Part II: Heroin Devastates a Town

C H I M A Y O, N. M., July 11, 2000 -- Venessa Valerio was just 9 years old when she went to her first funeral. Soon her mother would bury her, too.

Venessa and her third-grade classmates walked to the local Catholic Church to say goodbye to their classmate, Audrey, who had been caught in the middle of a dispute over heroin, then shot and killed. “[Venessa] came home that day and she told me ‘I cried and cried,’” said Venessa’s mother, Annette Valerio. “She said to me ‘Why would anybody want to shoot a child?’ “Then it happened to her.”

A Way of Life, Death

The little girl nicknamed “Nessie,” who had dark almond-shaped eyes and hair so long it tickled the backs of her knees, was shot and killed by a burglar who surprised the mother and daughter as they returned home one afternoon in 1993. The killer, a heroin-addicted neighbor — a “tecato” in this part of the country — wanted the little girl’s insulin needles, which she used to help treat her diabetes.

Nessie’s death came at a time when heroin began to take a deadly grip on this New Mexico community, set in the red dirt foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Here in the Espanola Valley, where Spanish settlers made their home in the cradle of what Tewa Indians considered holy ground, heroin has become a way of life. It has also become a way of death.

Like never before, heroin is moving out of the inner cities and into America’s suburbs and rural communities, communities such as Chimayo, which has seen a surge in heroin-related deaths in recent years.

Lives Lost, Touched

Between 1995 and 1998, 85 people in Chimayo, a village of just 4,100 people, died of heroin overdoses, one of the highest rates of heroin-related deaths in the nation. The deaths were attributed to the prevalence in recent years of a high purity “black tar” heroin that authorities believe is being smuggled across the Mexican-U.S. border from Nayarit, Mexico, 1,300 miles away.

Last month, the U.S. Justice Department announced it had made nearly 200 arrests of suspected smugglers in 12 cities following a yearlong investigation into a Mexican trafficking organization (see graphic, above).

Despite the recent federal intervention and efforts by residents to rid the community of the drug infestation, however, hospital visits involving heroin-related emergencies remain high and overdose deaths in this region rose again slightly last year, which is a sign to some here that the drug is still in high demand.

“We are a small area and we do have a problem and we know it,” said Capt. Quentin McShan, of the New Mexico state police in nearby Espanola. “We have addicted grandfathers, addicted fathers and addicted grandsons. Most people in this valley have a relative that has had an addiction problem. It has touched a lot of lives.”

Signs of an Epidemic

Among the clusters of modest adobe dwellings, weaving shops and trailer homes, residents live in makeshift compounds of extended families. Nobody is quite sure why heroin has overwhelmed parts of this community. Some point to poverty or boredom or a history of substance abuse in poorer families here.

Whatever the reasons, officials say, there is no question that heroin has infiltrated this slice of rural America and overwhelmed its residents. Health officials say that they believe that one person in four is a heroin addict.

Though longtime residents were not likely to admit it a few years ago, signs of the drug epidemic here have been evident for some time. Crosses dot the roadways where some have lost family members to accidents involving drugs and alcohol. In the nearby village of Cordova, a spate of heroin overdoses last year among young users prompted someone to write “God help us” in chalk on the roadway.

Kicking the Habit

Murray Ryan, an internist with offices near the local hospital in Espanola, has seen firsthand the growth of the heroin problem in Rio Arriba, a county of 26,000 people. Patients he once treated for symptoms of the flu as young children, he says, have grown up and become heroin addicts. One of his patients, a 15-year-old boy he tried to help off heroin, died in an alcohol and drug-fueled car accident on the road outside his clinic last year.

“The hard drug problem, heroin and cocaine, is just uniquely horrible here,” Ryan said. “I personally think that’s 100 percent accessibility. Five or ten years ago, the 14- or 16-year-olds would have been using marijuana. Since heroin and cocaine are so casually available here, they instantly go from lighter drugs to heroin.”

Joe, one of Ryan’s patients who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation in the heroin dealing community, said he was taking college courses in binary algebra and microelectronics when he got hooked on heroin four years ago. The high school honors student says he is struggling to kick the habit for good. He says he is hoping a judge will let him enter a long-term residential treatment program in lieu of prison for time he owes for several burglary convictions.

“I tried it one time and I liked it,” said Joe, of his heroin addiction. “I started off by snorting it and then that just led to shooting up.” Joe says that he was careful, however, not to “over inject” because he had watched his mother wallow in heavy heroin addiction for years.

‘Always in Your Face’

Aside from the shocking violent crimes, like the killings of little Nessie and Erik Sanchez (see story, below), the problem has permeated much of the community in smaller ways. Until recently, the state police said, one in four homes in Chimayo was burglarized each year.On the community's rural highways, it is not uncommon for state police officers to stop cars for traffic infractions and discover heroin, as well. “We see lots of heroin,” says State Police Officer Mario Salbridez. “Heroin is the drug of choice up here. It is the most popular drug we have going.” Local employers like Florence Jaramillo, the owner of the Rancho de Chimayo, a restaurant popular with locals and tourists, who come to visit the community’s famous and historic Roman Catholic church, El Santuario, have seen the effects. “We knew it was bad when we would hire people and they couldn’t show up to work,” Jaramillo said. Chimayo resident Bruce Richardson was so disgusted when he found discarded syringes in an irrigation ditch in his backyard that he gathered them in a pickle jar and brought them to a community meeting. “It was just always in your face,” said Richardson, who is the head of a local crime prevention group he and others formed to try to combat the problem.

Voices Against Heroin Heard

The residents managed to speak up loud enough in recent months that their legislators took notice, both in New Mexico and in Washington, where hearings have been held in recent weeks in both the House and Senate.

“My only sister is now dead, and I am left an only child,” Chimayo resident Mario Medina testified before a House committee on government reform on June 30, saying that she had died of an overdose. “I feel the best way to stop drug use is to stop the drug before it can come across the Southwest border,” he said.

Last spring, the Justice Department ordered federal law enforcement officials to investigate the problem in Chimayo and surrounding areas.

“We started finding true examples of the fact that this had crossed the line,” said Suellen Strale, a local artist and member of the crime prevention group. “It was no longer closed up. It overflowed into the community.”

On Sept. 29, 1999, the day dawned with what would be the first major step in ridding the community of its heroin problem. Before the sun rose, at 5:30 a.m., federal, state and local law enforcement agents flooded the town in helicopters and police cruisers, raiding the homes of 32 of Chimayo's known heroin dealers.

The agents used an aerial map the outraged residents of the village had helped them plot. “I just said ‘Thank God!’ Jaramillo said, remembering the raid. “This is long overdue.”