Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The New Heroin Entrepreneurs Mexico's Xalisco Boys Have Set Up a Distribution Network That Rivals Amway, Reports Journalist Sam Quinones

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The New Heroin Entrepreneurs Mexico's Xalisco Boys Have Set Up a Distribution Network That Rivals Amway, Reports Journalist Sam Quinones

Article excerpt

Fatal heroin overdoses in America have almost tripled in three years. More than 8,250 people a year now die from heroin. At the same time, roughly double that number are dying from prescription opioid painkillers, which are molecularly similar. Heroin has become the fallback dope when an addict can't afford, or find, pills. Total overdose deaths, most often from pills and heroin, now surpass traffic fatalities.

If these deaths are the measure, we are arguably in the middle of our worst drug plague ever, apart from cigarettes and alcohol.

And yet this is also our quietest drug plague. Strikingly little public violence accompanies it. This has muted public outrage. Meanwhile, the victims - mostly white, well-off and often young - are mourned in silence, because their parents are loath to talk publicly about how a cheerleader daughter hooked for dope, or their once-star athlete son overdosed in a fast-food restaurant bathroom.

The problem "is worse than it's ever been, and young people are dying," an addiction doctor in Columbus, Ohio - one of our many new heroin hot spots - wrote me last month. "This past Friday I saw 23 patients, all heroin addicts recently diagnosed."

So we are at a strange new place. We enjoy blissfully low crime rates, yet every year the drug-overdose toll grows. People from the most privileged groups in one of the wealthiest countries in the world have been getting hooked and dying in epidemic numbers from substances meant to numb pain. Street crime is no longer the clearest barometer of our drug problem; corpses are.

As relentless as Amway

Most of our heroin now comes not from Asia, but from Latin America, particularly Mexico, where poppies grow well in the mountains along the Pacific Coast. Mexican traffickers have focused on a rudimentary, less-processed form of heroin that can be smoked or injected. It is called black tar, which accurately describes its appearance. Cheaper to produce and ship than the stuff of decades past from Asia, heroin has fallen in price, and so more people have become addicted.

The most important traffickers in this story hail from Xalisco, a county of 49,000 people near the Pacific Coast. They have devised a system for selling heroin across the United States that resembles pizza delivery.

Dealers circulate a number around town. An addict calls, and an operator directs him to an intersection or a parking lot. The operator dispatches a driver, who tools around town, his mouth full of tiny balloons of heroin, with a bottle of water nearby to swig them down with if cops stop him. The driver meets the addict, spits out the required balloons, takes the money and that's that. It happens every day - from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., because these guys keep business hours.

The Xalisco Boys, as one cop I know has nicknamed them, are far from our only heroin traffickers. But they may be our most prolific. As relentless as Amway salesmen, they embody our new drug- plague paradigm.

Xalisco dealers are low profile - the anti-Scarface. Back home they are bakers, butchers and farm workers, part of a vast labor pool in Xalisco and surrounding towns, who hire on as heroin drivers for $300 to $500 a week. The drug trade offers them a shot at their own business, or simply a chance to make some money to show off back home - kings until the cash goes. Meanwhile, in the United States, they drive old cars with their cheeks packed like chipmunks'.

The heroin delivery system appeals to them mainly because there is no cartel kingpin. It is meritocratic - so unlike Mexico. They are "people acting as individuals who are doing it on their own: micro-entrepreneurs," said one phone operator for a crew who I interviewed while he was in prison. They are "looking for places where there's no people, no competition," he said. "Anyone can be boss of a network." Thus the system distills what appeals to immigrants about America: It is a way to translate wits and hard work into real economic gain. …

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