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  1. chillinwill
    Sugar Cane Farmers From a Tiny Mexican County Use Savvy Marketing and Low Prices to Push Black-Tar Heroin in the U.S.

    A Lethal Business Model Targets Middle America

    First Of Three Parts

    Immigrants from an obscure corner of Mexico are changing heroin use in many parts of America.

    Farm boys from a tiny county that once depended on sugar cane have perfected an ingenious business model for selling a semi-processed form of Mexican heroin known as black tar.

    Using convenient delivery by car and aggressive marketing, they have moved into cities and small towns across the United States, often creating demand for heroin where there was little or none. In many of those places, authorities report increases in overdoses and deaths.

    Immigrants from Xalisco in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, Mexico, they have brought an audacious entrepreneurial spirit to the heroin trade. Their success stems from both their product, which is cheaper and more potent than Colombian heroin, and their business model, which places a premium on customer convenience and satisfaction.

    Users need not venture into dangerous neighborhoods for their fix. Instead, they phone in their orders and drivers take the drug to them. Crew bosses sometimes call users after a delivery to check on the quality of service. They encourage users to bring in new customers, rewarding them with free heroin if they do.

    In contrast to Mexico's big cartels -- violent, top-down organizations that mainly enrich a small group -- the Xalisco networks are small, decentralized businesses. Each is run by an entrepreneur whose workers may soon strike out on their own and become his competitors. They have no all-powerful leader and rarely use guns, according to narcotics investigators and imprisoned former dealers.

    Leaving the wholesale business to the cartels, they have mined outsize profits from the retail trade, selling heroin a tenth of a gram at a time. Competition among the networks has reduced prices, further spreading heroin addiction.

    "I call them the Xalisco boys," said Dennis Chavez, a Denver police narcotics officer who has arrested dozens of dealers from Xalisco ( pronounced ha-LEES-ko ) and has studied their connections to other cities. "They're nationwide."

    Their acumen and energy are a major reason why Mexican heroin has become more pervasive in this country, gaining market share at a time when heroin use overall is stable or declining, according to government estimates.

    The Xalisco retail strategy has "absolutely changed the user and the methods of usage," said Chris Long, a police narcotics officer in Charlotte, N.C., where competition among Xalisco dealers has cut prices from $25 to $12.50 per dose of black-tar heroin. "It's almost like Wal-Mart: 'We're going to keep our prices cheap and grow from there.' It works."

    Xalisco bosses have avoided the nation's largest cities with established heroin organizations. Instead, using Southern California and Phoenix as staging areas, they have established networks in Salt Lake City; Reno; Boise, Idaho; Indianapolis; Nashville; and Myrtle Beach, S.C., among other places. From those cities, their heroin -- called black tar because it's sticky and dark -- has made its way into suburbs and small towns.

    In Ohio, where Xalisco networks arrived around 1998, black tar has contributed to one of the country's worst heroin problems. Since then, deaths from heroin overdoses have risen more than threefold, to 229 in 2008, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The number of heroin addicts admitted to state-funded treatment centers has quintupled, to nearly 15,000.

    In Denver, fatal heroin overdoses rose from six in 2004 to 27 in 2008 after Xalisco networks became established.

    The dealers have been especially successful in parts of Appalachia and the Rust Belt with high rates of addiction to OxyContin, Percocet and other prescription painkillers. They market their heroin as a cheap, potent alternative to pills.

    There are no official estimates of how much money Xalisco networks make, but narcotics agents who have busted and interrogated dealers say that a cell with six to eight drivers working seven days a week can gross up to $80,000 a week.

    Among the idiosyncrasies of Xalisco dealers is that they generally do not sell to African Americans or Latinos. Instead, they have focused on middle- and working-class whites, believing them to be a safer and more profitable clientele, according to narcotics investigators and former dealers. "They're going to move to a city with many young white people," Chavez said. "That's who uses their drug and that's who they're not afraid of."

    Xalisco networks have expanded despite federal investigations in 2000 and 2006 that sent almost 300 people to prison.

    Only in recent years have narcotics agents grasped the full reach of the system and its origins in Xalisco, which lies at the foot of volcanic mountains where opium poppies grow.

    The county consists of the town of Xalisco and 20 villages with a total population of 44,000 -- about the size of Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood. Landless sugar-cane workers, eager to grasp their version of the American Dream, provide a virtually endless supply of labor for the heroin networks, one reason the system has proved so hard to eradicate.

    The rise of the Xalisco networks is a peculiar tale of dope, poverty and business smarts that connects a remote corner of Mexico with vast stretches of America's heartland.

    Max Tells His Story

    Two pioneers of the Xalisco model met in the early 1990s in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, where they were serving time for drug offenses. One of them agreed to discuss the system's beginnings and its spread on the condition that he be identified only as Max, an alias he said he used as a heroin dealer.

    Max said he was familiar with the U.S. heroin trade and that his partner, a native of Xalisco, had access to supplies of black tar and workers from his hometown. When the two were released from prison, Max said, they set up a heroin ring in Reno.

    At the time, dealers sold heroin from houses, which police could easily target. Max and his partner had a better idea: Dealers could circulate in cars and receive instructions via pager ( and later by cellphone ).

    Soon a system evolved: Drivers carried heroin doses in their mouths in tiny uninflated balloons, each about the size of a pencil eraser. Addicts dialed a number, as if ordering pizza. The dispatcher would page the driver with a code indicating where to meet the addict.

    If drivers were busted, the small amounts of heroin and the absence of paraphernalia reduced the risk of lengthy prison sentences. To avoid attracting attention, they dressed modestly, drove beat-up cars and never carried weapons.

    From Reno, the partners expanded to Salt Lake City, Denver, Honolulu and other cities.

    Max said the heroin was manufactured in Xalisco. According to court records, dealers and investigators, the Xalisco entrepreneurs paid the Arellano-Felix cartel for permission to take it across the border in Tijuana.

    The heroin wound up in the Panorama City apartment of a couple from Xalisco, who repackaged it and sent it to the networks via courier or Federal Express, according to federal court records.

    Max, who went to federal prison for his role in the scheme, said one reason the system did not evolve into a cartel controlled by one person or family is that Xalisco County is made up of ranchos, small villages famous for their independent spirit and intense rivalries.

    "We're real envious of each other. Families cannot work together," he said.

    Still the system was there for anyone to use. It also appeared in Southern California, where many Xalisco immigrants live. It's unclear whether those dealers copied Max and his partner or came up with a similar system on their own.

    Returning frequently to Xalisco, immigrants compared notes on how to improve the business model. As word spread, more farm boys went north to see how it was done. Youths hired as drivers would learn the business, then go back home and secure their own supplies of black tar. They returned to the United States as crew chiefs.

    "Whoever gets the customers, it's because he's got better stuff or better service," Max said. "Nobody tells anybody what to do."

    New Business Model

    In the summer of 1995, Ed Ruplinger, a sheriff's narcotics investigator in Boise, noticed Mexicans tooling around town selling heroin packed in small balloons hidden in their mouths.

    After arresting a few of them, Ruplinger found they were from a place he'd never heard of: Nayarit, Mexico. Tapping their phones with court approval, he discovered most of the calls were placed to a man named Cesar "Polla" Garcia-Langarica in Ontario, Calif.

    "He was the first McDonald's in town, so to speak," Ruplinger said.

    Almost all of his calls were to people in Xalisco, later identified as his assistants.

    Ruplinger determined that Garcia-Langarica also had cells in Portland, Ore., Honolulu and Salt Lake City. He overheard him saying he'd moved into Boise because competition from other Xalisco networks had forced him out of Denver.

    Boise wasn't Garcia-Langarica's for long either. One of his former drivers became a competing crew boss. Still, "they were not shooting each other in the street," Ruplinger said. "They'd know each other. It was just a job. I kept realizing that this is huge."

    In 1998, officers raided apartments in Boise. Five of Garcia-Langarica's employees pleaded guilty and received prison terms. Garcia-Langarica, who was also indicted, remains a fugitive.

    In Portland, black-tar heroin had been dealt on downtown streets by Hondurans or Guatemalans -- until the late 1990s. Then, police noticed that new dealers, all from Nayarit, were making deliveries by car all over the city.

    In 1999, Multnomah County Health Department workers, examining coroner's reports, found that deaths from black-tar heroin overdoses had more than doubled since 1996, to more than 100 a year. An ad campaign urging junkies not to shoot up alone helped drive down that figure, although lately it has crept back to the levels of the late '90s.

    In Portland and elsewhere, competition among Xalisco dealers and the resulting lower prices changed the nature of the heroin trade. No longer were burglaries and holdups the measure of a city's heroin problem. Junkies could maintain their habits cheaply. A spike in overdoses was the mark of black-tar heroin's arrival.

    "The classic picture of a heroin addict is someone who steals," said Gary Oxman, a Multnomah County Health Department doctor who conducted the study of overdoses. "That disappears when you have low-cost heroin. You could maintain a moderate heroin habit for about the same price as a six-pack of premium beer."

    It was the same in other cities where Xalisco dealers settled. In Denver, addicts say the cost of a dose of black tar has dropped as low as $8.

    In the Utah County suburbs of Salt Lake City, it was more than $50 a dose in the early 1990s.

    "Now we're seeing it for $10 to $15 per balloon," said Bruce Chandler, program services manager for the county's Foothill Treatment Center.

    Eastern Expansion

    Until the late 1990s, Mexican black-tar heroin was available only west of the Mississippi. To the east, Colombian powder heroin predominated.

    But over the last decade, production of Mexican heroin has climbed rapidly, reaching an estimated 18 metric tons in 2007, while Colombian output has dropped, partly because of U.S.-funded efforts to eradicate Colombian poppy fields, according to the 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment issued by the U.S. Justice Department.

    As a result, "Mexican criminal groups are expanding Mexican heroin distribution in eastern states, where previously only South American heroin had been available," the report said. Estimates of Mexican and Colombian heroin production in the report suggest that black tar now accounts for two-thirds or more of the U.S. heroin market.

    According to narcotics agents and former dealers, Xalisco immigrants drove black tar's eastward expansion, moving into Columbus and from there to parts of rural Ohio and Pennsylvania and to Nashville and Charlotte.

    In many of these places, heroin had been rare. Addicts more commonly used prescription pain pills.

    Black tar is cheaper than pain medications. Xalisco dealers exploited that advantage and pushed relentlessly for new customers. Addicts in Columbus say they offered rewards for referrals to new users: eight or 10 free balloons of heroin for every $1,000 in sales an addict brought in.

    Typical of these heroin entrepreneurs was a youth who called himself Manny Munoz-Lopez. He began as a driver in Columbus and rose to become a cell leader when others sold their networks and returned to Mexico.

    In 2006, he expanded to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where police say he took the name Julio Ramirez. Prosecutors say he recruited junkies at methadone clinics to be salesmen as well as customers.

    Gary Palacios, now serving a prison term in Pennsylvania for selling heroin, said he became Ramirez's wholesaler for north Pittsburgh. Ramirez shook up the local market, he said. Before, dealers waited for users to come to them. Ramirez's drivers actively sought out customers. For every 20 balloons an addict bought, Ramirez gave five free ones, Palacios said.

    Pittsburgh junkies had been using diluted white powder from Colombia. "We brought that tar up and . . . the junkies fell in love," Palacios said in a telephone interview. "It was way cheaper and way more powerful."

    In 2007, state narcotics agents busted the ring, arresting Ramirez, Palacios and others. Ramirez, sentenced to seven to 15 years for conspiracy to distribute heroin, did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.

    "They really created a market that didn't exist before they got here," said Marnie Sheehan-Balchon, the deputy state attorney general who prosecuted the case.

    Xalisco networks soon were operating across the Eastern United States. In Charlotte, Chris Long noticed them when he became a narcotics investigator in 2001, and he has been arresting dealers ever since.

    "They're all from Xalisco," Long said.

    Expanding from Charlotte, they carved out territories in Greenville, N.C., and Charleston and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

    "It will not go away," said Will Kitelinger, a Myrtle Beach narcotics agent. When a driver is arrested, a replacement arrives within two weeks and is quickly up to speed, he said. "They literally know where the customers live and go to their houses and introduce themselves."

    Xalisco's Sanchez family turned Nashville into a distribution hub, according to federal investigators and an indictment. In 2006, they dispatched a young driver named Hector to Indianapolis to conquer new territory.

    "We were looking to expand the heroin market to more places in the United States," Hector said by phone from the federal prison where he is serving time for conspiracy to distribute heroin. He was interviewed on the condition that his last name not be disclosed.

    "They told me 'We're going to give you three ounces to go to Indiana.' You want to begin in a place that's clean and you make it grow."

    Hector said he paid his drivers, all from Xalisco, $1,000 a week plus expenses. He soon had dozens of customers and was ordering new supplies every four days, he said.

    "It was some of the strongest I've ever seen," said Floyd Warriner, a longtime drug user from Indianapolis who is serving a 10-year federal prison term for conspiracy to distribute heroin.

    More than 50 Sanchez workers were arrested in a nationwide bust in 2006. But the Xalisco networks continued to proliferate, and their product began to appear in communities where users weren't prepared for its potency.

    Among them was a small town in West Virginia, 160 miles south of Columbus, where before the fall of 2007, few people had ever heard of black-tar heroin.

    Sam Quinones
    February 14, 2010
    LA Times


  1. chillinwill
    Black Tar Moves In, and Death Follows

    Dealers Work Systematically, Pushing Heroin in Areas Where Users Are Unprepared for Its Potency

    Second of Three Parts

    On a Monday in September 2007, Teddy Johnson went to his son's apartment.

    Adam Johnson, 22, was in his first year at Marshall University in Huntington. A history major, he played guitar, drums and bass, loved glam bands like the New York Dolls and hosted "The Oscillating Zoo," an eclectic rock show on the university radio station.
    Teddy hadn't heard from his son in three days. Letting himself into the apartment, he found Adam lying lifeless on his bed, in the same shirt he'd seen him wearing three days earlier.

    The cause of death: a heroin overdose.

    "I had no clue," said the elder Johnson, a plumbing contractor in Huntington. "We're a small town. We weren't prepared."

    The death was part of a rash of overdoses, 12 of them fatal, that shook Huntington that fall and winter. All were caused by black-tar heroin, a potent, inexpensive, semi-processed form of the drug that has spread across the United States, driven by the entrepreneurial energy and marketing savvy of immigrants from a tiny farming county in Mexico.

    Immigrants from Xalisco, in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit, Mexico, have brought the heroin north over the last decade, and with it a highly effective business model featuring deep discounts and convenient delivery by car. Their success is a major reason why Mexican black tar has seized a growing share of the U.S. heroin market, according to government estimates.

    Xalisco networks are decentralized, with no all-powerful boss, and they largely avoid guns and violence. Staying clear of the nation's largest cities, where established organizations control the heroin trade, Xalisco dealers have cultivated markets in the mountain states and parts of the Midwest and Appalachia, often creating demand for heroin in cities and towns where there had been little or none. In many of those places, authorities report a sharp rise in heroin overdoses and deaths.

    Before the string of fatal overdoses in 2007, "we didn't even consider heroin an issue," said Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook.

    Xalisco dealers have been particularly successful in areas where addiction to prescription painkillers like OxyContin was widespread. Many of those addicts, mainly young middle- and working-class whites, switched to black tar, which is cheaper and more powerful.

    In York County, S.C., pain-pill addicts became hooked on black tar purchased in Charlotte, N.C., half an hour away. "We used to get maybe one overdose death a year" caused by opiates, said Marvin Brown, commander of the county's drug unit. "We had six in the first six months" of 2009.

    In the suburbs south of Salt Lake City, heroin was unheard of until dealers from Xalisco arrived, said Lt. Phil Murphy of the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force. Now, he said, young people looking for an alternative to pain pills drive to Salt Lake to score black-tar heroin.

    University towns have been especially fertile markets for Xalisco heroin. Authorities in Boulder and Fort Collins, Colo. -- home to the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, respectively -- report increased overdoses caused by black-tar heroin purchased from dealers in Denver.

    Ohio has also become a center of Xalisco networks, and it was through a junkie in Columbus that black tar made its way to Huntington.

    Innovative, Tireless

    Huntington, a struggling former railroad depot and coal distribution center, has long had a flourishing trade in crack cocaine and other drugs. But there was never much heroin until dealers from Xalisco arrived in Columbus, 160 miles north.

    They were innovative and tireless. Rather than sell from houses, where they would be sitting ducks for narcotics agents, or on street corners in seedy neighborhoods, they operated like a pizza delivery service. Users called a phone number. A dispatcher relayed the order to a driver, who took the heroin to the customer.

    The drivers circulated around the city with doses of heroin in small uninflated balloons, each the size of a pencil eraser, which they kept hidden in their mouths. No sale was too small.

    "There's nobody who'll drive across . . . Columbus to bring you one $20 balloon, but they would," Wendy Keller, who became addicted to their heroin, said in a telephone interview from a federal prison in Lexington, Ky., where she is serving a five-year term for conspiracy to distribute heroin.

    Competition among Xalisco networks kept prices low. OxyContin pills cost $80 apiece and addicts needed five or six a day. Black-tar heroin was stronger and cost less than $50 for a day's fix.

    By 2007, black-tar addiction had spread across Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland and other Ohio cities. At Columbus-based Maryhaven, Ohio's largest drug-treatment center, opiate addicts made up 20% of the center's patients in 1997, and many were addicted to prescription painkillers. Today, 70% are black-tar heroin addicts, said Paul Coleman, Maryhaven's president.

    Xalisco heroin also penetrated the well-to-do suburbs of Delaware County, Ohio. Demand for treatment is now so great that Maryhaven recently set up a satellite clinic for heroin users there, Coleman said.

    Rural Athens, Vinton, Meigs and Hawking counties have seen a tenfold increase in heroin addicts seeking treatment over the last four years, and almost all were black-tar users, said Joe Gay, director of Health Recovery Services, a drug-rehabilitation center serving those Ohio counties.

    "When you see these increases, you ask why," Gay said. "The answer is availability and price. Heroin was never available in these rural counties, and now it's cheap and plentiful."

    Hitting on Addicts

    Rick Jordan was an addict living in Columbus and, like many West Virginians, he kept close ties to his hometown, Huntington.

    Family members say he and his wife Kandace met Xalisco dealers in Columbus in 1998. The couple were trying to kick an addiction to prescription opiates and had sought help at a drug-treatment center.

    "The Mexicans would sit out in the parking lot, getting guys who were trying to kick," said Jordan's daughter, Tesina Ventola.

    Soon the Jordans were hooked again, on cheap black tar. Rick began calling the Mexicans every day. His toddler grandchildren came to believe that the dealers were doctors, because Jordan and his wife seemed to feel better after their visits, said Ventola, the children's mother.

    Around 2004, friends from Huntington began calling Jordan, hearing that he had a connection to cheap heroin. Jordan would call the Xalisco dealers. In Huntington, heroin then cost $50 per tenth of a gram and was usually diluted Colombian white powder.

    Jordan would buy three balloons for $50 and keep one for himself. He'd sell the other two to a friend from Huntington for $50. The friend would return to Huntington, sell one of the balloons for $50 and keep the other for himself.

    "That's where it all began," Ventola said.

    Word spread through Huntington. By mid-2007, addicts were making pilgrimages to Jordan's wood-frame house west of downtown Columbus, sometimes carrying thousands of dollars in cash.

    One of them was Michelle Byars, who had gotten hooked on pain pills after a back injury and switched to black-tar heroin.

    "I'd show up and other people from Huntington would already be there," Byars, 34, recalled in a telephone interview from a federal prison in Connecticut.

    One of the alleged Xalisco dealers in Columbus was a young man whom junkies called Carlos and whom police later identified as Juan Hernandez-Salazar ( one of many aliases he has used ).

    His heroin was 70% pure, said Bobby Melrose, who described himself as a longtime drug user.

    "I'd use two or three bags of dope to just get well, and not even reach the same high as one bag of Carlos'," Melrose said in an interview at a federal prison in Kentucky.

    Via Jordan, this potent heroin got to Huntington, where addicts had little tolerance for it. Users began overdosing, and some of them died.

    One was Patrick Byars, husband of Michelle Byars.

    The same weekend Adam Johnson died, the Byars shot up together. Michelle woke up. Patrick didn't.

    Nor did Teddy Mays. A former tire shop owner, Mays had grown addicted to OxyContin prescribed for back and knee pain. Then black tar came along. He had both in his system when he died, said Cindy Mays, his widow.

    Dana Helmondollar Jr., 32, an electrical company lineman, made the same switch and met the same end, said his father.

    "We were getting almost one [911 call] a day," said Gordon Merry, director of emergency medical services for Cabell County. "It taxed everyone: the EMS system, hospitals, law enforcement."

    The media reported that black-tar heroin was sweeping through town, killing users. That "made people want it more," said Paul Hunter, a Huntington police narcotics officer. "Addicts are always looking for the best high."

    A drug task force traced the heroin to Jordan, Carlos and his network in Columbus. In the spring and summer of 2008, authorities arrested 19 Huntington addicts -- Jordan's best customers.

    Michelle Byars pleaded guilty to supplying her husband with the heroin that killed him. She is scheduled to be released from prison in 2014.

    Melrose is serving a five-year term for heroin distribution. Doctors amputated his right leg because of gangrene and abscesses caused by shooting black tar into the leg.

    Jordan died in a Huntington jail in July 2008.

    Carlos spent a year on the run, then was arrested in Columbus last June after running a stop sign. He is awaiting trial, charged as Joel Borjas-Hernandez with conspiracy to distribute heroin that resulted in the deaths of others. If convicted, he faces 20 years to life in prison.

    Unabated Horror

    Adam Johnson's childhood bedroom is still filled with his belongings: guitars, basses and a sound mixer; T-shirts of John Lennon and Yoko Ono and the New York Dolls; a Winnie the Pooh doll in which he hid his heroin.

    Teddy Johnson buried his son across a hilltop cemetery lane from Huntington's most hallowed spot, a memorial to Marshall University football team members who were killed in a plane crash in 1970.

    Johnson had a concrete bench installed and he visits three times a week to sit on the bench and think of his son.

    Not long after Carlos' network was busted, a new group of Xalisco dealers went into business in Columbus. Federal officials say the trade in Xalisco heroin remains robust.

    Sam Quinones
    February 15, 2010
    LA Times
  2. chillinwill
    As a boy, Esteban Avila had only a skinny old horse and two pairs of pants, and he lived in a swampy neighborhood called The Toad. He felt stranded across a river from the rest of the world and wondered about life on the other side.

    He saw merchants pay bands to serenade them in the village plaza and dreamed of doing the same.

    He had a girlfriend but no hope of marrying her because her father was the village butcher and expected a good life for his daughter.

    Then Avila found an elixir and took it with him when, at 19, he went to the United States. It was black-tar heroin, and selling it turned his nightmare into a fairy tale.
    Avila was part of a migration of impoverished Mexican sugar cane farm workers that has had profound repercussions for cities and towns across America. Over the last decade and a half, immigrants from the county of Xalisco (population 44,000), in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, have developed a vast and highly profitable business selling black-tar heroin, a cheap, potent, semi-processed form of the drug.

    Their success stems from a business model that combines discount pricing, aggressive marketing and customer convenience. Addicts phone in their orders, and drivers take the heroin to them. Crew bosses sometimes make follow-up calls to make sure addicts received good service.

    The heroin networks need workers, and the downtrodden villages of Xalisco County have provided a seemingly endless supply of young men eager to earn as much money as possible and take it back home.

    As black-tar heroin ruined lives in the United States, it pulled the poorest out of poverty in Xalisco. Drug earnings paid for decent houses and sometimes businesses, and it made dealers' families the social equals of landowners. By addicting the children of others, they could support their own.

    "I'd be lying if I said I was sorry," Avila said. "I did it out of necessity. I was tired of birthdays without gifts, of my mother wondering where the food was going to come from."

    Boom times

    Xalisco County begins a couple of miles south of the state capital of Tepic and spreads across 185 square miles of lush, hilly terrain. A highway curves through it to the tourist resort of Puerto Vallarta to the south.

    The county seat, also named Xalisco, is a town of narrow cobblestone streets and 29,000 people. For many years, dependence on the sugar cane harvest kept the county poor. Houses had tin roofs, and few had proper plumbing.

    Xalisco ostensibly still depends on sugar cane. But it is now among the top 5% of Mexican counties in terms of wealth, according to a government report.

    Enormous houses with tile roofs and marble floors have gone up everywhere. In immigrant villages across Mexico, people build the first stories of houses and leave iron reinforcing bars protruding skyward until they save the money to add second stories. Often the wait is measured in years. In Xalisco, homes go up all at once.

    Off Xalisco's central plaza are swanky women's clothing stores and law offices. Young men drive new Dodge Rams, Ford F-150s and an occasional Cadillac Escalade. Outside town are new subdivisions with names like Bonaventura and Puerta del Sol.

    Xalisco's Corn Fair, held every August, is another measure of the town's newfound wealth. Twenty years ago, the fair's basketball tournament was a modest affair. Teams from surrounding villages competed against one another in ragged uniforms.

    Then "the boys began going north and getting into the business," said one farmer. "The town just began to come up."

    The tournament purse grew so fat that semi-pro teams began competing. Last year, with first prize worth close to $3,000, semi-pro squads from Mazatlan, Monterrey and Puerto Vallarta competed, each with American ringers. One local village sponsored a team made up entirely of hired players, reputedly paid for by a heroin trafficker.

    Sharing in this wealth to varying degrees are 20 villages scattered across the hills south of the town of Xalisco. Esteban Avila was born in one of them, a place named for the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.

    Avila, now 35, is in a federal prison in Texas, serving a 15-year term for conspiracy to distribute heroin. He described his odyssey in interviews with The Times on the condition that he would not talk about anyone else in the drug business.

    When he was a boy, the village of Emiliano Zapata was poor and notorious for its violence. In The Toad, where Avila's family lived, roofs leaked and the hills were the bathroom. When Avila and his friends went to the village basketball court, other boys ran them off with rocks and insults.

    Later, Avila wanted to join the Mexican Navy or highway patrol, but only sons of well-connected fathers were admitted, he said.

    "In the United States, there's no need to be a criminal to live well," he said. "But in Mexico, they throw you into a dead end."

    At 14, Avila traveled to Tijuana, then slipped across the border and made his way to the San Fernando Valley.

    "I wanted to look for some new way to live, something with a future," he said. "I wasn't going to find it in the village."

    But he didn't want to go to school and he was too young to work. So he returned to Emiliano Zapata and bided his time working in the sugar cane fields.

    In the mid-1990s, men from Xalisco began selling black-tar heroin across America. A friend who ran a heroin network recruited Avila to work as a driver in Phoenix.

    Avila, then 19, accepted. Every day, he drove around the city, his mouth full of tiny, uninflated balloons, each filled with a tenth of a gram of heroin. Addicts phoned in orders. A dispatcher relayed them to Avila, who delivered the drugs to customers and collected payment.

    Five months later, he took a bus back to Xalisco with $15,000 in his pocket. He was wearing new Levi's 501s -- a prized garment in many Mexican villages.

    "That night was the first time we had more than enough to eat," Avila said.

    His parents never asked how he made the money.

    In the Xalisco system, drivers commonly strike out on their own after a few years and set up delivery operations. In 1997, Avila told his boss that he was going to seek his own heroin market in New Mexico.

    A friend told Avila about addicts in Santa Fe, so he went there. He found those addicts and through them many more, including dozens in Taos, Xalisco's sister city. A half hour away, he discovered the town of Chimayo, in the verdant Espanola Valley, with one of the highest rates of heroin addiction in the country. Soon, Avila's cheap, powerful black tar drove out the powder heroin that addicts had been using.

    Avila declined to reveal where he got his heroin, other than to say that Nayarit's mountains are filled with small poppy farms and that black tar is easily made.

    In Albuquerque, he bought a counterfeit birth certificate and driver's license; he crossed the border posing as an American from then on. Back in Xalisco, he hired drivers from villages near his own, paying smugglers to bring them across the border.

    "Some drivers just wanted enough to build a decent house or buy a new truck. Then they were coming back home," he said. "Some wanted to fly, like I did."

    He returned to Emiliano Zapata and for three years managed the business from Mexico, returning to the United States only occasionally. At home, families asked him for loans; some paid him back. Poor young men asked him for work up north.

    He took his family to fine restaurants in Tepic, where they nervously rubbed elbows with the city's middle class.

    "Our life changed entirely," he said. "It gave me more self-assuredness. If you have a peso in your pocket, you feel lighter of spirit. The weight of life is easier to carry."

    At a fiesta in Xalisco's plaza one night, Avila and a friend paid for 11 hours of banda music, plus alcohol: a $3,000 tab.

    He paid for one sister's quinceañera and another's wedding. He paid for a sister to attend college in Tepic, the first in her family to go.

    Now he could give his girlfriend the life her parents expected. He stole her away to a Puerto Vallarta hotel for a weekend -- which in the village meant they were married.

    Avila hired workers to build a house for his parents and men to help his father in the field. He hired a maid to help his mother. He moved his wife and children away from Emiliano Zapata and its violence and low expectations.

    His father was greeted on village streets by those better off than he. He drank less, yelled less. One day, seeing his son with some cocaine, Avila's father took him aside and counseled him not to use drugs and to avoid bad habits.

    "For the first time, I felt he spoke to me the way a father should speak to a son," Avila said.

    Heroin opened vistas for other sugar cane cutters' sons as well. The village's moneyed classes no longer could talk down to farmers.

    "We were all equal now," Avila said.

    Over the next decade, networks of Xalisco dealers moved across the country, often competing with one another in such cities as Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; and Nashville.

    Much of the money they earned flooded south, reaching the poorest of Xalisco County, people used to cutting cane for $8 a day.

    So as quickly as dealers were arrested, they were replaced by others from Xalisco betting they could elude capture long enough to return with money for a house, truck or other mark of success.

    One heroin driver from the village of Aquiles Serdan built a house with an electric garage-door opener, awing his neighbors.

    Another former sugar cane worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the impression made by the device. "Everybody watched while the door went up by itself," he said. "People would walk by and look at it."

    Seeing young men his age return from the United States with money, this man decided he wanted some too. He became a heroin driver in a southeastern U.S. city.

    "I had a wife and son and I couldn't support them," he said. "I thought I'd buy land, and build us a house." He said half the young men in Aquiles Serdan left to try their luck as drivers.

    In his first six weeks last year, he earned $7,000, more than he'd ever had at one time. Then he was arrested. He pleaded guilty to distributing heroin and faces up to 10 years in prison.

    Back in Aquiles Serdan, 20 new houses have gone up, several with electric garage doors.

    Operation Tar Pit

    In 2000, Esteban Avila's fairy tale ended. He was among nearly 200 people arrested in a dozen cities in a federal investigation dubbed Operation Tar Pit. The case began in Chimayo after a rash of overdoses -- 85 deaths in three years, representing 2% of the town's population.

    The arrests marked the first time the Drug Enforcement Administration had pieced together the national reach of Xalisco dealers. In Xalisco, the busts had an almost recessionary effect. "The fiesta was dead. Nobody was coming to the plaza," said a man who lived there at the time, speaking on the condition that he not be identified.

    The easy money Avila made turned out to be the hardest of his life. His children are growing up without him.

    Still, heroin lifted his family's horizons. Avila believes that poor people get no breaks they don't make for themselves. Had he been able to achieve anything by legal means, he would have, he says.

    The truth of that is hard to know. But it does seem that black-tar heroin, as it destroyed lives in America, remade his own in Mexico and channeled his gumption unlike anything else available to him at the time.

    "At least I'm not going to die wanting to know what's on the other side of that river," he said from prison. "I already know."

    By Sam Quinones
    February 16, 2010
    LA Times
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