly successful in parts of the country where there are high addiction rates to these painkillers, in such areas as California, the nation’s Rust Belt, and Appalachia.
Max and his partner are not the only Xalisco boys starting up their own networks for Mexican black tar heroin in the U.S. Once the word spread, systems began cropping up all over the place. Immigrants told friends and family back in Xalisco and soon other farm boys got in on the bandwagon, all eager to make a little money and climb out of poverty. It wasn’t about flashy cars and big homes and all the material things – at least, not at first. It did, however, help lift families hard hit and maybe put in a new TV, fix the plumbing, pay for children’s schooling and a few modest pleasures. The Xalisco boys began as drivers, earning up to $1,000 a week, putting in their time to learn the business, to see how things were done. Then, back home in Xalisco, they’d assemble their own supplies of black tar before returning to the states as crew chiefs.
In the Mexican black tar heroin business, it’s all about who gets the customers. Price wars are not uncommon, either, as one outfit seeks to undercut another – and secure the most clientele. In the push to get new users, dealers offered addicts rewards for referrals – 8 to 10 free balloons for every $1,000 of business they brought in.
Staging Places: Southern California and Phoenix
Nothing if not ingenious, the Xalisco drug bosses steered clear of established heroin organizations in the big cities of the U.S., opting instead to use Southern California and Phoenix, Arizona as their staging base of operations. Networks have sprung up in, among other places, Boise, Idaho; Indianapolis, Indiana; Nashville, Tennessee; Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. From there, the sticky stuff (black tar heroin is dark and sticky, hence the name) wends its way into the suburbs and small towns of America.
Until the late 1990s, Mexican black tar heroin was generally confined to the Western part of the country (West of the Mississippi). To the East, Columbian powder heroin reigned. That all changed within the last decade, due, in part, to U.S.-funded efforts to eradicate Columbian poppy fields. The 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment issued by the U.S. Justice Department says Mexican heroin production reached an estimated 18 metric tons in 2007. It is estimated that black tar heroin now accounts for two-thirds of the heroin market in this country. According to the Assessment, Mexican DTOs are the greatest drug trafficking threat to the U.S. They maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in more than 230 U.S. cities and generate billions of dollars in illicit proceeds annually.
Distribution Centers Increasing
Keeping up with the demand and targeting new users requires greater availability of the drug. Ohio is a case in point. There, Mexican DTOs have responded to the demand by increasing the number of distribution centers. According to the Drug Market Analysis 2009 for Ohio (http://www.justice.gov/ndic/pubs32/32785/32785p.pdf), by the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program (HIDTA), Office of National Drug Control Policy, Columbus and Dayton have emerged as regional distribution centers. Columbus supplies Mexican heroin to markets in Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania, while Dayton is the distribution center for Mexican heroin to southwestern Ohio. Since 2007, according to the report, Mexican DTOs have increased availability of heroin in northern HIDTA counties to the extent that Mexican heroin (black tar or brown powder heroin) is the primary type available in most areas of the HIDTA region.
The outlook for Ohio is that Mexican black tar heroin availability will increase, particularly in the northern counties, as Mexican DTOs supply larger amounts of the drug, taking advantage of their well-established transportation routes as well as distribution centers and networks.
Another case in point is California. According to the California Border Alliance Group (CBAG) Drug Market Analysis 2009 (http://www.justice.gov/ndic/pubs32/32765/drugover.htm#Top), from the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), Mexican black tar heroin and brown heroin are prevalent in the area. The CBAG region is a major transportation corridor used by the Mexican DTOs to smuggle Mexican heroin from the U.S.-Mexico border in California to the Los Angeles metropolitan area – a national-level distribution center for Mexican heroin. The amount of heroin seized in Imperial and San Diego counties increased 96 percent from 2007 to 2008. According to the 2009 Drug Market Analysis, this is very likely the reduced opium poppy eradication efforts and rising heroin production in Mexico – both of which are contributing to the expansion of Mexican heroin distribution to the United States.
The outlook for the CBAG region is that the flow of Mexican black tar and brown heroin will very likely increase in the near term. This means an increased supply to Mexican heroin markets in the region and throughout this country. The report says drug-related violence will persist in the U.S. communities along the U.S.-Mexico border in California and that Mexican DTOs may increasingly retaliate against United States Border Patrol officers who direct counterdrug and border security measures against them.
Cheap and Easy High
The prescription painkiller OxyContin is expensive, averaging $80 per pill in some parts of the country. Addicts need 6 to 8 pills per day to satisfy their habit. Compare that to about $50 for enough black tar heroin to get through the day and the pure economics of the situation is a no-brainer. In Denver, Colorado, a dose of black tar might cost $8, while in other areas it may be $10 to $15 per balloon. Add to that the extremely potent nature of the Mexican heroin and the customers soon become regular clientele – hooked on an even more deadly addictive narcotic.
The cheap and easy alternative to painkillers soon attracted the university crowd in towns such as Boulder, home of the University of Colorado, and Fort Collins, home of Colorado State University.
Availability and Low Price Leads to Abuse
The 2009 Ohio Drug Market Analysis notes that heroin abuse is rising in the Ohio HIDTA region, particularly among young Caucasians from suburban areas. This has resulted in a 66 percent increase in heroin-related treatment admissions in Ohio between 2004 and 2008. In addition, law enforcement officials in Toledo and Fairfield County report that some abusers of controlled prescription opioids (painkillers such as OxyContin) are switching to heroin.
Relative to California, the CBAG Drug Market Analysis 2009 data shows that heroin accounts for 22 percent of all primary treatment admissions (behind methamphetamine abuse at 49 percent). The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency reports that opiates (including heroin) account for the largest number of hospital and emergency room visits for dependence. Young adults in the CBAG region are increasingly abusing OxyContin. Once addicted to the drug, many begin using heroin because it is typically cheaper, easier to obtain, and provides a more intense high.
Preying on Addicts Trying to Quit
Getting customers is the ultimate goal. The Xalisco boys aren’t shy about where those customers come from, either. Some hang out around the drug treatment centers and clinics, hoping to snag the addicts as they come out. The strategy often works. Try offering free black tar heroin to an addict struggling to kick his or her habit, and you’ve got an idea of just how well it works. The addict is soon hooked on the black tar – and even stronger than he or she was to whatever their previous drug of choice was.
Black Tar Overdoses Lead to Death
The advent of black tar heroin in the U.S. is responsible for a significant uptick in the amount of deaths due to overdose. After all, it’s 70 percent pure or better. That could easily be addictive or lethal, particularly to new users unaccustomed to such potency. Ohio, after the arrival of black tar there in 1998, now has one of the worst heroin addiction rates in the country – attributed, in large part, to black tar heroin. As Quinones’ series pointed out, heroin addicts admitted to Ohio state-funded treatment centers experienced a five-fold increase, to 15,000. In 2008, Ohio reported 229 heroin overdose deaths, a threefold increase in the past decade.
Other areas of the country have reported an ever-increasing number of deaths due to overdose of the drug. In Oregon, Multnomah County Health Department workers found that black tar heroin overdose deaths had more than doubled from 1996 to 1999, to 100. Seeking to stem the deaths, an aggressive ad campaign urged junkies not to shoot up alone. It was successful for a short time, although black tar heroin deaths have again shot back up to the late 1990’s levels.
In the long term, chronic black tar heroin users may develop abscesses, cellulites, collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, and liver disease. Pulmonary complications, including various forms of pneumonia, can result from the overall poor health of the abuser, as well as the serious negative effects on the user’s respiration. In addition, street heroin, including black tar heroin, can have additives that don’t completely dissolve and clog the blood vessels leading to the brain, lungs, kidney and heart. This may lead to infections and death of small patches of cells in vital organs.
Heroin addiction is one of the most significant effects of heroin use. After regular heroin use, tolerance builds up, meaning the user requires more of the drug more often just to achieve the same high. Upping the dosage and frequency of the drug leads, over time, to physical dependence and addiction.
The danger of black tar heroin is that it is so potent that users in the U.S., who have had no experience with such high levels, can quickly become addicted – or even die – from the first dose.
Media Coverage Increased Demand
Ironically, once the media began to cover the stories of black tar heroin deaths, demand for the drug reportedly increased exponentially. The more the evening news and newspapers paraded the stories of untimely deaths due to the “black plague” sweeping the community, state and parts of the nation, the more would-be customers queued up to get in on the action. They wanted to sample this super-potent narcotic.
In the words of one official the Quinones’ series quoted, “Addicts are always looking for the best high.” These are words that drug treatment professionals know well. Addicts use for many reasons: to seek escape, a lull from the everyday stresses, to ride blissfully along – albeit for a short time – unconcerned with anything around them. After a while, it ceases to matter what costs the addiction entails – loss of family, financial, social, legal, and vocational problems, as well as physical and mental health deterioration, serious illness, even the possibility of death. All that matters is the next fix, the next high. And among the drugs currently available in this country, perhaps none has as much of a grip on addicts as Mexican black tar heroin.
Countering the Scourge
If media coverage only serves to increase the demand, what’s the answer to countering the scourge of Mexican black tar heroin? As evidenced by the initial success of the ad campaign in Oregon, one way is to create hard-hitting, impactful public service announcements (PSAs) and television ads to raise awareness of the dangers of Mexican black tar heroin. Educating youth in school is the key to stemming the reach of the drug into the next generations. More arrests and convictions of these dealers and their bosses will temporarily slow the supply, although when one is arrested, several more seem to crop up in a very short period. Much more targeted efforts by the DEA, the Justice Department and law enforcement on both sides of the border is required. Increased funding for addiction prevention and treatment will also help.
The Xalisco boys began their operation on a shoestring and backed it with shrewd and ingenious marketing and delivery plans. It will take no less than an equally comprehensive and widespread effort consisting of a network of concerned officials, educators, and parents to help begin to get at the problem.
Why go to all the trouble? After all, one could argue that there will always be addicts. If it’s not one substance that proves to be the drug of choice, it will be another. Still, however, the tide of public opinion is turning. Young people are increasingly saying that they perceive the risk of heroin to be great or very great. They are also increasingly aware of the dangers of prescription drugs used for nonmedical purposes, of binge drinking, and other addictive substances.
The point of the matter, the only point that really matters, is that concerned citizens working together do something. You have to act to make a difference, if not for yourself, then for your children and their children to come. In the end, it isn’t just about eradicating the scourge of Mexican black tar heroin from the cities, towns and rural areas of America. It’s about educating the population about prevention, and helping those that are addicted become clean and sober again.