New Mexico: The other end of the heroin trail

Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur

In the mountains of Mexico, opium poppies flourish under the embracing rays of the sun and the blinking eyes of the state. From rural settlements in Nayarit, Guerrero and other blood-scarred states where private armies battle for the profits of the trade, opium gum is transported to laboratories in Guadalajara, Ciudad Juárez and other places where it is processed into heroin and then peddled on both sides of the border.

New Mexico and its biggest city of Albuquerque are lucrative markets for the heroin traffickers. And according to close observers of the drug scene, the profile of drug users is getting younger. Jennifer Weiss knows the consequences. Two months ago, the Albuquerque resident entered her 18-year-old son Cameron’s room and found him dead from a heroin overdose.

Described as an athletic and poetic young man who attended La Cueva High School, Cameron Weiss had struggled with heroin addiction but finally succumbed to a drug that’s taking the lives of an increasing number of young New Mexicans.

“This drug is lethal. It’s not a joke, and it can happen to anyone,” Weiss told a large crowd assembled at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque this week. The president of the non-profit Heroin Awareness Committee (HAC), Weiss was among parents of young heroin users and youth advocates who spoke out on a drug problem many characterized as an epidemic.

According to Weiss, New Mexico has the highest rate of drug-induced deaths in the nation, and the numbers could even be understated since some deaths are listed as respiratory or heart failures instead of overdoses.

A 2011 study commissioned by the City of Albuquerque provides some details to a  public health emergency. From 2003 to 2007, 1,929 individuals perished from drug overdoses in New Mexico, including 150 people under the age of 25.  Prior to 2004, only 2 percent of overdose cases involved people less than 21 years old; the number of overdose victims in the same age category had leaped to 12 percent by 2009. Anecdotal reports suggest overdose deaths of local teenagers have kept up a steady pace during the last two years.

The Albuquerque study also found that 4.7 percent of New Mexico high school students reported a lifetime use of heroin, contrasted with 2.5 percent of the same population nationally. “Many patients started (using) at 10, 11 or 12 years old,” a drug treatment provider was quoted in the study. “Someone wasn’t taking care of the kids; it is a very deeply ingrained problem.”

Last month, Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry announced the formation of a working group “to explore a variety of solutions” aimed at combating opioid youth use and overdose.

Bringing the issue home, the auditorium stage at the UNM event was decked out with large pictures of Cameron Weiss and other young casualties of heroin addiction. A pamphlet titled “Shattered Lives” told the stories of overdose victims like Haley Paternoster, the 16-year-old daughter of a prominent Albuquerque restaurateur who left behind two little brothers without their big sister, and Matt Gutierrez, a “good natured kid who loved animals, travel (nature), the outdoors, friends and family” but died from heroin only a little more than a month after his 18th birthday.

Kenneth Gonzales, US attorney for New Mexico, joined Weiss and other presenters in sketching out the heroin problem in the state. Gonzales said use of the narcotic has spread to communities where it was not so popular in the past. From January 2010 to March 2011, New Mexico law enforcement authorities seized more than 120 kilograms of heroin with a street value exceeding $10 million, the federal official said.

But Gonzales said law enforcement alone will not solve the heroin issue and called for the construction of in-state treatment facilities, education and community awareness. “We’re never going to arrest our way out of this problem,” he said.

Recently, more Albuquerque residents have become aware of heroin use among the young, especially after the substance cropped up in places like the upper middle-class La Cueva High School, long regarded as the city’s best public high school.

Yet the drug has an old history in the Duke City and New Mexico, and addictions are even passed down from generation-to-generation in some communities. The heroin trail from Mexico is also an old one, paralleling the old Camino Real that served as a trade route between the Mexican heartland and the New Mexican hinterland.

El Paso historian Bob Chessey knows this history. The retired Texas state worker is researching the story of Ignacia Jassso, better known as “La Nacha”, the legendary, female drug trafficker who operated in Ciudad Juárez from the 1920s until her death in 1974.

According to Chessey, La Nacha cornered a good chunk of the Albuquerque heroin market.

“She was a very notorious dealer providing for Albuquerque, for example, in the late 50s and early 60s,” Chessey said in an interview with Frontera NorteSur. New Mexicans, he said, traveled to Ciudad Juárez to obtain drugs from La Nacha. “She would warn them: ‘You guys be careful. I’m really hot in New Mexico right now’,” Chessey added.

In New Mexico’s century of heroin, countless households have borne witness to the lyrics of an old John Prine song, “… there’s a little hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes …” In essence, heroin is an ugly — if usually hidden — piece of the Land of the Enchantment’s cultural landscape.

The drug scene has evolved since La Nacha’s days. HAC members contend that today’s junk is more refined and so widely available that small doses can be obtained for as little as $6 — cheaper than a six-pack of beer. While heroin has long been present in low-income Chicano communities, today’s epidemic cuts across racial, class and age lines, according to the HAC.

To be sure, Albuquerque has witnessed similar heroin epidemics before but many different social, economic and technological pressures that did not exist in the past are powerful influences now, HAC members said at the UNM community gathering.  Relentless pharmaceutical industry advertising on television gives children an early message that “there is a drug for everything,” Weiss contended.

Meg Curtin Rey-Bear, a clinical therapist who works with the HAC, said texting and social media messaging rapidly spread chatter of a feel-good, party-down life-style that obviates realities like burdensome student loans and bleak job prospects after college. At the same time, public school conditions these days such as overcrowded classrooms can send signals to the young that their lives are not valued, she said.

“What kind of message do we send our young people when they have to sit on the floor of math class?” Curtin Rey-Bear asked the UNM audience.

The mental health care specialist said legally produced and widely available opioids such as oxycodone as well as marijuana serve as gateways to heroin. Smoking pot helps convince some young people that doing the same with heroin won’t harm them, Curtin Rey-Bear maintained. It’s crucial for parents to stay involved in their kids’ lives and to get to know who their friends are, she stressed.

Despite the urgency of an issue many consider has reached crisis proportions. New Mexico does not have a residential treatment center for adolescents and teens seeking to overcome their addictions must go to costly out-of-state facilities.

On a related note, the fate of an in-patient program for heroin-addicted mothers at the UNM Hospital hangs in the balance after budget cuts. According to Albuquerque television station KOAT, the program was recently forced to at least temporarily close its doors after $500,000 was slashed from city and state funding.

Formed in April 2010, the HAC holds educational seminars for the community, distributes printed materials on drug abuse and lobbies politicians to fund treatment and rehabilitation facilities. While many parents who’ve lost a child to the merciless hand of what singer James Brown once called King Heroin might have retreated into isolated despair, the HAC’s Jennifer Weiss is not among them.

“We’re trying to drive home the reality of what our community is facing in terms of opiate addiction,” Weiss told an attentive crowd at UNM. “The only thing we can do is continue the fight and educate the community of the problem that is facing us.”

For more information on the HAC: www.saynotoheroin.org

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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