It was just another school day when Gee Vigna went to wake up her daughter Nicky, who was in high school, but Vigna knew something was wrong the moment she saw her daughter lying in bed.
“She was completely gray, her eyes were rolled back in the back of her head and she was frothing at the mouth,” Vigna said. “I screamed for my husband… and we’re shaking her and we’re shaking her. I’m running around the house trying to find a phone and he says to me, ‘she’s dead already.’”
But what Vigna didn’t know at the time was that her daughter was a heroin addict and had overdosed.
“The EMT asked me, ‘What kind of drugs does your daughter take?’ And I said, ‘she doesn’t take drugs,’ and he said, ‘she has track marks all over her arms… your daughter is a heroin addict,’” she said. “I just looked at him. As a parent I just felt like a total idiot and I said, ‘There’s just no way.’”
The paramedics were able to revive Nicky, who spent the next two years in rehab, but then one day Vigna and her husband got a call from a local police officer saying there was a sick call at their house. Nicky had succumbed to another heroin overdose.
“I can so vividly remember that moment of just sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my God, she died,’” Vigna said.
The horrors of heroin have plagued the neighborhoods of St. Louis in recent years, spreading outside of the city into the manicured lawns of suburbia, where Vigna and her family live.
A special law enforcement team of DEA agents and local police are fighting a constant battle against it. Police say heroin customers come from all over, many from the suburbs, to buy drugs in broad daylight.
For DEA Task Force Officer Juan Wilson, who grew up in the St. Louis area, this battle consumes him. On a recent bust, he was outraged when his team found a loaded pistol inside a house lying close to a baby.
“It was underneath the couch cushion laying right next to where a baby was, where we found the heroin was, fully loaded,” Wilson said. “It’s one thing to find the heroin next to the baby, but you find a loaded gun.”
The United States is being flooded with heroin, overwhelmingly from Mexico, according to DEA officials. The first line of defense is at the southern border as the cartels employ a fleet of covert smugglers trying to get drugs into the country. Officials say 83,000 people enter the U.S. near San Diego every day, meaning 45,000 cars per day cross the border.
It’s a game of cat and mouse between border patrol agents and the cartels, and agents say the smugglers are getting more creative, placing well-wrapped drugs inside people, even puppies, as well as inside car transmissions, mufflers and engine blocks.
“Tough for us to get to,” said Robert Hood, the deputy assistant port director at the Otay Mesa port of entry. “We have to call in mechanics.”
Officer Wilson’s supervisor, DEA special agent Jim Shroba, says the Mexican drug cartels have brought in better chemists to perfect the refinement process to produce heroin that can be used without a syringe, preying on the American addiction to prescription drugs.
“They made it so pure they gave new users, suburban users in this region, the opportunity to snort it and get them hooked,” he said.
Removing needles from the heroin equation made the drug far less scary to first-time users, DEA agents say. The cartels also were willing to sell it cheap.
"The prescription drug abuser that's looking for that same euphoria, that same high, it may cost them $80 a tablet and they may need several tablets a day,” Shroba said. “They can get a $10 button of heroin for $10 a capsule, it's readily available and it's an amazing purity."
The high purity allows users to snort it, but the high from snorting soon fades and many users start injecting – a deadly combination. As a consequence, heroin deaths more than doubled from 2010 to 2012. In the St. Louis suburb where Wilson grew up, the death toll is alarming.
"In the St. Charles county area in 2004 there were four overdose deaths and just in 2013 there were 26," he said.
And to him, every death is personal, especially after losing his father-in-law to heroin.
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