Black tar heroin grown and processed in the southern mountains of Mexico travels north up highways, crosses borders and finds its way to Santa Cruz County, where it's sold for $10 a hit.
Mexican and Salvadoran gangs control some of the drug trade, but dealers also are tight-knit Mexican families or even addicts.
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Drug users -- from high school- and college-age kids to people in their 50s -- get their heroin fix at small camps tucked behind trees along the railroad tracks in Santa Cruz's Harvey West neighborhood or from drug houses scattered across the county.
Rich Westphal, commander of the county's Anti-Crime Team, says he remembers one bust where a user had a syringe dangling from his carotid artery. Others hide their use by shooting up between their toes or just jab the needle into their thighs when their veins collapse from all the drug injections.
"It's sad, seeing some of these people," Westphal says. "That's their life. They don't care about anything else."
Heroin use has waned in other parts of the state and country as the popularity of methamphetamine rose during the past decade. But the opium-based drug, which can be injected, smoked or snorted, remains the drug of choice for many users in Santa Cruz County.
Heroin's hold on the county is difficult to understand and even harder to cut off. Despite some large seizures of drugs along the Interstate 5 corridor, law enforcement efforts to stop the flow of heroin across the Mexico-California border have been unsuccessful.
Most heroin used on the Central Coast can be traced to poppy fields in rural Mexico. Farmers in the states of Michoacan and Jalisco sell their raw product to cartels, or the drug organizations grow the flowers themselves.
Opium, a milky fluid, is extracted from the unripened seed pods of poppy plants in a fast and dirty method: people literally step on the pods, crushing them like grapes. The opium is purified, then mixed with other substances, like starch or sugar, to dilute it and increase the weight of the drug.
Pure opium is rarely sold on the streets.
Rather, the drug is cut with coffee grounds or brown sugar when dealers parcel it out to sell. The heroin looks like sticky roofing tar and smells like vinegar or old goats. That's why it's called "black tar heroin" or, in some circles, "chiva," which is Spanish for "goat," according to Watsonville Deputy Police Chief Bob Knill, formerly the head of a drug task force for the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.
"They don't take the time to get the impurities out like Asian heroin," he says.
Mexican brown heroin is slightly more refined, which lightens the color of the drug, Knill says.
Getting Heroin here
Once processed, bricks of heroin are shipped through a wholesaler to outlets across the United States, especially on the West Coast.
"It's so easy to get drugs across the border," Knill says. "You can carry thousands and thousands of dollars of heroin in a briefcase."
A couple of years ago, Westphal's county narcotic team helped state drug agents stop a minivan in San Mateo County that had 68 pounds of black tar heroin moulded inside the dashboard, he says. He's also seen the drug put into car parts, stashed in a compartmentalized gas tank and packed into tires. Truck beds are lifted to create hidden storage or heating systems are removed from vehicles to make space for drugs.
"Anywhere there's a hole, they'll put it in," Westphal says.
People also will pack heroin inside their clothes. Some swallow or hide condoms filled with the drug in body cavities to smuggle the drug across the border, Westphal says.
Cartels monitor the border to send their vehicles past inspection stations with lax agents or at busy hours. Many times, drivers heading north from Mexico don't know what cargo they're carrying. The transporters -- drivers or mules -- typically are seen as expendable by cartels, Knill added.
Most everyone else in the heroin-dealing system is a part of "tight-knit, family-based drug operations" associated with one town or region of Mexico, Knill says. They send relatives or other trusted people to the U.S. to set up the drug-selling operations in locations like Santa Cruz. The familial connections make it difficult for law enforcement officers to infiltrate the groups, according to Knill.
Drugs flow freely
Dealers hide out in Pogonip -- a city-owned open space on the outskirts of Santa Cruz between UC Santa Cruz and Highway 9 -- to sell heroin, but they also get their product out to users from drug houses, at bars and restaurants that are fronts for the drug-running operation, or by making deliveries, according to Westphal.
"Everyone's concentrating on The Pogonip, the Pogonip!' but we've done cases in Watsonville where a car pulls up and it's like a rolling store," Westphal says.
Heroin prices and purity levels vary throughout the county; 65 percent pure heroin comes through Salinas to Watsonville while the drugs sold in Pogonip are only about 20 percent pure, which means it's cheaper but the addict doesn't get as high.
In the past five years, many law enforcement efforts have been redirected to target methamphetamine.
"Heroin hardly gets a look statewide," Knill says. "We're seizing thousands of pounds of meth, thousands of pounds of marijuana and millions of marijuana plants."
That puts drugs like heroin and cocaine on the back burner, according to Knill.
Westphal says his task force, which targets drug and gang crime, spends about 20 percent of its time busting heroin dealers and users. By comparison, methamphetamine enforcement takes up about 60 percent of the team's workload.
"We go after the people who are selling and messing up people's lives," Westphal says. "They don't care what the customers are doing. ... They're just trying to make a buck."
Some cops say the majority of street-level dealers are addicts who get paid in dope. Other police say the people selling drugs are members of the family-based cartels or gang members who don't use heroin.
In 2009, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office seized about 5 pounds of heroin and the county's Anti-Crime Team, which Westphal supervises, took in a little more than 4 pounds of the drug, authorities reported.
Regardless, busting any low-level dealer rarely leads law enforcement to the drug supplier. Heroin seizures in Santa Cruz County usually net a "piece" or less of the drug: 25 grams worth $450-$650.
"The people we want, the people the DEA want, they don't touch the heroin," Knill says. "It's pretty sophisticated."
Much of the revenue from heroin sales is sent back to Mexico, either in the same hidden compartments in vehicles that brought the drugs to the U.S. or laundered through small businesses, according to Knill.
"Drugs flow north, money flows south right back to the cartel's hands," Knill says. "It's all about America's appetite for drugs."
By Jennifer Squires
May 21, 2010
Santa Cruz Sentinel